When Wildfire Comes to Town

And still the Camp Fire burns in Butte County, California. Four days after walls of flame that seemed to appear out of nowhere roared through the community of Paradise, destroying homes, melting cars and even burning residents alive, the fire remains only 25% contained.

I live near Sacramento, 90 miles south of the inferno, a safe distance from the scenes of tragedy, but close enough to be reminded just by stepping outside. The persistent smoke that has blanketed the area has made the air dangerous to breathe. The local fire department has begun distributing face masks free of charge.

Smoke blankets the area on Saturday. Photo taken on Interstate 80 heading west into Sacramento County.

The sun glowed an eerie iridescent orange as the sky became covered by smoke on Saturday in Placer County, east of Sacramento.

 

Some of the evacuation shelters are now full. Many taking refuge there are elderly, disabled or both. Free food and clothes are being distributed in the Wal-Mart parking lot in nearby Chico, while houses of worship, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and generous volunteers all assist in providing for the immediate needs of the displaced. Everyone is doing his or her part.

It is so encouraging to see a community come together in a time of crisis. And yet I wonder about who will see to the long-term needs of those wandering about like dazed zombies, having narrowly escaped the conflagration with only a car or a pet, or in some cases, with only the clothes on their backs. What of the victims six months down the road? Think about it. Who can afford to buy a new trailer? Who happens to have a down payment on a new home just hanging around waiting to be spent? What happens to the victims when the spinning news cycle moves on and everyone forgets?

And what of the homeless in our area who were lucky enough to be outside the fire zone, who were not burnt out but who have resorted to living on the streets for years as a result of a variety of other unfortunate circumstances? Where is the community outpouring of support for these people?

Homelessness is an equal opportunity scourge and we need to take a no-fault approach just the same as we do with auto liability insurance. The love that I see expressed in so many ways toward the victims of the Camp Fire warms my heart. Now we need to extend it to all those in need. Not just at Christmas and when wildfire comes to town.

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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.

 

Suspended, and Standing on Its Head

When we were kids, my parents would occasionally take us to play in a park that had a jungle gym.  My sisters, two and four years younger than myself, would love nothing better than to mount the monkey bars, traversing from one end to the other, hand over hand, swinging like orangutans all the way.  Fat and lazy, I had no interest in any activity remotely athletic, and would look about for somewhere to sit and watch.  My father would record the action on black and white film or with a Super 8 movie camera, occasionally swiveling around to zoom in on me, sitting at a picnic table and staring off into space.

At home, we had a standard issue suburban swing set in the back yard.  My favorite part was the glider, because the bench was wide and I didn’t have to perch as one must on the swings or teeter-totter.  Big plus:  It was nearly impossible to fall off the glider.

My sisters, by contrast, preferred flying as high as possible on the swings, preferably in a standing position, or grabbing the top bar to perform all manner of one-handed and two-handed flips and gyrations.  When not on the swing set, gymnastics was their thing.  They could do cartwheels and somersaults and walk on their hands, but our mother wouldn’t allow them to do the split, claiming it would damage their insides and give them trouble when it came time to have babies.

When my grandparents came to visit, Grandpa and I would sit on the back deck or descend the stairs into the yard, watching my sisters’ acrobatic antics all the while.  “Can you do that?” he’d ask me sarcastically upon observing some gravity-defying flip.  I’d glare at him with hatred.  If only I’d had enough guts to ask whether he could imitate my sisters.

Among my sisters’ most amazing feats, at least in my opinion, was the headstand.  They’d often ask me to hold their legs so that they could get into the proper position without tipping over.  Then I’d step back and they’d be able to hold the pose for longer than I thought humanly possible.

I was reminded of this recently while playing with my little grandniece, holding her legs up so she could stand on her head on the soft couch.  I guess I’ve always found something appealing about flipping upside down, standing on one’s head to view the world from a different perspective.

One thing I’d like to invert and stand on its head is the Suspended Coffee movement that has gained some press in recent years.  The idea is to help the poor by performing a particular random act of kindness, namely paying for an extra coffee so that someone who cannot afford one can later come into the coffee shop and get a drink for free.  It’s supposed to be a feel-good kind of thing, not unlike paying for the order of the car behind you at the Starbucks drive-through.  Even though this costs businesses nothing (the “free” coffee being given out has already been paid for), most coffee shops won’t have anything to do with suspended coffees.  Certainly the big chains, such as Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee and Tea refuse to get involved.  I’ve read that coffee shops complain that it is takes too much time and effort to keep track of how many coffees have been paid for in advance.  Even in the shops where suspended coffees are available, I can’t help wondering whether a homeless person dying for a cuppa joe must settle for plain black, or whether he can actually glom onto a caramel macchiato.

Today I looked up the nearest location at which I might purchase a suspended coffee for someone in need.  The place is 116 miles away.  Despite the fact that some businesses around the world have latched on to the suspended coffee movement, the fact is that in most places it simply is not available.

Considering that the coffee is paid for first and poured later, the reticence of coffee shops irks me more than a little.  After all, we’re not asking them to donate anything.  Not that asking them to donate to the poor would be out of line, when one realizes the obscene profits that the coffee chains earn each year.

I say let’s stand the suspended coffee movement on its head, much as my sisters loved to do as kids.  Let the coffee be given out to those in need, and let a mark be made on a chalkboard or in a ledger for those who wish to contribute to pay for it later.  After all, there are a few establishments where those with little money can have a snack or a meal and pay what they are able.  Panera Bread has done this successfully in some locations, giving the lie to the notion that huge corporations must necessarily value profit over community.  Those who can afford to pay more than the cost of their meal do so, which offsets the cost of the food of customers who can pay little or nothing.  Some economists insist that this model cannot work in the long run, while others shy away from the pay-what-you-can idea as “socialism.”

Slogans for the pay-what-you-can movement include “take what you need, leave your fair share” and “so all may eat.”  The idea that food should be a right, not a privilege, is an old one.  That this is viable within a profit-making businesses, courtesy of generous customers, is what is new.

And yet food service businesses balk and scoff.  Why give out a free coffee and hope that someone else will pay for it at an unspecified later time when such time may never arrive?  This attitude indicates a lack of faith in our fellow man.

National chains (and small local establishments, too) justify their actions by claiming that they engage in charitable giving annually and that it’s their choice to stay away from the pay-what-you-can “gimmick.”

But what do you expect?  When coffee shops refuse to join the suspended coffee movement in which products are paid for in advance, I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect them to stand on their heads and give out food that may or may not be paid for by others.

The bottom line is that it’s just so much easier to simply say “no” to those in need.