Bones

Phone Bones

We have been out of town the past couple of weekends, once to Reno and once to visit my parents in the Central Valley.  From the vantage point of a New Yorker who transplanted himself to California 20 years ago, the distinguishing factor of the Golden State is that it has no distinguishing factor.

Even after two decades on the west coast, many notice a trace of a New York accent that lingers in my speech.  When I admit to my roots, I am typically asked where exactly in New York I am from.  It seems that I disappoint them when I don’t announce that I hail from Batavia, Binghamton or Buffalo.

“I was born in Manhattan,” I tell them, and they seem suitably impressed.  I don’t bother mentioning about starting out sharing a single bedroom with two sisters in a roach-infested walk-up in the Bronx.  Nor do I get into my parents’ flight to the leafy suburbs in the mid-sixties.

“Things must be really different back there,” is the usual reaction.  I disappoint once again when I say that, no, they’re not.  I’ve long resigned myself to the increasing homogeneity of America.  So much of California reminds me of New Jersey.  The grubby suburbs of Sacramento and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles are not that different than Passaic and Essex Counties in the Garden States.  Newark, California has a lot in common with Newark, New Jersey.

We travel the interstates, taking an exit periodically to fill the gas tank, fill our bellies, use the rest rooms.  Whether we’re in Oregon or Nevada or right here in northern California, the one thing that every convenience store, strip mall and restaurant seems to have in common is the bones.

I refer to the skeletal remains of the once ubiquitous pay phone.

I remember it well.  It was the summer before I went off to college, and my father and I were hitting balls on a tennis court at the local junior high.  I had never been away from home before, was quite immature at the age of 17 and began fretting about how I’d keep in touch.

“There are pay phones everywhere,” my father offered.

Oh, so true during the Carter administration.  In my freshman year, I lived in a dormitory that had one pay phone on each floor, in the elbow that separated the men’s wing from the women’s.  It was considered proper etiquette to answer it if you were nearby when it rang, and then to leave the receiver dangling while you went to bang on the door of whomever the caller requested.  I remember being tickled the day I heard it ring just as I walked by and it was actually for me!

Later, I transferred to a giant state university that was bursting at the seams with baby boomers.  Despite a veritable city of dormitories, there was no room at the inn and I ended up with a couple hundred other students in a decrepit single room occupancy hotel downtown.  There was an old cast iron black telephone in each room.  The phone had no dial (this was before the age of push button phones), as it received incoming calls only.  To place an outgoing call, one would use the pay phone in the lobby.  Alternatively, up on campus one could descend into the basement of the university library, where in a room near the huge bound volumes of obscure academic journals, was a bank of pay phones, complete with little stools on which to perch during one’s phone call.  For some reason, Sunday night seemed to be the time when everyone wanted to call home to Long Island.  After all, everyone was far too busy bar hopping on Friday and Saturday nights.

Somewhere in a dusty album there is a photo of my sister and her young ex-husband, newlyweds on their honeymoon, hugging each other while squeezed into the narrow doorway of a phone booth.

Phone booths!  Remember those?  Clark Kent relied on them to make his transformation into Superman.  The red ones I found throughout London when I visited in the mid-1980s were highly photogenic, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use them to make a phone call.  “You can dial that yourself,” one operator unhelpfully informed me.  HOW??!!

My parents typically spend their evenings watching television, a habit I have studiously avoided for years.  To make matters worse, they don’t have cable or a satellite dish.  Thus, they receive only a few over-the-air stations from a nearby city.  The trash that they serve up to the public makes me roll my eyes.

And so, on Saturday night, after sitting on folding chairs in the driveway to watch the stars for an hour, my wife and I found ourselves sitting on my parents’ couch, watching the first Terminator movie (1984) with my mother.  My father was in the office watching documentaries about murders on another TV.  As a Californian who endured a term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, I could not but guffaw at seeing him as a cyborg.  But it was his repeated visits to phone booths that really caused me to belly laugh.  Phone booths that not only had fully functioning phones in them, but also had phone books present (remember those?), so convenient for Arnold to look up the addresses of his next victims.

Pay phones went through slow stages of disrepair and dilapidation before they disappeared altogether.  There were a number of years during which the phone probably still worked, but nothing dangled at the end of the cord where a phone book was supposed to be.  Most pay phones seemed to be of the outdoor variety; where an actual booth still existed, the little shelf beneath the phone that was supposed to house the phone book was always empty.

When I worked as a manager in the court system, I remember making a sign and posting it on the wall of the courthouse lobby to inform visitors that the pay phone did not work and that no money should be inserted therein.  People tried anyway and lost their dimes and quarters.  I don’t know how long it had been since that particular pay phone had ceased functioning, but I do know that picking up the receiver yielded an incessant beeping and nothing more.  It took quite a lot of research, probing and pleading before I was finally able to get that pay phone removed and the empty hole in the wall plastered over.  The challenge was finding out who actually owned the phone.  None of the phone companies who I contacted were willing to take responsibility for it.  Little did I know that there were businesses that actually purchased and serviced pay phones.  I always had a vague idea that “the phone company” took care of it.  Perhaps this was true in the halcyon days before the breakup of Ma Bell.

The advent of the cell phone relegated pay phones to be just another remnant of American social history, along with the vinyl 33⅓ RPM record and the manual typewriter.

But still, like ghosts of the past, the bones remain.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

A question posted online recently captured my attention in a big way.  It went something like this:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

I was surprised when my guts began churning and a flood of emotions washed over me.  So many memories.  So many “what ifs.”  So many “if onlys.”

What would my ideal job be?  Oh, please don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else, but not that.  It’s just too embarrassing.

It sounds like a warped job interview question, something the production manager or the HR lady sadistically throws at the poor applicant in an attempt to throw him or her off kilter and assess “thinking on your feet” skills.

In fact, I was asked this question during a job interview once, many years ago.  The interviewer added “anything but the job you are applying for, that is.”  Of course.  There would be no point in enduring suck-ups who provide the obvious answer.

As a self-professed “word freak,” I told the interviewer that I have long been fascinated by etymology and would, in my dreams, be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What happened after that was not pretty.  Believing I had said “entomology,” the interviewer thought I was into insects.  As far as the OED, he told me that he had one of those on his desk.  I was sure he was lying, as I knew full well that the OED consists of 20 thick volumes.  (I had not yet heard of the compact edition.)  Then he admitted to me that he’s really like to be a rock star.

Oh.

Need I add that I did not get that job?  I’m probably better off, too.

The loaded question about “your ideal job” has been around just about forever, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.  When I was in college in the 1980s, pondering what the hell I was going to do after graduation with a degree in English and political science, the popular question (courtesy of the Richard Nelson Bolles book) was “what color is your parachute?”  Today, I suppose, we would say (courtesy of young crooner Kacey Musgraves) “follow your arrow wherever it points.”

Turn the dial on the ol’ Wayback Machine a few years earlier.  Everyone from my grandparents to my aunts and uncles to my parents’ friends and our next-door neighbors posed the same question to me at one time or another:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every kid gets asked that question.  I used to think it was a way of testing the kid’s mettle, to find out how big he or she can dream.  Or maybe it’s just a way of making small talk, an adult’s way to start a conversation with a child when the adult doesn’t really know how to relate to kids and has no idea of what else to say.  It’s the old tried-and-true.  It’s the question that’s expected.  Now that I’m an old guy, and more jaded than I like to admit, I suspect that many adults ask kids this question to get a good laugh at the outrageous response they might receive.

If a shy kid greets this question with silence, the follow-up may well be something like:  “Policeman, fireman or Indian chief?”  (In the upper middle class suburban world in which I was raised, the question would more likely have been:  “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?”)

Seriously, what is it with Indian chiefs?  I was born much too late to have heard of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, although I have vague, fuzzy memories of watching old westerns with my grandpa when I was four or five years old.

It seems like a humorous anachronism now.  Today, if you used the phrase “Indian chief,” the image that would come to my mind would be of a CEO in Mumbai.  Not a bad career choice, come to think of it.

Well, what I wanted to be when I grew up was really rather boring.  I wanted to be a librarian.

I was enamored with books and retain vivid memories of an embarrassing incident in which I walked right into the office of the director of the public library and asked him for a job.  I was ten years old.

To the guy’s credit, he quizzed me on the Dewey Decimal System, a test which I summarily failed.

“Being a librarian doesn’t mean you get to read books all day,” my mother patiently tried to explain.  Duh!  Everyone knows that.  Librarians get to push the little cart around and tell people where the periodical room is and shove library cards under that little machine with the bright light that makes a copy with the due date stamped on it.

I started telling people that I wanted to be a teacher like my Dad.  It was safer.  Also, it was less of a sissy answer.  Everyone knew librarians were old ladies with their hair put up in buns.

What I do for a living today is far more boring than being a librarian.  I am a manager in the government service.  Pass the white bread and the vanilla ice cream.

I’ve spent years as a supervisor and manager in both the public and private sectors, during which time I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect upon career paths, recruiting and the interview process.  On several occasions, I found myself in the position of reviewing stacks of job applications and then conducting dozens of interviews.  I learned to take good notes, because after a while it becomes difficult to remember one candidate from another.  Perhaps someone stands out because they tell me a funny joke, once worked as a lion tamer or show up at the interview with really big hair.  But mostly it’s just a chorus line.

These days, I consider myself reformed.  I am rarely involved with hiring anymore, and when I am, I don’t ask candidates what their ideal job would be.

For one thing, it’s too painful.  That is, the ridiculous answers you get are too painful to bear.  And you can’t even laugh!  You have to keep your serious supervisor’s face on, nod and say something profound like “Well, that’s different!”

Mostly, however, you just get boring answers about wanting to work “in the helping professions” (Query:  Is there such a thing as “the hurting professions?”) or wanting to give back to the community or to make a real difference in society.

Sigh.  My eyes grow misty as I recall the many times I’ve spewed out such chewed-over platitudes to prospective employers.  Even when it’s true, it always comes out sounding just a little bit insincere.

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s time to fess up.  My ideal job, what I’d really love to do more than anything else I can think of, is to be . . .

A customer loyalty team representative in Zappo’s call center.

Yep, you read that right.  I want to don a headset, surf the Net like a wild man in search of bargains and answers and make customers insanely happy all day/night.

And much as this is the object of my desires, I can unequivocally guarantee that I will never have this job.  More on that in a little while.

Now, why would I want such a job?  I’m glad you asked.  It’s not out of some goggle-eyed fantasy, I assure you.  I worked in a call center for years, so I know the drill.  Most of my coworkers hated it and got out as soon as they could.  I stuck around for nearly nine years.  It’s where I met my wife and it was one of the best times of my life.  I’d do it all again in a minute.

My niece works in a call center and often makes vague references to the difficult customers she is forced to deal with, the time constraints she faces on each call and the constant threat of Quality Assurance listening in with a critical ear.

Bring it on, I say!

Satisfying the customer at the other end of the phone line, even the one who has a beef with the company and decides to cuss me out, brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I am the weirdo who glories in turning the frown upside down.

But why Zappo’s?  Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  Sorry, I’ll try not to gush too profusely.

First, Zappo’s operates on a holacratic model, which basically means that it’s about the work, not about the person.  There are no titles; roles overlap and morph with business needs.  Employees get to use their skills in a variety of areas rather than being stuck doing just one thing until they get “a promotion.”  It’s about getting things done, not stroking egos.  The idea is entirely refreshing.  You can read more about holacracy here.

Then there are Zappo’s ten core values.  I will list them here so that you can get some idea of why I’ve gone a little bit gaga over selling shoes and apparel:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Be adventurous, creative and open-minded
  • Pursue growth and learning
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication
  • Build a positive team and family spirit
  • Do more with less
  • Be passionate and determined
  • Be humble

I’m told this is not for everyone, but I find it a bit difficult to imagine why anyone would not want to work for such a company.

Pursue growth and learning:  Yes!  I consider myself a lifelong student, I always want to obtain more schooling, I read omnivorously.

Be adventurous, creative and open-minded:  Yes!  No more being a square peg wedged into a round hole.  Try your latest idea without fear of failure!  Then try something else!

Be passionate and determined.  Be humble.  They’re talking about me!

There are other little things, too.  Zappo’s has a 24-hour call center, and I am an inherent night owl who enjoys working weird hours.  Switching shifts every so often to meet business needs doesn’t faze me.  I find it exciting!

The fact that the staff is always up to fun stuff like parades through the call center and silly games and contests — That’s what adds joy to one’s work life.  It’s what keeps people forever young.  That’s what builds the same kind of loyalty to an employer that the employees wish to instill in their customers.  It’s the WOW, it’s what makes their day.

So why haven’t I packed up and moved to Las Vegas yet?  There are a number of obstacles to doing that, but only one that I simply cannot overcome and will never be able to overcome.

I cannot survive on $11 per hour.

Even on $15 an hour, I simply couldn’t make ends meet.  I only wish Zappo’s had been around when I was fresh out of college, 21 years old and back home with my parents, wondering what on earth to do next.  No rent, no utilities, no food bills, nothing but putting gasoline in my rattletrap old car.  I started working for $5.50 an hour on the night shift, which even then was very little money.  If I could transport myself back to that time, and transport my parents’ home to the Nevada desert, I could happily indulge in the job of my dreams.

Those days are long gone, of course, decades in the past.  All that remains is the edges of a dream, a dream fueled by monthly “Zscoop” email reminders from Meli Gonzalez, social recruiting and engagement specialist at Zappo’s.  Like a junkie, I lap up these e-newsletters as a much desired fix.  And I try not to let it break my heart.  But it’s tough.

I know you don’t read this blog, Meli, but if you’re really out there, give an old guy a break and leave a comment telling me that a Zappo’s job paying a salary on which one can pay the bills just opened up and has my name written all over it.

Back in my day, there were all kinds of pop songs about unrequited love.  And this one is mine.

So good night, sweet Zappo’s. I’ll see you in my z’dreams.

The Little House

Little House

Home sweet home

A little over a month ago, we decided we were living a little too far away from my place of employment.  We were spending a little too much on gasoline each month and wasting a little too much time sitting in freeway traffic.  My wife was getting a little tired of spending a little less than four hours on the road each weekday.  In short, we were getting a little sick of wasting our lives commuting.

To be honest, we were also getting a little tired of living in a little parsonage next to a little church in a little town located a little north of nowhere.  Granted, we were more than a little grateful that we had the option of camping out at the parsonage at a time when we had little other choice.  That occurred a little less than two years ago when my former employer found itself a little short of funds and a little long on staff.  After the layoff, we moved a little more toward the northern part of California and were grateful to be a little closer to both my wife’s family and my own parents.  The timing was more than a little auspicious, as our niece had just popped out a little one and we wanted to be able to see a her a little more often than just on Christmas and her birthday.  It all worked out, except for the little fact that I didn’t have a job up here.  It took a little too long for me to remedy that situation, which involved a little too much travel to southern California for interviews as well as a little too much debiting of our little bank account.

When I was finally hired, it was for a temporary position that was slated to end in a little less than ten months and also paid a little less than I had been earning previously.  Nevertheless, I was more than a little relieved to be working again.  In a little while, I found myself promoted to a “permanent” position, although there is still the little matter of passing my probationary period, on which I have a little more than nine months to go.  As luck would have it, our governor gave state employees a little gift of a (very) little raise that will take effect next month.  We are more than a little appreciative of the many little blessings that have been bestowed upon us in the last little while.

Among those blessings is our new place of residence, which we have officially dubbed The Little House.  Originally built as in-law quarters, it sits behind the main house, which is occupied by the family to whom we pay rent on a monthly basis.  Our little corner of paradise consists of a bedroom and another room that serves as kitchen and living room.  There is also a little bathroom tucked a little inside the front doorway.  We have a little couch (courtesy of the owners) that affords my wife and I a little less room than we need to sit comfortably, particularly at time like, say, now, when we are each wailing away at our little laptop computers.  There is too little room for both of us to use a mouse, so we entered into a little compromise under which I sit a little to the left of my wife and use the little touchpad mouse on the keyboard.  Oh, and we also have a little patio just outside the back door that has just enough room for a little chair.

Abby Rufus

Abby and Rufus

Strawberry

Strawberry

Oreo

Oreo, our resident kitty

On the upside, our 600 square foot little piece of air conditioned heaven costs us a little less than an apartment in an urban complex filled with a little too many noisy neighbors.  Here we have peace and quiet, that is, except when the owner’s dogs decide to bark all night, an event which occurs a little too often.  He raises Yorkshire terriers and sells the puppies for a little less than three months of rent payments.  I think people are more than a little crazy to pay that kind of price for a dog when there are so many cute canines sitting in the city animal shelter and waiting to be taken home for the price of getting them vaccinated.  At any rate, we’ve become more than a little fond of the critters, even as we feel a little bad that they’re being treated like factories for creating more little ones.  But money makes the world go ‘round, does it not?

Chickens

Why did the chicken cross the road?  Damned if I know!

We live just a little outside of Sacramento in an area that looks a little like somewhere out in the country.  Across the street is a little flock of chickens that cluck and coo to their heart’s content while they are lorded over by a couple of roosters who are a little too sure (cocksure?) that they own the neighborhood and therefore needn’t be concerned about their little habit of cock-a-doodle-dooing any time they please, like say, a little before two in the morning.  Oh, and there is also a pair of peacocks a little way down the road who come a-visiting every now and then, often with their brood of little ones following behind.  As anyone who has ever visited Casa de Fruta on the Pacheco Pass Road between the Bay Area and the Central Valley knows, the male peacock loves to preen and show off its fancy feathers.  What we didn’t know, however, is that peacocks have quite a little set of vocal cords on them.  When they decide to screech, the blood-curdling yowl can only be described as a little like a call for help uttered by a cat being raped.

In our short time here, we have come to appreciate the many murals, sculptures and old signs that are found throughout Sacramento.  I present a few of our discoveries here for your amusement.

Nahl Satire

Probably my favorite downtown Sacramento mural.  This is a satire of a 19th century painting, “Sunday Morning in the Mines,” by Charles Christian Nahl.  The original, without benefit of the 3-D effect of people climbing out of (into?) the painting, is on display here in town at the Crocker Art Museum.  This mural is painted high on a building, with the man at the bottom (yellow jacket) appearing to stand on the top of a billboard.

Downtown Mural

So, yes, I am a fan of 3-D effects.  We drive by this mural every day and I still can’t get over how real it looks.  The cat is a nice touch!

Scarcity

William Leung mural in the run-down Del Paso Heights/Haginwood neighborhood of Sacramento.  For the text of the Tim Kahl poem above the center of the mural, click here.

Canada Dry Sign

Old Canada Dry sign, 16th Street in North Sacramento.

So, what comes next?  Reno, that’s what!  We have three trips to that ramblin’, gamblin’, broken-down town scheduled for this summer, one each in June, July and August.  The first of these little jaunts is scheduled for this Friday.  I can hardly wait to hit the video poker machines road!

Daffodils Howe Avenue

Daffodils, Howe Avenue, Sacramento

Story Time

When you stop to think about it, it is an amazing stroke of fate that any of us is here.  We are each so unique.  The chance of someone just like any of us existing has got to be close to zero, less likely than the chance of winning the Mega Millions (which, by the way, is now up to $253 million here in California).

It is no wonder that, in recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in genealogy.  It is hard not to be curious about exactly where you came from, how you ended up being you.  I hear so many stories of regret that parents and grandparents didn’t write their memoirs, didn’t take time to tell us more of their stories.  As if it were their responsibilities to do so!  Most of us could have learned many of these stories, if only we had taken a genuine interest, had taken the time to ask.

I particularly enjoyed Rachel Mankowitz’s blog today, in which she describes her efforts to start a memoir-writing workshop for interested members of the elderly congregation of her synagogue.  All those incredible stories, just waiting to come out and see the light of day.  For many, this could be the last chance to avoid having those stories lost forever.  But life gets in the way, and things like bridge club and winter flight to warm weather refuge in Florida took precedence.  Unfortunately, Rachel’s class dwindled week to week, until only she and her mother remained.

I don’t know what it is that makes us think that our stories aren’t important, or at least not as important as other things we could be doing.  Each of us has a unique voice, and perhaps we think no one is interested in hearing it because, well, no one bothered to ask before, and now, so late in the game, well, why does it matter?

But it does matter.  Family stories are precious, for what happened to those before us played a part in making us what we are now.  So I hope my niece tells her little daughter stories that her grandmother told her about how her mother was a child in Oklahoma whose family came west to work in California’s agriculture industry.  And stories about sisters’ boyfriends and misleading a guy in the army with another girl’s photo — the crazy, amazing stuff of fate.

As for myself, I know I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother hadn’t, as a young woman, overheard a conversation on a train in central Europe, a story about going to America that convinced her to do the same thing herself.  And that I wouldn’t be here had she stuck with her resolve not to marry my grandfather, a decision made in steerage while violently ill during a tempestuous Atlantic crossing.  (When she arrived at Ellis Island, she found that she had to marry him after all in order to have a sponsor, without which immigration officials would have shipped her right back to Europe.)

I thought about family stories today while on the phone with my mother.  She started telling me about how, when she was first married, my father was in the Air Force in southern New Jersey and hitchhiked home to New York City on the weekends.  During the week, my mother attended college and lived back at home, sleeping on a fold-out bed in the living room of her parents’ one-bedroom apartment.  My parents wanted an apartment in which to spend the weekends together (they played tennis and went to the movies, I’m told), but the only one they could find that was affordable was on the other side of the city, reachable only by several changes of buses and subways.  Fortunately, the college was close to her parents’ apartment.

The newlyweds’ weekend getaway was in an apartment building filled with very poor people of diverse cultures and ages.  My mother regaled me with stories of toddlers running out into the hallway naked and of the elderly couple living right above them (apparently the wife killed the husband, possibly by hitting him over the head with an alarm clock).

You’ve got to love it!  I feel honored to know about how my parents began their lives together in the 1950s.

In a restaurant last night, my wife and I found ourselves seated behind a talkative gentleman.  He was telling stories to the hapless server, who couldn’t find a way to politely tell him that, um, she had work to do?  When the server finally extricated herself from his clutches, the guy began chatting up the elderly couple sitting across the aisle.  He asked the old man whether he was in the war, and when he answered in the affirmative, shook his hand and thanked him for serving our country.  Then he told the old couple that they so reminded him of his parents, at which point the guy became teary-eyed.  He ended up buying them dessert.  We found the whole thing to be a touching scene.

Here was a man who not only was eager to tell his own stories, but appreciated the richness of life related in the stories of others.

Please, go tell your story to someone you love.  Do it today.

Eliminating Homelessness is Possible

I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank Shannon of Dirt ‘N Kids and Janon for their kind and insightful comments on last week’s post about paths toward ending homelessness and Utah’s successes in this regard.

I can summarize my thoughts on your responses in three general statements:

  • Yes, it’s all about money.
  • It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.
  • You have to start somewhere.

Yes, it’s all about money.

Some say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  I would add “poverty” to that short list.  As a man who unabashedly worships God, I think of the following Bible verse:  “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:  Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”  Deut. 15:11 (JPS)  The dual lessons here are:

  1. There is no such thing as “eliminating homelessness,” despite the appeal of the phrase as a sound bite. Even if it is possible to assure that those who are taken off the streets are provided with homes for the remainder of their lives, there will always be more individuals and families who will fall into homelessness due to the effects of the economy, mental illness and substance abuse.
  2. As homelessness is an ongoing issue, beating it back will require ongoing infusions of money. Even if we were collectively committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over his or her head, that commitment must continue among those who come after us or we will quickly find ourselves right back where we started.  The Biblical command to “open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” is an edict for all time.

Shannon, you are right to be concerned about taxes and utilities.  These are part and parcel of the costs of housing and must be covered by the public-private partnership that secured the house, apartment or single occupancy unit in the first place, as was done in Utah.  In terms of taxes, essentially the municipality must be willing to forgo the income that could otherwise have been collected on these units.  The loss of revenue is but a tiny fraction of the public funds that would have been expended on the individuals involved had they remained homeless.

You also ask about rules for sharing with others, medical requirements, hygiene and general cleanliness.  While all of these concerns make perfect sense to me, in the big picture none of them matter.  The philosophy in Utah is that when the keys are handed over, the newly homed individual essentially has free reign.  The home is treated as a gift of unconditional love, no strings attached.  The result of this is that there were a few cases in which the residence was totally destroyed and/or the beneficiary violated the law and ended up in custody.  This is why, in Salt Lake City, some of the homeless who were unlikely to be able to live successfully in an unsupervised environment were sheltered in single occupancy rooms in a location where they can be checked up on daily and where critical mental health and substance abuse prevention services are available on site.  As to the extremely rare cases in which the residence was trashed, I read that the individual was provided needed services and then given yet another home.  While the agape love nature of such actions is delightful to see, those are the situations that make everyone nervous due to the very real potential for negative press and public backlash that could bring the entire endeavor tumbling down like a house of cards.  Each time something like that comes up is a moment of collective breath holding accompanied by hope that the public realizes that, as the Jackson 5 sang back in the days of my youth, “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole wide world.”

Finally, Shannon, you asked about food.  This was handled in a number of different ways, and I regret that your wonderful idea of a community garden was never mentioned in the articles I read (I am definitely a fan of your “lasagna” worm fertilization technique).  Some of the newly homed are receiving job training and job search assistance in an effort to get them back onto their feet financially.  Many others were helped to apply for Food Stamps.  Finally, in some locations, such as the single room occupancy facilities, the local food bank made regular deliveries to the residents.

Janon, you incisively point out that “a Housing First program in a large city would require a large line item in the city’s budget directly associated with the program, and it will always be a target for cuts.”  As I mentioned above, the difference between a temporary fix and a permanent solution will be whether those who come after us remain committed to the same goals and are willing to fund them.  Ironically, when times are bad and programs are slashed to accommodate the shrinking public fisc, that is exactly when an increasing number of people are in danger of becoming homeless if homes are not provided.  This is why layers upon layers of protection are needed, not unlike Shannon’s worm composting program.  Housing First must be a joint effort of federal, state and municipal governments, religious organizations (like Loaves and Fishes here in Sacramento) and private philanthropy.  Like an extended family in which various members step in to help in different roles depending on what is required at the moment, each of these parts must be willing to step up when another falters.

It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.

Last week, I wrote about Henry and a few of the other homeless people with whom we have recently had contact in this area.  They all have stories to tell, although not all of them are willing (or able) to tell those stories.  They all had mothers and fathers once; few were born homeless.  Homelessness, like so many things, exists at the intersection of chance and choice.  Many homeless individuals never really had a chance, having suffered through horrible childhoods and turbulent adolescences that saw them tossed out to the vagaries of the four winds at an early age.  I am fond of noting that mental illness seems inevitable among the homeless, including those who weren’t mentally ill when they first hit the streets.  A few years of being assaulted, arrested, robbed, starved, exposed to the elements and subject to the disdain of nearly everyone would be enough to catapult nearly anyone into abyss of mental illness.

As I pointed out in my post about Henry, rapidly gobbling down any food that comes your way is a common behavioral pattern among the homeless.  If you haven’t eaten in a while, I can’t reasonably expect you to observe Emily Post table manners and to say grace before chowing down.  If you don’t eat it all immediately, it will likely be stolen from you.  And, as if that weren’t enough, competing with you in your panhandling endeavors are those who are no more homeless than I am, but choose to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a bit of fakery to see whether they can get something for nothing.  For those of us who would help the homeless, we are left with the difficulty of distinguishing between the truly homeless and the charlatans.  If we don’t want to “go there,” we can simply help anyone who asks (within the extent of our resources) without making judgment, or, more commonly, can resort to averting our eyes and helping no one.

The latter option is perennially tempting to government, as the cost of social services staff and programs to determine who is “deserving” of assistance can run nearly as much as providing that assistance does.  And when it comes to local governments, state legislatures and, yes, Congress, deciding whom to help, there are always Tea Party Republicans and naysayers back home in the district to provide ample chastisement about the waste of public funds.  After all, how appealing is it to spend money on an intractable problem?  Tomorrow, there will be more people who need to be helped, even apart from those “just looking for a handout.”

This is why it is imperative that those whom we elect to serve us remember that it is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.  Those of us who care need to write and call our legislators and testify before legislative and Congressional committees to let our representatives know that we are not blind to the suffering that is occurring all around us.  While we are limited as to what we can do as individuals, together we can move mountains.  Ending homelessness is not an election campaign issue or a line item in a budget.  It is forging a path through the rhetoric to put roofs over the heads of our neighbors who freeze, burn and are soaked from sleeping outdoors and show up at hospitals with hypothermia and pneumonia.  These are the people who are routinely abused, assaulted and killed as if they were some kind of trash rather than someone’s son, daughter, mother, father.

The biggest mistake of all is thinking that it can’t happen to you.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

You have to start somewhere.

The jaded among us say that every public program, every act of generosity done by a church or an individual, is flawed (and likely motivated by some hidden agenda, as well).  Some of the “undeserving” will be the beneficiaries of our largesse along with those who are “truly deserving.”  This line of thinking is rather sad.  Those of us who attempt to walk in the path of God know that every act of kindness is perfect.  As your mother told you when you were little, it truly is the thought that counts.

While we’re on mothers, another thing that they like to say is “little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems.”  As Janon astutely points out, the same is true of municipalities.  It is a lot easier for a state with a relatively small population, such as Utah, to erase homelessness than it is for a more a populous place to do so.  I was recently pleased to read that Medicine Hat, Alberta is the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness.  Then again, Wikipedia tells me that Medicine Hat has a population of just 61,180.  This is a far cry from such populous places as Los Angeles and California.  (On a side note, one might think that Canada, with its socialist-oriented policies, would not have much homelessness.  Anyone who reads Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, on a regular basis knows that this is anything but true.)

One thing to consider is economies of scale.  First, large scale operations cost considerably less to operate on a per capita basis than smaller operations do.  Second, populous cities and states have larger tax bases than less populous places do.  There are more businesses and more people paying property and income taxes.  Generally, there are more churches and other charitable organizations in the area.  And hopefully, there are more philanthropic minded individuals available to assist than there would be in a more rural or remote area.

In places like California, where there are so many in need, the scope of the problem may seem insurmountable.  Providing housing for all of our homeless may seem an impossible dream.  Fortunately, Housing First is a big dream that is turning into reality.  However, it takes time, it takes resources and it takes commitment.  It can’t be done alone or by just a few, and it can’t be done in a day.  It takes the collective will.

We will never be able to convince all the naysayers that housing the homeless is a just cause, and we will always contend with competing priorities for limited resources.  But that doesn’t give us license to sit on our rears, turn the other way and do nothing.  We have to start somewhere.

As the Talmud teaches us, “whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

Hope

It is difficult to write passionately about a cause, regardless of how much it might mean to you, when you cannot honestly write about it in the first person.

I have written dozens of posts about unemployment, railing about the stupidity of Congress and the plight of those who have been economically sidelined and will likely never work again.  But I did this while on my own gut-wrenching, year-long odyssey of job hunting after being laid off from the state court system.  I was able to give my readers the down low about nearly collapsing after standing in line in the sun for three hours to obtain USDA surplus canned goods, about telling my life story to the Salvation Army lady, about the indignity of applying for Food Stamps.

The same is true of my experiences in going vegan.  I couldn’t reasonably expect anyone to put stock in a thing I said about the virtues of veganism if I hadn’t committed to it personally.  I didn’t do this all at once; I played with the idea for bit before realizing that it is the only ethical food choice in today’s world.  Yes, being a vegan can be a big fat pain in the ass when you are the oddball among carnivores, but at least I can tell you all about it firsthand.

When it comes to homelessness, however, things are a bit different.  I have never been homeless myself, although I’ve come close a couple of times.  I’ve had to rely on family for a roof over my head on more than one occasion, and I can see why some find living on the street preferable.  I can empathize, to some extent, with a friend in Georgia who spent some months sleeping behind a bush in a downtown business district because she was flat broke and it was the only way she could leave her abusive boyfriend.  She can speak about homelessness with a conviction that I cannot.  No matter how many stories I relate about the desperate of Sacramento, it’s necessarily a second hand story.

There are a lot of us who are perennially a paycheck or two away from homelessness and who would rather not talk about it out loud for fear of waking up to find that the nightmare has become real.  But there are others who own a home and a car, have no mortgage and have sufficient savings to get by on for virtually as long as necessary.  More than a few of these individuals are in Congress and in the state legislature.  It is difficult to convince someone of the dire necessity to do something about homelessness when they themselves are highly unlikely to ever find themselves living on the streets.

Those folks may tell you that they earned everything they have, that they got to where they’re at by dint of hard work and good decisions.  While some have succeeded by drawing themselves up out of poverty, many more at the top of the economic heap arrived there largely by having chosen their parents well.  Would that we all could have been such smart babies.

Fortunately, a desire to alleviate a particular type of suffering does not require that we experience that suffering personally.  So what can anyone of us really do to help the homeless?  Surely we’re not going to risk bringing them into our own homes?

To those of the Christian faith, I say WWJD.

But I am also aware of the realities of the world in which we live.  I’ve been hearing stories about a good Samaritan who stopped to help a homeless man a few weeks ago, just a couple of miles from here.  I am told she was murdered, her throat slit by the person she hoped to help.

So I get it when we drive by the guy with the sign, keeping our eyes on the road.  I get it when we walk by the panhandler, keeping our heads down and being careful not to make eye contact.  Perhaps we are disgusted with the situation and know that we can never hope to do enough personally to make a significant difference.  Perhaps we are ashamed that we lack the courage to make the first move.  Perhaps we believe that “these people” have done this to themselves and are responsible for their own bad decisions.  They made their bed, now they have to lie in it.  Or perhaps we just fear for our personal safety when we have no idea whether this “beggar” may be crazy and violent.

For years, I’ve read about how Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., directly across the street from the White House, is a veritable drug supermarket and a haven for crack addicts.  While I am aware of the drug problem in our nation’s capital, it wasn’t until this week that I learned the extent of the homelessness situation there.  The Washington Post recently reported that the city’s metropolitan area has 11,623 homeless people crouching over heating grates, staying in dangerous overnight shelters, sleeping in little encampments under bridges.  This figure was arrived at as the result of a PIT (point in time) count conducted on the night of January 28, during the coldest part of Washington’s winter.  I don’t know about you, but at least to me, eleven thousand seems an awfully large number of people to be shivering in the cold without roofs over their heads.  And in some other parts of the country (and the world), it’s even worse.

The highest rates of homelessness in the United States are in Florida and right here in California.  The Sunshine and Golden States are the only two states of the Union to have the distinction of hosting a homeless population exceeding 6% of all residents.  Perhaps some of this has to do with California’s sheer size; after all, nearly one in ten Americans live here.  Then there is the reality that, at least in the southern portions of Florida and California, the weather is warm enough year-round that one who is forced to live al fresco has a fairly good chance of not freezing to death the week before Christmas.  Out here, the stories are legion about folks who arrive here by bus, thinking they’ll manage to survive on the beach in San Diego.  As if we didn’t have enough homegrown homelessness.  Really, who can afford to live in San Diego?  Or Los Angeles?  Or San Francisco?

There is no need for despair, however.  There is hope.

Thanks to a program (or a philosophy, depending on one’s viewpoint) known as Housing First, the state of Utah has succeeded in virtually eliminating homelessness.  The secret of Utah’s success is right there in the program’s name.  Housing first, then worry about things like drug rehab, mental health assistance, job training.  Utah started by taking the most intractable, most seemingly hopeless cases off the streets of Salt Lake City by handing them the keys to an apartment, a house or a single room occupancy community residence.  The SROs were for those who needed health and welfare checks on a nearly daily basis, with services available right in the same building.  Some of those who were newly homed had been on the streets for twenty years or more.  All of them were offered, but not forced to accept, free counseling, health care, job training and food.

The idea is that it is next to impossible to succeed at something as hard as kicking drugs, getting one’s mental illness under control or finding a job when you don’t have a stable address, a reliable place to take a shower or the assurance that you have a bed in which to get a good night’s sleep.  Utah removed the morality from the situation.  Instead of sitting in judgment upon the homeless and their poor choices, they simply gave them keys.

In other words, the way to end homelessness is to give people homes.

And to give people hope.

I encourage you to check out the link above and read about how Utah managed to achieve such an accomplishment.  It wasn’t easy.  It took a consortium of public and private resources.  It took building new apartments when the available housing stock was depleted.  And it didn’t happen by itself.  It took commitment, those in power saying “yes, we’re going to do this.”

It wasn’t done by taking neighborhood homeless people into our own homes; it was done by giving them their own homes.  It wasn’t done by buying fast food for hungry people holding signs at Wal-Mart or the McDonald’s drive-through.  It wasn’t done by means of token shows of caring.  It was done by collective will.

I feel confident that if providing homes to the homeless worked in Utah, we can also make it work right here in California.

Anyone with me?

Henry and the Guy with Two Signs and the Pregnant Woman and the Old Man with the Dog

I think his name is Henry.  I’m not really sure because he has a speech disability and I found him quite difficult to understand.

We met him standing by the side of the drive-through lane at one of the local McDonald’s.  My wife had a headache and wanted a Coke and, you know, Mickey D’s has drinks for a dollar these days.

We asked him if he wanted something to eat and he said yes.  So along with my wife’s Coke, we ordered Henry a cheeseburger and fries and a soda.  He expressed his gratitude in no uncertain terms.

At the drive-through window, my wife asked the young clerk with the headset whether the people that hung around outside McD’s were really homeless or just beggars.  “Probably a little of both,” he opined.

When we drove by again a few minutes later, Henry was still there.  The food was gone and the wrappers were discarded on the ground.  The guy must have inhaled his meal.  It may have been a while since he had eaten, or perhaps instantaneous consumption is the only bulwark against competing homeless people stealing what little you have.

I felt as if someone should chastise Henry about littering, but I suppose where one’s trash is deposited falls low in priority when one’s belly is empty.  Moreover, my wife and I realized that the man is almost certainly developmentally disabled.

A little while later, while exiting the Wal-Mart parking lot, we saw a gentleman with one cardboard sign propped against his backpack (“I am really hungry”) while he held another (“I am really thirsty” in large lettering, with a small notation “anything but alcohol”).  I suppose he believed that he would be deemed more worthy of charity if he made it clear that he wasn’t just hoping for a beer.

Then there was last night.  On the way home from my job in downtown Sacramento, we pulled off the freeway to use the rest room in a fast food restaurant.  Two homeless people, an old man and a young woman, were hanging out near the door.  The woman was wearing a vertically striped outfit that reminded me of an umpire.  She kept tugging up her low rider pants that gave the world a clear view of her butt crack.  My wife pointed out that she was pregnant.

The old guy had a scruffy little dog as a companion, tied to a small pile of possessions by a red leash.  I couldn’t help thinking that it was bad enough to be born a dog, much less to end up the canine pal of a homeless person.  As often as I hear derogatory comments about homeless people having pets when they can’t even feed themselves, as the first drops of rain began to fall I realized that loneliness does not discriminate based on economic need or social station.  We all need a friend.

My good and kindhearted wife pointed out that we should drive back around to ask the man and the woman whether they needed something to eat.  But they were gone, perhaps to seek shelter from the impending storm, just another in a long line of storms that had already permeated their lives.

As we headed home, we heard a clap of thunder and spied a distant flash of lightning before the sky opened up in a torrential downpour, so desperately needed by the parched crops here in drought-ravaged central California.  Hurrying the short distance into the house, I was well and truly drenched.

As I stripped off my soaked clothes and pulled on a warm pair of sweats, I wondered where the pregnant woman and the old geezer with the dog would spend the night.

And I wondered what their names are and how long they’ve been living outdoors and who their mothers and fathers were.

It seems a crime to throw away people as if they were worthless, as if they had no ability to contribute to society, no ability to love and be loved.  As if they were no more than paper wrappers discarded from hastily devoured cheeseburgers.

At least if I see Henry again, I’ll be able to address him by name.