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.

 

The Purple Tree

purple tree

I drove into town to get the oil changed in our car today, and on the way home to the parsonage, I saw a family of six walking along the side of the road, every one of them decked out in red and white Santa hats.  Every last one of them, including the baby in the stroller.

Wow, so it’s really Christmas, huh?

As a New York boy, it never seems as if it’s really Christmas here in northern California.  The mild weather fools me every time.  With all the falling leaves, it feels more like October.

Sac fall color

I took this photo of downtown Sacramento’s fall color from halfway up the office tower in which I am currently employed.

All in all, this was quite a week.  We started out on Sunday with brunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants.  They have veggie fajitas right on the menu . . .

fajitas

. . .which I proceeded to make into tacos, thanks to the vegetarian black beans.

veggie tacos

This may not seem like such a big deal, but believe me, it is.  It’s delightful for once not to have to ask the server to have the cook make up something special, and no butter (no, not even margarine), and by the way, what type of oil do you cook with?  Congratulations, you have instantly become a problem customer.  Just don’t admit to being a vegan, whatever you do.  Better pretend to have severe food allergies.  Or tell them that you’re an Orthodox Jew and have to follow the kosher rules.  Hope they don’t ask you where your “Yamaha” is.  (Out in the parking lot, doofus.  It’s the one with the twin cams and the Star of David).

Monday was pay day, also a big deal when you only get paid once a month.  Pay bills, pay tithes, buy groceries, figure out the budget for the month.  If you really want that vegan coconut milk “ice cream” that costs four and a half dollars for a thimbleful, now’s the time to speak up.  Next week, there won’t be any money for it.  (Don’t cry, there’s always next month.)

Monday was also the first day back at work from our four-day break (Thanksgiving is the one and only time of year that we have one).  Down came my paper turkey from the dollar store and up went my purple Christmas tree, of similar pedigree (see photo above).  Matching purple bows were pinned up both inside and outside my tiny cubicle domain. Fa la la la la…

Although it rained for most of the trip down to and back from the Central Valley for my father’s 81st birthday last weekend, my coworkers report that there was barely a sprinkle here.  Tuesday, however, the heavens opened up over Sacramento.  The entire area instantly turned into a big soggy mess.  “The crops really need it,” I would hear a dozen times a day.  “Finally, a break in the drought.”

moon

As I left work on Tuesday evening, the nearly full moon attempted to show itself through the mass of clouds that had been watering the fields and roadways all day.

By Wednesday, immense puddles had formed all over the area.  We had a brunch at work for an employee returning from maternity leave.  I was able to help myself to orange juice and fresh fruit, and I brought in bagels for everyone to enjoy (along with some hummus as my personal substitute schmear for the cream cheese).

I wanted pasta and hot soup for dinner, so I asked my wife to bring Pastor Mom along when she picked me up from work.  We had a wonderful dinner (“Yes, the cook says we can make the sauce without cheese.  Yes, you can have olive oil instead of butter with the bread.”) and made our way northward toward home without incident, despite the continuing rain.

Thursday morning, many of my coworkers reported that they had a heck of a time getting home.  One person who works on my floor talked about having seen four cars literally floating down the freeway.  Welcome to California.  Dry or wet, it’s always a disaster.

At noontime on Thursday, it was still pouring down rain, but in the early afternoon the clouds parted a bit and the sun struggled to come out.  One by one, we all began to wander over to the picture window on our floor to gawk.  We were treated to this:

double rainbow

The photo does not begin to do this double rainbow justice.  It was a huge arc that gave the appearance of wrapping all of Sacramento in a giant embrace.  This was among the largest rainbows that I had ever seen, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Noah saw when God promised never again to destroy the world by flood.  Brighter times ahead.  Yes!

Thursday evening, we all took my sister-in-law out for her birthday.  We had a wonderful time (veggie tacos, hooray!), my niece and nephews showed up, and my two year old grandniece was in high spirits.  She wouldn’t stay in her high chair very much, so we passed her from hand to hand and only had to run after her once when she made her way down the steps and headed toward the restaurant exit.  When it was time to leave, our dear little one, entirely unprompted, offered each of her hands to my wife and myself.  Hold my hand and walk with me, auntie and uncle.  I will cherish this photo forever, my friends.

Hayden Donna Aron

Thursday night, I went to bed a happy boy.  And so, life being what it is, things proceeded directly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Friday.  Finally, the end of the week had arrived, so let’s go out with a bang, now shall we?  I won’t get into the details of the Friday follies that transpired at work (I am shaking my head just thinking about some of it) other than to describe the celebration we had in honor of the birthday of one of my coworkers.

On Thursday, some people were out, and those who were at work couldn’t decide whether we should have a brunch for my coworker or take her out to lunch.  The last I had heard, it was decided that it was too last minute to do anything.  And then on Friday, as noon approached, I was informed that we would be bringing in Vietnamese pho for lunch to celebrate my coworker’s special day.  Did I want beef or chicken?

Nooooo, not again!  I happened to be working away in my cubicle at the time, crunching on fresh radishes (hot ones!) dipped in hummus.  “I don’t eat meat at all,” I explained.  “I’m a vegan.  See? This is what I eat.  Carrots, radishes, hummus.”

“Oh, I was a vegetarian for six months once,” came the reply.  “Maybe just the noodle soup without the meat?”

Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Also, we had a meeting at which my boss (who is among the best supervisors I have ever had and whom I appreciate dearly) announced that he has found another job and is leaving.

I think I’ll go with crying.

And, uh, merry Christmas.