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.

Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

When Help Doesn’t Help

It is sorely disappointing when you’ve tried to help a person again and again, only to be met with ingratitude in return. This is particularly so when it is evident that your efforts appear to have done nothing to improve his life.

Of course, when you start down the road of helping a needy individual, it is difficult to know when to stop. At what point does largesse cease being charitable and begin being enabling?

We had it out with Homeless Guy #1 the other day. I don’t regret that it happened; we said some things that have needed to be said for some time.

If you’ve followed A Map of California for a while now, you know that we’ve extended ourselves for this gentleman time and time again. We have fed him, provided him with new shoes, given him bus fare, purchased items he needed for his outdoor mode of living, given him extra pillows and blankets, counselled him, visited him in jail, allowed him to wash and dry his clothes in our laundry room and allowed him to use the church rest room so that caring for his bodily needs would not result in arrest on charges of indecent exposure.

This guy is a user in every sense of the word. He uses both drugs and people. His mental deficiencies, lack of social skills, substance abuse and anger management problems have left him unemployable, unhoused and in frequent trouble with the law. Recently, he served three months in the county jail on a string of felony charges, led by allegations of forcible rape. When the district attorney ran into difficulties with securing the testimony of their star witness (who now resides out of state), good old #1 was released on parole, his whereabouts monitored by an ankle bracelet. It is unlikely that he would have been paroled had he admitted to being homeless. Instead, he gave his mother’s address, leaving out the part about sleeping in a corner of the yard because his violence and vulgarity long ago got him banned from the house.

Homeless Guy #1’s lack of candor with law enforcement is now coming back to bite him. His problem is that he has no money to pay the ankle bracelet monitoring fees. So a few days ago, he visited the parsonage to demand money. When we refused due to our own financial difficulties, he began raising his voice and issuing a diatribe full of invective against the church in general and against us in particular.

Our friend is a master of excuses. Each time he asks for the key to the church rest room, we remind him to lock it when done. He has stopped complying with this simple request. He insists that he is unable to lock the door, although doing so is never a problem for anyone else. Leaving the rest room unlocked is convenient, as it allows him to sneak back in whenever he wants to spend some time indoors. The safety and insurance issues alone are daunting.

Pastor Mom finally told #1 that he is no longer welcome to use the church rest room. I was so glad to hear this. He should expect nothing less after carrying on about how we’ve made nothing but problems for him all along and how the church has never done anything to help him.

Maybe it makes me a bad person, but I hope I never see the guy again. The problem is that I know I will. That is, until the sheriffs finally come around and haul him off to state prison.

In the meantime, I remain disappointed and saddened that our efforts have been met with such blatant ingratitude. It brings out my cynical nature and makes me wonder whether some people just cannot be helped.

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Homeless Youth of California

No one really knows how many of California’s young people are homeless at any given time.  But on one day in the middle of the winter last year, a PIT count (a flash census — PIT stands for “point in time”) estimated the number to be about 15,000.  That’s 15,000 youngsters aged 12 to 24 sleeping under bridges and over heating grates, in cars, in shelters, in the woods or on someone’s couch.

I’ve known for some time that there are a lot of homeless young people, but I found this number to be truly appalling.  And that’s just for one state!

Many of these “throwaways” were abandoned at a young age or fled to escape homes marred by physical abuse, drinking and drugs.  On the street, they are frequently victims of sexual exploitation and encounter a downward spiral due to a life to day-to-day survival that prevents completion of high school and renders them unemployable.  They may find themselves with early and unplanned pregnancies, AIDS or malnutrition.

Among the greatest risks of homelessness among the young is aging out of the foster care system.  It has been estimated that about one out of every four foster children will become homeless upon turning 18.  The reasons for this are complex, and include such factors as a lack of family support, immaturity and the reluctance or inability of foster parents to continue to house their foster children after compensation from the state stops.

Drawing a bright line at the age of 18 makes no sense.  I fail to see the logic of stating “yesterday you were a foster child under the protection of the state, but happy birthday, today you’re on your own, go fend for yourself.”  Even the children of intact families are rarely in a position to support themselves the hot moment they turn 18.  So it’s really not a surprise that, after a childhood and adolescence of being bounced around from one placement to another, at the age of 18 foster kids fall off the edge of the earth.

I think of my late sister-in-law’s three children.  I didn’t know them when they were young, but they were removed from their drug addicted mother early in life.  This was fortunate, as my wife tells me stories of going to their apartment, only to find the kids without food and their mother gone.  One of my nephews was adopted as a baby, while my other nephew and his sister went into foster care.  They were fortunate to enter a stable foster home with committed parents and never had to go anywhere else.  All three are in their twenties and thirties now, and I am pleased to report that they turned out very well.  One is finishing up college and still living with his mom.  Another just celebrated the birth of his first daughter.  And the third has settled into her career and lives close enough to us that we are able to see her often.  What all of them have in common is that they never had to deal with homelessness.

Shouldn’t the story turn out that way for all of California’s foster children?

Visit the California Homeless Youth Project blog and read the touching stories of their struggles.

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That Homeless Guy in Your Living Room

So Homeless Guy #1 is finally out of jail.  For how long, I have no idea.

I gleaned a fairly good idea that his release was in the offing when I phoned the court last week to find out whether his case was on the docket for his scheduled trial.  No, the clerk told me, the judge had granted a motion to continue the trial due to the unavailability of witnesses.  I then asked whether the court had heard the motion in limine that had appeared on the calendar the day before.  The clerk didn’t know, but informed me that #1 had a whole string of motions set for hearing that afternoon, one of which was a motion for ankle bracelet monitoring.

That told me he was coming home.  But to what?  How do you parole a defendant to house arrest when he has no house to go to?

In this case, I suppose the court either didn’t know or didn’t care, as #1 had provided his mother’s address as his own.  He forgot to mention that his mother won’t let him in the house.  Oops.

Well, you know what?  I wouldn’t mention that fact either if I knew it might stand between me and (relative) freedom after being locked up in the pokey for three months straight.  Sleeping under the stars has to be a whole lot better than sleeping in a jail cell.

Homeless Guy #1 used to pitch a tent on the grass near the back edge of his mother’s property.  He had a sleeping bag, a Coleman stove and all sorts of stuff.  I have no idea what happened to his worldly chattels during his recent period of incarceration.

Given the circumstances, my hope was that perhaps his mother would give him a second (or 97th) chance and allow him under her roof.  I hear that a small pile of blankets has been seen out on the rear section of his mother’s lawn.  So much for that idea.

My guess is that house arrest doesn’t mean he actually has to stay in the house, just that he’ll be on the property.  Then again, it must not even mean that, as #1 has been seen wandering about the area.

A few days ago, as my wife and I prepared to head out the door at 6:45 in the morning, Pastor Mom got out of bed and started talking about how she should handle the situation.  The church is located just the other side of the fence from the verdant spot where #1 makes his bed in the great outdoors.  We knew he’d be showing up at the door of the parsonage.  And then what?

Pastor Mom told us that she had been praying about this and that what came to her was “innocent until proven guilty.”  I rankled at the very thought.  The man has been charged with a violent sex crime!  Yes, I believe in the American justice system, but I also see its imperfections.  Homeless Guy #1 is out on the street not because he’s innocent (although he may be), but due to the serendipitous intersection of a successfully argued motion and the jail overcrowding situation that we are currently experiencing here in California.

Sure, I like to think that he didn’t do it.  Homeless, mentally challenged people are easy targets for everyone, those who would like to take advantage of them as well as those who are charged with protecting them.  But what if he actually did commit this crime?

It’s possible that #1 will ultimately be acquitted due to lack of evidence, particularly if the district attorney fails to bring his witness back here from out of state.  My support of our justice system is not because I have confidence in its ability to distinguish guilt from innocence, but because it’s the best we’ve got.  I’ve yet to read about any superior system of justice.  The truth in this case is known only by God and the parties involved.  And I’m not so sure about the parties involved, considering that both of them have severe mental challenges.  I am not convinced that even they fully understand what did or did not happen.  After all, the allegations were made by a third party, not by the alleged victim.  I believe it is entirely possible that #1 may be convicted of a crime he did not commit or acquitted of a crime he did.

One thing we decided for sure is that #1 will not be permitted to enter our residence when our little grandniece is present.  That’s a risk we are not prepared to take.  Pastor Mom’s concern was about what we will do when he shows up at the door asking for food, coffee, water or ministry.

To me, it’s not about “innocent until proven guilty.”  We will never know what really happened.  In my humble opinion, however, it doesn’t matter.  When a homeless person is hungry, lonely or in need of spiritual guidance, I believe it is our duty to provide for his needs regardless of the sins of his past, present or future.  I’m pretty sure Pastor Mom would agree.

On Friday evening, I arrived home from work exhausted from the week, and walked through the door dragging my lunch bag behind me by its handle.  Lo and behold, there was Homeless Guy #1, relaxing in our living room.  He greeted me immediately and asked how my new job is going.  “Tiring,” I replied, “very tiring.”

As I headed into the kitchen to unpack the remains of my lunch, it occurred to me that #1’s misfortune could happen to any of us.  You never know what you could end up involved with.  Anyone can make a stupid mistake and end up in jail.  Anyone can find himself or herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyone can make a series of bad decisions or suffer a run of bad luck and end up homeless.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

That homeless guy in your living room could be me.