An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.
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.
On the phone at work today, I found myself stuck on hold for nearly half an hour with a social service agency in a county about 300 miles away. What surprised me was the recorded message that played over and over. Actually, it was quite cleverly done. But what I heard sent a chill up my spine.
The recording consisted of the voices of children, both girls and boys, of various ages, many of them extremely young. One by one, they told their stories in a single sentence each:
“I am not a punching bag.”
“I need a place to call home.”
“I can’t reach my potential without you.”
“I am not a toy.”
“I need a family.”
“I am not invisible.”
And finally, the voice of a three year old.
“I need you.”
My eyes began to tear up, so I turned to face the window. Um, you know, men just aren’t supposed to do that, and particularly not at work.
I felt like an idiot. There I was feeling put upon because I had to sit on hold (and was getting paid for it), while just out of sight were children in desperate need of families, whose entire lives had been placed on hold, often for years.
For a very long time I had thought about adopting or becoming a foster parent. Something always got in the way, however. Either I was living in a tiny one bedroom apartment or I was working a zillion hours or I was with a woman who had no interest whatever in children. Then the inevitable happened: I got old and disabilities caught up with me, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing a child into my life.
But dreams don’t fade away so easily. They die hard. So before I could close the cover on this particular book, I managed to convince myself to become a mentor with the Big Brothers program. This was quite a few years ago, when we were living in Fresno in California’s Central Valley. I was matched to a teenager who, despite multiple disabilities, managed to live a full and vibrant life. This young man’s mental and emotional issues frequently threw me for a loop; he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident at the age of two. We usually got together for a few hours on the weekend and I never really knew what he would come up with. We went out for breakfast or lunch (his favorite was Hometown Buffet, where he could eat me under the table), went to the movies, went to the video arcade, played board or computer games. He taught me Dungeons and Dragons; I taught him Scrabble.
More than anything else, my friend taught me patience. He used a hearing aid and was unable to gauge the volume of his own voice. This could create embarrassing situations in quiet places like bookstores or movie theaters. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and would regale me with his endless takes on theology and his beloved science fiction, often combining the two seamlessly. He wanted to look at the porno room at the video store (and was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him in there) and, on a number of occasions, asked me questions that, um, I had to suggest that he redirect to his mother. He never had a father.
I know perfectly well that I wasn’t much of a male role model for that year, but I guess it was better than nothing. That’s the funny thing about kids: They don’t judge you. They just take you as they are. They are appreciative of whatever time and attention you are able to give them.
They don’t care that you’re not perfect, because to them, you’re perfectly fine. Somehow they don’t see your dents, your creases, your insecurities, your creaking bones. They’re just glad that they mean enough to you that you keep showing up. So you do. Even when you don’t particularly feel like it. Even when you want to sleep late because it’s Sunday and you were out at a party the night before. Even when you just don’t want to deal with it today.
You get in your car. And you go. And you see his smile when you pull up to the place he and his mother call home in a dilapidated trailer park.
Then he gets in the car and you have to remind him to buckle up because he’s blurting out a joke that he’s been waiting three days to tell you. It’s not even very funny, but he starts laughing uproariously and then you feel a smile slowly creep over your face and then you’re laughing too because your health problems and your messes at work and your money woes all fade away in an instant.
And you wonder who has given the gift to whom.
Oh, and by the way, they’re waiting for you. Right now. Boys and girls who need you desperately.
Call your county or city social service agency today. Adopt. Be a foster parent. Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.
“I need a family.”
“I am not invisible.”
“I need you.”