Stinkbusters

Ghostbusters

In her recent book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the subculture of aging Baby Boomers who have been priced out of traditional (“sticks and bricks”) homes and apartments (by layoffs, ageism in the workplace, debt and bankruptcy, underwater mortgages, health challenges and the woeful inadequacy of a monthly Social Security check) and have found new lives wandering the nation and working short-term jobs while living in their “wheel estate” (vans, campers, RVs, old school buses and even compact cars).  In between gigs as seasonal help at Amazon warehouses (ten to twelve hour shifts spent squatting, reaching and walking miles of concrete floors with a hand scanner), working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, and serving as “camp hosts” at remote state and national parks, they alternate between “boondocking” (camping in desert, mountain and wilderness middle-of-nowhere locations, sometimes legally, sometimes not) and “stealth camping” (staying overnight in their rigs at the far reaches of Wal-Mart parking lots, at 24-hour truck stops and gyms, or even on suburban streets).  These kings and queens of the road meet other like-minded souls, forge friendships, form loose-knit clans, trade knowledge, help each other out, share their meager possessions, and follow each other to the desert Southwest in the winter, to the coolness of the woodsy mountains in the summer, and to annual gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (organized by longtime van dweller, Bob Wells) off Dome Rock Road, on the outskirts of Quartzsite, Arizona.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon on multiple levels.  For one thing, I have more than a passing familiarity with many of the locations described by Bruder.  Having lived and worked in Blythe, California for three years, I am painfully aware of the Podunk nature of Colorado River hamlets such as Ehrenberg, Arizona and the summertime ghost town imitation performed annually by “the Q.”  The former is the place that everyone in Blythe goes to gas up their vehicles at one of the two truck stops, due to petrol prices often running 50 cents or more per gallon less than just across the bridge in California.  The Flying J truck stop there became desert dessert heaven once they acquired a Cinnabon and a Carvel to go along with their Subway sandwich shop.  Even with the cheaper Arizona gas prices, it would still cost me fifty dollars to fill up the gas-guzzling boat of a Mercury I was driving at the time.  I would stand at the pumps watching my iPhone go crazy flipping the time back and forth an hour every few seconds, not quite able to decide whether this border location was in Pacific or Mountain Time.  And I would find it hard to escape the premises without bringing home a cinnamon roll for my wife and a soft serve sundae for myself.

As for Quartzsite, about 20 miles east of Ehrenberg on Interstate 10, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time there.  Bruder failed to mention the Friday night all-you-can-eat fish frys at  The Grubstake on Highway 95 (the restaurant is still there but, alas, the fried fish pig-out is history; they sell it by the piece now).  I have so many fond memories of that place, from the ghost pepper eating contests advertised on the menu to the NASCAR posters on the walls of the loo to the autographed dollar bills on the ceiling of the dining room to drunk coworkers attempting to recover their misspent youth by dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Bruder did, however, visit Silly Al’s, a pizza parlor and bar where I once witnessed the superannuated karaoke hoedown that she describes.  I never returned, finding the food overpriced and mediocre.  (Let’s be honest:  When it comes to Italian food, it’s hard to satisfy a New York boy).  She also dropped in on Paul Winer, the naked bookseller of Quartzsite (he does wear a knitted codpiece to cover his whoosie-whatsy) who has chatted with me a number of times, has entertained me by demonstrating his boogy-woogy piano skills on the old upright he keeps in the store, and has sold me a number of esoteric tomes that I unearthed like desert gemstones from the towering disorganized stacks representing shelf overflow and covering nearly every square inch of floor space.  Paul’s bare skin resembles old tanned leather, which should come as no surprise considering that 120°F is a perfectly normal temperature at the Q.

As for the locals, we completely ignored the schlocky vendors hawking beads, polished stones and T-shirts, as well as the snowbirds and their cheek-by-jowl RVs crowding the campsites from December through February.  We could reclaim the place for ourselves when the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark in March and the out-of-towners evaporated like snowflakes hitting the desert floor.  For the next eight or nine months, it would just be us desert rats and our native companions, the lizards, rattlesnakes and cacti of the Southwest.

Another thing that fascinates me about the modern-day nomads described by Bruder is the sociological implications thereof.  That these folks often stick together in common cause is no surprise; in some respects, it is no different than the Scrabble subculture that has become so familiar to me.  But the eerie, post-apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthyish wandering from place to place, the living from one Social Security check to the next, the maximum 14-day stays on federal lands, the fear of “the knock” from cops or security guards, it all strikes me as the anti-American dream.  I certainly don’t blame anyone for attempting to eke out what joy and camaraderie is available in survival mode, but my gosh, is this what the United States has come to?  I admire the pride the nomads take in their way of life, even if forced on them rather than freely chosen.  It reminds me that the line between dystopia and utopia can be fuzzy indeed.

The nomads refer to themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”  As Bruder acknowledges, “the H word” has become a loaded term, fraught with some implications that don’t necessarily apply (alcoholism, drug use, mental illness) and some (poverty) that may strike a little too close to home.  It’s as if the road has become the new diaspora.  The dispersed keep in touch via websites, blogs and Facebook pages, accessible courtesy of free wifi available outside Starbucks, truck stops and restaurants.  And a little voice inside of me says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  I can’t forget how, as a child, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in a car.  My mother and father were horrified.  But being able to go anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice, with just a touch of the gas pedal, seemed like nirvana to me.  It sure beat taking baths and doing homework.

These days, as I approach the age of sixty, I have to remind myself to be careful what you ask for.  Your dreams might just come true, and they might turn out to be nightmares.  One wrong move, I think, and I, too, could end up living in a van as an alternative to living on the street.  Even worse, the people who Bruder met remind us that not even a wrong move is needed to face this fate.  You can do everything right and still end up with nothing.  The current low unemployment rate notwithstanding, the fickleness of the economy and the realities of growing older are cruel indeed.  “Part-time at Burger King is not enough money to live on,” says one of Bruder’s new road friends.  We are seeing the underside of the leaf we call capitalism, and it is covered in worms.

I must admit that I got quite a kick out of Bruder’s story about her first experience taking a shower at a truck stop, which happened to be at the Pilot off I-10 at the Q (another place I am very, very familiar with, although I’ve never showered there).  She headed up to the register to pay for her shower, carrying soap, shampoo and flip-flops in a plastic bag.  Only then did she learn, to her consternation, that a shower costs $12.  In her case, she got lucky in that a trucker at the next register paid her tab with his rewards card (usable only once every 24 hours), concluding that, heck, he hadn’t had a shower in a week, so what’s waiting one more day.

A few weeks ago, the hot water heater that serves our rented tiny house went kaput.  This meant we had no heat, no gas for cooking, and of course, the delightful experience of taking ice cold showers every day.  This untenable situation was complicated by the fact that we have become accidental subletters.  We had been renting from the owner of the big house in front of the property — that is, until he sold his business and decamped to Arizona with his family.  Now he rents out the big house to two women and, while they are certainly nice enough, we are more or less at their mercy.  Even worse, they were out of town, about nine hours away dealing with a family emergency.  We ended up on the phone, back and forth between the renters down south and the owner in Arizona, trying to figure out who was going to do something about this.  Eventually, the water heater was replaced, but not before engaging in the folly of making three fruitless attempts at finding parts and repairing the old unit.

The first day wasn’t too bad; apparently, there was still some hot water left in the lines, so a lukewarm shower was still possible.  After that:  Ice, ice, baby.  Showering became impossible by anyone other than a member of the Polar Bears Club.  Resigned to realities, I went to work without a shower.

By the end of the day, I realized that I was beginning to give off a faint odor of body sweat.  By the next morning, I was smelling really funky, and I had a big meeting to attend.  Just me, a lawyer and all of my bosses, three levels up.  Just the five of us sitting at a tiny round table while I gave a presentation.  After two days of no shower, my deodorant had decided to give up the ghost.  I tried to keep a straight face and hoped no one would notice (as if!).  Later in the day, I filled in my immediate supervisor about what was going on, just in case one of the higher-ups had something to say.  I sat in my cubicle and stank myself out the rest of the day, trying to stay as far away from people as possible.

My wife texted me at work.  Want to go to a hotel and shower?  Yes! Oh, yes, please.  As I alluded to above, I hated to bathe when I was a kid.  Luckily for me, my parents were usually too preoccupied with other things and rarely forced me to take a shower.  Being unwashed for weeks (um, months sometimes) didn’t bother me a bit.  When my grandparents would come to visit, Grandpa would be appalled.  I would tell him that he must be mistaken, because I couldn’t smell anything.  “You can’t smell yourself!” he would yell.

49er

Well, now even I could smell myself.  This was getting bad.  My wife said she couldn’t stand it anymore.  I thought the hotel was a really great idea, but by the time I got home from work, she had come up with a cheaper alternative.  We could go to the ‘49er Truck Stop and, like Jessica Bruder, shower for $12.  But we had to get there by 6:00, after which the showers were open exclusively to truckers.  That only gave us a few minutes to drive way out to the west end of town.  Neither of us thought we would make it, but to my disappointment, we arrived just in time.  As much as I reeked, stripping down to my bare tokhis in a grimy truck stop was nowhere to be found on my 2018 wish list.  And just like Bruder, we carried in soap, shampoo, even towels.  The truck stop provides a towel, but, eewww, a truck stop towel?

We had to wait about a half hour for a shower to become available.  By that time, it was well after six, but no one seemed to care.  I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I leaned against an electronic pinball machine that was wedged into the corner.  It happened to be Ghostbusters.  Goodness, have we gone retro or what?  That’s the kind of pin I would have gladly loaded a roll of quarters into in my younger days (and probably would have made change to get a second roll of George Washingtons after that).

Wow, what a blast from the past.  I remember seeing the movie in the mid-eighties with a young lady who was home from a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire.  I knew her from college and hoped that perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Africa.  She did, and I never heard from her again.

At the truck stop, I marveled at all the flags and gates and flashing lights on the machine.  Along with the high scores, a message on the LED indicated that the now ubiquitous phrase “You’re toast!” was coined by Bill Murray for the original Ghostbusters movie.  I poked the flippers and was treated to clips from the movie.  “Either I have a monster in my kitchen or I’m completely crazy” and “it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”

Shower2

Then a shower became available.  My wife asked if we had to pay $24 because two of us needed showers and the clerk asked us whether we needed two shower keys.  One key, just $12.  Good news.  We could each take a shower, one after the other.

The shower room was tiny, but it contained a toilet, sink and a little bench.  Both of us are big people and we barely fit without tripping over each other.  The hot water felt great after a few days without, but the steam was so intense that we had to crack the door open to avoid suffocating.  I could barely fit my fat rear on that bench and my wife had to help me put my socks on.  But, by gosh, I felt clean!  And the next day at work, I didn’t smell like a sewer.

Shower1

Two days later:  Still no hot water at home.  I had to go to work in San Francisco for a couple of days, but I was stinking again.  Back to the truck stop we went.  Another twelve dollars and another shower for two.  I waved to the pinball machine on the way out.  A trucker was pounding the flippers and racking up the points.

Meanwhile, I prayed that maybe, just maybe, we’d have hot water by the time we got back from the City by the Bay.  If not, I knew where we’d end up to de-stink ourselves.

Who ya gonna call?

 

For further reading:

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “In ‘Nomadland’, the Golden Years are the Wander Years,” New York Times (Nov. 17, 2017).

Paruhl Sehgal, “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 2017).

Timothy R. Smith, “’The Last Free Space in America is a Parking Spot’:  On the Road with a New Kind of Workforce,” Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2017).

Jessica Bruder’s website:  https://www.jessicabruder.com/

Bob Wells’ blog:  http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/

 

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A Warm Bed Tonight

We ran into Roy today, wandering around the supermarket parking lot as usual.  We hadn’t seen him in a week or two, but we drove through a fast food place for a soda on the way downtown and there he was, stumbling about.  There was no doubt that he had gotten hold of his drink or three earlier in the day.  I have no idea whether alcoholism drove him into homelessness or homelessness drove him to the solace of alcohol.  Maybe he’ll tell me all about it one of these days.

My wife has given Roy spare change on a number of occasions when he was hanging about the supermarket entrance, hoping for a few coins.  Today, however, we gave him five dollars.  The subtle grin on his face told me everything I wanted to know.  My wife pointed out that it has probably been a long time since he has seen a fiver.

I have to wonder where Roy curls up to sleep at night.  A warming center has recently opened at the church across the street from the shopping center, but something tells me that he has never seen the inside of the place.  With the rain, wind and cold that we have been experiencing lately, I just hope he makes it through the winter.

One of my favorite bloggers, Dennis Cardiff, recently pointed out that the Homeless Memorial Project has documented 740 deaths among the homeless of Toronto since 1985, 72 such deaths in 2005 alone.

The New York Times recently cited statistics that show that, nationally, homelessness has been reduced by 12.9% over the last seven years.  You wouldn’t know it in Washington, D.C., however, where there are 124 homeless people for every 10,000 residents, more than twice the national average.

Wikipedia claims that in Seattle, another place known for its cold, wet winters, each night at least 2,942 people have no roof over their heads.  About this time last year, a PIT (point in time) survey found a 67% percent increase in the homeless population.  A homeless camp known as The Jungle, situated under a freeway, has become infamous for incidents of violence.

Much has been written about law enforcement clearing snowy Denver’s homeless camps in the name of enforcing laws against “urban camping,” causing some to display buttons reading “Move Along to Where?”

In Sacramento County, California, where I reside, 79 homeless people have died in the past year.  This tops the 78 homeless deaths that occurred here in the previous year.  Not all of these deaths are from exposure (some are the result of overdoses, violence or illness), but it is likely that the cold and wet contributed to the demise of these neighbors of ours.

If you have a warm bed to sleep in tonight as I do, be grateful and remember Roy and the thousands of others of Americans who do not.

Almost Home

He had plastic bags wrapped around his shoes
He was covered with the evening news
Had a pair of old wool socks on his hands
The bank sign was flashing “5 below”
It was freezing rain and spittin’ snow
He was curled up behind some garbage cans
I was afraid that he was dead
I gave him a gentle shake
When he opened up his eyes I said “Old man, are you okay?”

— Craig Morgan, “Almost Home”

For obvious reasons, homelessness is particularly jarring to the eye in the wintertime.  The cold, wet and windy weather we have been experiencing in northern California for the past month or so leaves me running from house to car and from car to office as quickly as possible.  I try to avoid spending more than a minute or two outdoors at all costs.  And I find myself saying a silent prayer for those who lack a roof over their heads.

Tuesday of this past week was particularly bad.  We had to drive well over 100 miles to visit a client’s location to deliver a staff training program.  About five minutes into the trip, the heavens opened up and it proceeded to pour down rain, causing cars to creep along the freeway in an effort to see what was right in front of them and avoid hydroplaning or spinning out.  But first, I had to get from my office to the car, a distance of perhaps 100 feet or so.  The wind was gusting so hard that I had to walk backward through the puddles, as facing the wind would have left me unable to breathe.  My wonderful wife had come to pick me up and, seeing me struggle, braved the elements herself to relieve me of my bag so that I might have some chance of actually making it to the car.

And, through all of this, we have neighbors huddled up in sleeping bags or blankets, some curled up in corners under awnings, others sleeping right out in the open on the sidewalk downtown.

We live near a tiny stream known as Dry Creek, an irony not lost on any of us here in recent days.  Playing the mouse that roared, the little trickle became a raging river that rapidly overflowed its banks, leaving some of the streets in this area under enough feet of water that only the tops of Stop signs stuck out to remind us that a road is there.  The larger rivers in this area, such as the American and the Cosumnes, have been running so high, it’s scary.  On the news every night are stories about saving levees by opening floodgates that have been closed for years.  Out west of town, in the Davis and Dixon area, the fields have been inundated by brown water that goes on for miles.

About the only thing we haven’t had here is snow, which is somewhat surprising considering that the temperature has dipped well below freezing on several nights.  Having spent the first 35 years of my life in New York, I never imagined that such weather would be in store for me in California.  What happened to the land of perpetual sunshine, Hollywood and Mickey Mouse?  It’s not LA or San Diego up here, folks.

Years ago, an acquaintance told me that if she were ever homeless, she would simply move to Florida, even if she had to walk to get there.  I am certain that quite a few of our neighbors who sleep outdoors would be more than happy to move to Florida or to San Diego, if only their physical and mental disabilities would allow them to walk there.  Meanwhile, San Diego has enough problems of its own with people arriving from other parts of the country in the belief that, even if they hit rock bottom, they can always survive in the sunshine on the beach.  Each year, charitable agencies down there end up purchasing a lot of bus fares and plane tickets home for those who are sadly disillusioned after ending up broke, arrested and, often, victims of crime and abuse.

Which still leaves us with thousands of people who have no family or friends to take them in, no hometown to which they can return.  All they have is the here and now, fighting the wind and rain and the biting cold as they struggle to make it through another day, exposed to the elements.

Homelessness tends to make the news a lot more often in the winter than it does during the rest of the year.  We hear about warming centers being opened temporarily to prevent hypothermia among at least some of our local people who are living on the street or in cars.  We hear about the insufficient number of shelter beds, the poor conditions in shelters that leave people preferring to take their chances outdoors rather than become victims of crime indoors, and those to whom shelters do not apply because they cannot or will not adhere to the rules.

The rules.  Basic things like no drinking, no drugging, no fighting, no yelling, no exposing yourself, no relieving yourself outside of the bathroom.  The kinds of things that most of us take for granted.

Some would be thrown out of a shelter in a hot minute due to inability to adhere to these rules.  Others stay away due to addictions that make it near to impossible for them to comply with such rules.  And then there are those who are simply freedom lovers, who don’t like to be told what to do and believe that rules do not apply to them.  Is that really a serious enough offense to warrant a death sentence?

There is not a lot of sympathy out there for those who fall into this last category.  Many of us don’t care what happens to them, justifying their position with the belief that whatever disaster befalls them is of their own doing.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?”  “I don’t know,” he replied.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Genesis 4:9 (NIV)

Homeless in the Rain

It’s raining.

For the past two nights, and now all day long, we listen to the tap tap tap against our bedroom window.  Several of the local roads in this area have already been closed to traffic due to flooded intersections.

And it’s only supposed to get worse.  Some weather reports indicate that we may be in for eight straight days of rain.  The meteorologists speak of an “atmospheric river” whooshing in from the Pacific Ocean, pouring down buckets of water upon us and, as if that weren’t enough, raising the temperature sufficiently to cause the Sierra snowpack to melt.  Local governments are handing out sandbags to help homeowners fend off rising floodwaters that are expected to cause local creeks and rivers to crest within the next few days.

Perhaps California’s seven-year drought will finally come to an end (if we don’t all drown first).

Still, we have it better than some parts of the state that are only a few hours’ drive away.  Interstate 80 was shut down yesterday due to snow, ice and plenty of spun-out vehicles between Sacramento and Reno.

Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with a few of my professional contacts on the edges of the state.  In Alpine County, I was told, the snow was coming down apace.  And in Modoc County, in the northeastern corner of the state, tucked beside the Oregon and Nevada borders, I was told that the temperature had plummeted to thirty degrees below zero.  In California, of all places.  At work, we worry about the elderly who may not have sufficient heat to ride out such conditions, and who may face the very real possibility of freezing to death in their own homes.  I dare not mention the homeless, although on most days you can look out the windows of our downtown skyscraper and see them on the street, invisible in plain sight.

Then there was the evening a few days ago when I was barely able to leave my workplace due to winds that were gusting above 40 miles per hour.  Did I mention that a good gust of wind takes my breath away and sets off a panic attack?

I can’t imagine what hell our local homeless population must be going through during this horrible weather.  Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see those without a roof over their heads huddled in sleeping bags or blankets on sidewalks, in parking lots, in any nook or corner where they have half a chance of being left alone and maybe catching a few hours of sleep.

Last week in this space, I mentioned the Housing First initiative, the concept that the homeless should be provided with permanent housing, no questions asked.  The idea is that the intractable problems that come along with homelessness, including alcoholism, drug addiction and a variety of mental and physical illnesses, can be more effectively addressed when one has a warm, safe place to call home, complete with a bed and food in the refrigerator.  It seems so obvious to me:  What the homelessness need are homes.  After all, how are you supposed to get sober when you’re cold, wet, hungry and an easy target for crimes large and small?  How are you supposed to chase away your demons when you’re forced to live every minute of your life subject to the reprovingly judgmental/pitying/disgusted gaze of the public?  When the urgent need to urinate can land you in jail?  How are you supposed to benefit from any 12-step program, counseling or medical care when the lingua franca of the streets is alcohol and drugs?  It just doesn’t seem like a very realistic expectation.

On my way home from work, I call 911 to report a woman with her belongings in a shopping cart who is blocking traffic, standing on the light rail tracks, yelling and waving objects at passers-by.  I fear that she will be run over by the train or by the rush of commuter traffic.  Mea culpa.

The above remarks notwithstanding, I never cease to be amazed by the way that keeping an open mind when you think you know something can teach you just how little you really do know about a subject.  In this case, what hit me right between the eyes was a pair of articles I read this week about the downside of Housing First initiatives.  I shake my head as I once again witness how easy it is to become so hung up on the beauty of a rock that you never take time to lift it and see what horrors are crawling on the underside thereof.

Both articles are about the Fort Lyon rehab facility, located in Bent County, in the remote Arkansas Valley of eastern Colorado.  It is a ready-made place of refuge, I read, a bucolic paradise, the anti-California.  This is a place where homeless alcoholics and drug addicts from the streets of places like Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo can voluntarily go for up to two years to work on staying sober, to rewrite the addiction scripts to which their brains are committed and to work on re-creating a life that they may not have had for decades, if ever.  There are very few requirements of residents, other than attending a community gathering three mornings each week.  Residents can attend recovery meetings or not, can take community college classes or not, can walk the extensive grounds at will, or can pretty much lay low and do nothing.  What they cannot do is drink or do drugs, both offenses that yield the consequence of “catching the 105,” the van back to Denver.  The idea is that graduates of the program will have enough months or years of sobriety to prepare them either to reenter the workforce or, at the very least, to benefit from supportive housing without killing themselves in the process.

In his Pacific Standard article, “A Sober Utopia,” journalist Will McGrath quotes Fort Lyon rehab center director and co-founder James Ginsburg, on the subject of what can happen to long-term homeless substance abusers who finally get into their own housing.  Rather than using the opportunity to get sober and stay clean, many of them take advantage of their comfort and solitude to get high in peace, often dying in the process.  “Having run Housing First, the thing that really motivated me to open this place was walking in on people dead in their housing,” he said.  McGrath paints us quite a picture of what Ginsburg was talking about.  “These were people who had moved into apartments through his programs.  He found one man with a needle still in his arm.  Another was slumped backwards in a recliner, a lethal cocktail of rubbing alcohol and orange juice at his side.”

Furthermore, among those who do get clean once taken off the streets and placed in housing, the rate of recidivism is high.  So what looks shiny on the outside might be rotten on the inside.  “There’s a little bit of a dirty secret about Housing First,” says Ginsburg, “and that is the addiction part of it.  Housing First will always claim a high retention rate.  That’s after one year.  But if you look, every year it drops, and, after five years, it’s maybe half of what it was.”

But the other article I read about Fort Lyon, written by Alan Prendergast in Westword, points out that even those who agree to enter such a program may suffer the same fate as those who go directly into supportive housing, particularly as months and years go by following “graduation.”   The article quotes Colorado Senator Pat Steadman on the issue:  “One of the big challenges is that nobody has agreed upon the definition of success for Fort Lyon.  What they’ve been giving us is these metrics about how many people met their goals.  Well, what are their goals?  If they met a goal of two months’ sobriety, are they better off today?”

Both articles describe how the staff of Fort Lyon supports residents in their projects and life goals that extend beyond merely staying sober.  Former addicts have opened a bicycle repair shop, started a business making and selling kaleidoscopes or one collecting scrap metal while residents at For Lyon.  There is plenty of art and music for those inclined to express themselves in that manner, including murals painted onsite and at the elementary school in town and a hard rockin’ house band.  Indeed, there are those who argue that programs like Fort Lyon work due to the provision of support that isn’t found on the street and because of the sense of community that is forged independent of drinking, drugs and day-to-day survival.  It’s the kind of support that we routinely provide to our kids as they grow up — support that many of the homeless never received at that time in their lives (or ever).  The Housing First skeptics point out that no one obtains such support by sitting alone in a rent-free apartment and attending a counseling session or a 12-step meeting once a week or so.  The lack of community leaves one to his or her own devices.  Too often, those involve falling back into destructive patterns that are participants’ sources of familiarity and comfort.  Those who work with addicts often speak of the need for rewiring the brain, which is hard work that can’t be accomplished merely by providing a roof over one’s head and a bed to crawl into.

So which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Is the Housing First initiative correct in its assertions that the homeless need the safety and security of homes before they can begin to work on their underlying problems?  Or is the rehabilitative model championed at places like Fort Lyon correct in the idea that those who have been on the streets for decades need a couple of years of sobriety, clean living and support before they are ready to be provided with their own housing?

The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the middle.  I suggest this not to be noncommittal, but because I don’t believe that there is a “one size fits all” solution.  Everyone is different, a premise that is honored by the currently popular “person-centered” focus of public assistance.  Some homeless individuals may thrive in independent housing, while others require a heavily supportive gradual reintegration into the broader society.  It is true that what the homeless need are homes, but that isn’t all that they need.

When I was a kid growing up in New York City, I constantly heard adults speak of “the projects” (and the residents thereof) with open disdain.  While some of this attitude was undoubtedly rooted in racism, the fact remains that many of the grand experiments consisting of high-rise basic housing units constructed in places like New York and Paris during the 1960s and 1970s were utter failures, eventually bulldozed following decades of crime, drugs, rats, roaches and (dare I say it) a plethora of fatherless babies.  Charges of “warehousing” persist in my native New York, where housing is a right, even if it may consist of a decrepit motel room, far from access to employment and adequate services, on the edges of the city out by the Kennedy Airport remote parking structures.  The drugs, crime and filth persist, and periodically, the inherent inadequacy of such facilities comes to the fore such as the day a few weeks before Christmas when two toddlers, sisters, were splashed all over the front pages of newspapers throughout the country after a steam valve blew off in their temporary housing and they were both burned to death.

I have held conversations with those who believe that no one has any incentive to take care of what is given to them.  The idea, as I understand it, is that those who put their blood, sweat and hard-earned money into something are going to take care of it, but that something that costs nothing is worth nothing.  By extension, this leads to the argument that the homeless don’t “deserve” homes because they don’t appreciate them.  The converse of this argument, of course, asks how on earth someone is supposed to appreciate a home when he or she has never had one?  The survival mechanisms that many of us look down upon with such distaste may be all that some of our brethren have ever known, or may at least be patterns deeply ingrained from decades of playing the same internal song over and over on an endless loop.

There are still a lot of us who treat the homeless not as our fellow man, deserving of compassion, deserving of being treated as we would be treated ourselves, but as non-humans, animals who belong out in the wild, exposed to the elements and the law of the jungle.

And yet it rains.  And I wonder where Roy from the Food Source parking lot is holing up tonight and whether he is managing to stay dry in the current deluge.

I have some nickels and dimes for him.

 

Happy New Year to the Homeless

post-office-hours

Now that we’ve reached last day of the year, my wish for 2017 is that we finally step up and provide the homeless what they need:  Homes.

We have made strides in that direction in recent years.  I am impressed with measures taken by state and local governments across this great nation of ours.  But we still have a long way to go.

The state of Utah has pulled off the substantial feat of nearly eliminating homelessness.  It accomplished this by means of the Housing First initiative, a program that acknowledges the fact that it is nearly impossible to deal with underlying problems such as mental illness and drug addiction while one’s life is constantly in peril on the streets.  The success of the idea is predicated on jettisoning preconditions (such as testing clean of drugs) for obtaining housing.

Of course, Utah has never had a homelessness problem on the scale of, say, Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.  The cost of housing in such urban locales, along with an insufficient stock of rent controlled apartments and long waiting lists, sends homeless people seeking help into temporary housing rather than permanent homes.  But at least New York City law recognizes housing (of some kind) is a right.  It may end up being a motel room out by Kennedy Airport, but that’s arguably better than risking hypothermia in the freezing cold.

Homeless Californians, including those right here in Sacramento, don’t enjoy the guarantee of housing.  But at least we’ve opened warming centers on nights when the temperature drops below 40 degrees.  Previously, they’d only open when the temperature dropped below freezing on three consecutive nights.  Small steps in the right direction, just as we all hope for when we make New Year resolutions.

So, in 2017, I hope we can do better for Roy, for the old guy who hangs out at the local supermarket and to whom we sometimes give our loose change.

I hope we can do better for the motley crew who hang out at McDonald’s on Richards Boulevard, at least until they’re chased away by security.

I hope we can do better for the homeless with their blankets, bed rolls and shopping carts who hang out downtown near where I work, sleeping on sidewalks and in the doorways of commercial buildings after hours.

I hope we can do better for the young man who walked into the Chinese restaurant where we were eating dinner, begging for a free meal and being thrown out emptyhanded.

And I hope we can do better for the lady whom I found lying on a blanket on the floor of our local post office, surrounded by her worldly belongings.  I stepped over her on the way to our post office box.  Later, we returned to bring her food, but she was gone, likely chased out.  This happened several months ago, back when the post office lobby was open 24/7.  Now the lobby closes at 7 pm during the week and at five on weekends.

A sign in the post office warns the homeless that sleeping in the lobby is not permitted.

no-sleeping-in-lobby

The answer, pasted on the window by one of our neighbors, an unknown member of our community and a fellow human being, reads “Do not lock this door!  This is my bedroom.”

po-sign

I, for one, am ashamed.

With best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year to all.

 

 

“Cost of Living” is a Relative Term

I read an interesting article today that claims one must earn at least $100,000 annually just to get by living in a major international city such as New York, London or Tokyo.  To live comfortably, the article states, one must earn $200,000 annually.

And I thought California was expensive.

The author points to an interesting dichotomy that illustrates the vast differences in living standard that occupation and location can entail.  While, on one hand, earning $100K annually would place one within the top 10% to 15% of incomes in the United States, on the other hand, incomes of that caliber are now standard in New York City for a first year finance industry associate, doctor or lawyer.  And about that seemingly elusive $200K income?  Pretty much the norm for a 30- to 32-year old second year associate in one of the above-mentioned professions.

Don’t choke on your beverage, please.  Breathe.

I am not sure how to place this information in perspective.  I have a law degree and have worked in management for decades but don’t earn a fraction of those six-figure incomes.  But at least I have a job.  Of course, I’m a do-gooder who works in the public sector and I reside in Sacramento, not New York.  The cost of living here, which seems sky high to me, is nowhere near what one must bear to live, say, two hours down the road in San Francisco.

Growing up in New York, I never thought about money.  I know I didn’t have adequate appreciation for the fact that my parents each worked demanding jobs in the public schools and, together, probably just earned enough to get by.  This was true even though the price of their brand new 1967 station wagon was $2,700 and the price of a new home on a ¾ acre lot was about ten times that.  Most people couldn’t swing that kind of money and, like my aunt and uncle, continued for decades to live in tiny, roach-infested, rent-controlled apartments from which you could walk to the subway.  When my parents were just about ready to finish their 30-year suburban mortgage, they sold their house and moved to California.  By that time, the house was already starting to fall apart.  But that was more than 20 years ago, and the couple to whom my parents sold their house still own it, according to Zillow.  I’ll drive by it when we’re in New York next month and let you know what it looks like these days.

When I graduated from college in 1980, I applied for a job in New York City that came with a salary of $5,000 annually.  My father told me not to bother with it, as it would cost me that much just to commute from our suburban home, where I was living for free, into Manhattan every day.  I would essentially be working for nothing, donating my labor.  Instead, I took a job at a local print shop, pulling night shift for more than twice what I would have earned in the city.  After a year, I moved over to a union shop that paid more than eight dollars an hour.  I thought I was rich.

How times have changed.

To counterbalance the inflated salaries earned by professionals in New York (and to counteract the effects of my agape visage that was letting in flies), I read another article about how some New Yorkers get by on an income of zero.  You read that right, zero.  And I’m not talking about homeless individuals, either.

There will always be resourceful people who manage to “squat” in vacant apartments.  I imagine that the temptation to go this route must be high among low- or no-income New Yorkers who are willing to rough it a little (or a lot).  I think of the Manhattan home that author Jeannette Walls’ mother made for herself (as described in Walls’ best selling memoir The Glass Castle).  She was a freegan, also known as a dumpster diver, as was Marie, the zero-income New Yorker described in the article linked to above.  Marie was not a squatter, but instead had a great living situation in a three-story home.  She took care of the place and, in return, was allowed to live there for free.  So, technically, The Guardian is incorrect in characterizing Marie as having had no income.  Although she did not receive a paycheck, she obtained what the IRS calls “in kind income.”  Then again, I doubt that Marie, who was in this country illegally, ever paid a dime in federal, state or city taxes.

Most industrialized nations do not have a homelessness problem on the scale that the United States does.  This is partially due to the fact that, in most countries, you don’t need a six-figure income to get by (nor does one need that kind of income in many areas of the United States).  Another factor is that the deeply-ingrained American consumerist culture doesn’t exist in many parts of the world, so the concept of “getting by” has an altogether different meaning there than it does here.  Yet another factor is that most developed nations recognize that having a roof over one’s head is a right, not a privilege.

Unlike in Sacramento, municipal law in New York City does recognize a right to housing, even if that means sending an entire family to squeeze into a tiny motel room out in the hinterlands by JFK Airport.  Of course, New York still has a large homeless population, among which are many who are mentally ill and/or are alcoholics or addicts who are unwilling or unable to follow the rules by which one must abide to remain in a shelter or other city housing arrangement.

My father longs for the old days, when no one received a handout and everyone was entitled to exactly what their earnings would purchase and not a penny’s worth more.  He told me that he likes the way that the homeless were summarily driven in a police car to the city limit and informed that if they ever returned, they would receive free housing in a jail cell.  My thought was:  This explains “hobos.”  You had to move from place to place if no place would allow you to stay.

I’m glad we live in a (somewhat) more compassionate society today.  Here in Sacramento, homelessness seems to have blown up as a major issue in the news lately.  This is at least partially attributable to the publicity surrounding the destruction of homeless encampments by law enforcement both here and in the Central Valley (Sacramento has an “anti-camping” ordinance).  It also helped that some of those displaced by the police demonstrated their ire by camping out at city hall.  Many were arrested but, upon release, immediately returned to city hall with their sleeping bags or tents.  Out came the TV camera crews and, all of a sudden, homelessness is in the news again.  While homelessness is right under our noses every day, we choose to ignore it in “emperor’s new clothes” fashion.  So it is refreshing that homelessness has lately become a popular topic of discussion in our local area.

I often make self-deprecating remarks about the fact that I live in a two-room mouse hole and pay handsomely for the privilege.  But at least I don’t have to own a sleeping bag or a shopping cart and I don’t have to lie down on the sidewalk in the rain and the cold, as many do downtown each evening.

And I don’t have to get my dinner from a dumpster.

 

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.”