Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Public Conversations on Homelessness

August 1, 2016 A Public Conversation on Homelessness
By Wanda Sabir

The meeting this evening about the issue of homelessness was not representative. There were no black men on the panel and black men are most impacted by this endemic civic problem. Black men are what drew me to investigate. I wondered why so many men, older men were without housing. Many are on the streets because of prison records which often leaves them disqualified for federal support whether this is housing, jobs, school tuition or medical treatment. Not all of the men are mentally ill; however, the streets take a lot out of a person and after the state takes its chunk, not a lot is left on the table when the socio-economic and political tidal waves threaten one’s human dignity. Black men find it hard to ride the surf, especially when they can’t see land.

There are no pigeons or dove sightings on the horizon. Instead the men look down instead of up. What is so interesting at their feet? Is it shame or a form of disappearance?  If I don’t look you in the eye, we can pretend I do not exist or at least that this is not happening.

When stability is a part of the therapeutic necessity for wellness, bones and flesh separate as necessity dictates the order of the day.

Eloquent in his use of his experience to talk about the encampment he resides, Andy Standfield, a white man cleaned up has access to a completely different world than that experienced by black men. When officials look at him, they are not defensive, ready to fight and kill—if necessary. Cleaned up this evening, Andy knew the protocol—he’d mastered the power narrative and could sit comfortably with a scholar, homeless advocate, and a city official, not to mention the business owners, professionals and activists in the audience.

If he wasn’t on the bill, no one would have placed him in the corrective box—one allocated to miscreants and outsiders. To be homeless is not to lose one’s humanity which is something one can lose so easily when shamed or ignored.  

There was a business owner who vented in her first statement after panel opening statements, then asked questions and made recommendations in the end. I wonder how good a neighbor I would be if the encampment was across the street from my apartment. Would I feel comfortable enough to have an encampment as a neighbor? Encampments attract illegal dumpers. This is the most visual aspect of the phenomena, but I know the residents do not create the debris.

The room was not representative of the problem facing under-housed citizens. The problem is massive, however, public spaces where those who are most effected are not present, undermines any practical solutions offered. If the goal is to be inclusive and guided by those whose lives we want to improve the quality of, then we have to make sure that we make such public opportunities for engagement convenient.

To have a white man represent the face of homelessness in Oakland, undermines the reality which looks quite differently. Cleaned up, no one would know Andy was not on the board for the downtown business merchants who are partnering with their encampment neighbors to keep their shared community safe and clean. Andy mentioned mental health as the reason for his loss of job and housing twice. However, the men I have spoken to at the 35th and Peralta and Wood Street encampments mentioned by Brigitte Cook, City of Oakland, Community Liaison for District 3, have felony convictions which in the past might disqualify most of them from public housing. Cook stated that the City of Oakland continued to look for a place to set up a “legal” encampment with services like bathroom, garbage and supportive services. The City is looking to pilot such a project with select encampment residents such as those living on 35th and Peralta.

Besides Cook and Standfield, other panelists at “A Public Conversation on Homelessness” at the Oakland Metro Opera House, August 1, were: Elaine de Coligny, Executive Director,
EveryOne Home; and Peter Radu, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, San Francisco and Co-Author, A Place To Be, Report with UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy.

Reasons for Homelessness

On Wood Street in Oakland at the encampment
The Auset Movement has adopted, one woman told us both she and her partner lost their jobs and with it their housing. Another woman said that she was being evicted and left so that she would not have the eviction on her credit report. She was told over a year ago that she would be first to get another place, so she refused to buy or accept a tent. She says she did not want to get comfortable. It has been almost two years now. Earlier this year when storms were raging and the weather was cold, we bought and set up a tent for her. At that time, her mother was hospitalized. When her mother, disabled and in a wheelchair, was sent home, she gave the tent to her.

Another woman in this encampment, Janie, says that she is waiting to get aide. She has been waiting for almost nine months now. Darlene does not have identification and the prospect of getting an identification card presents so many issues, we see her sitting in front of her shelter sorting, then storing recyclable items which she does not recycle. The shopping carts full of cans and bottles and other items stretch for several yards. When driving by, we see Darlene stopping to pick up cans and bottles as she walks to Peets for coffee in the morning.

A young woman I met on Wood Street, who is no longer there, told me about the job she once had advocating for young women like herself who had children and unstable housing.  She was able to keep these women out of the system by offering the women jobs or training, housing, childcare and other supportive services. Janie said her mother did similar advocacy work. It is ironic that the young woman’s mother took her child from her and refuses to let her see her daughter. One Sunday after breakfast, she gave Lisa daughter, Samira (11) a doll.  Samira was helping us serve that morning.

Further up Wood is another encampment. In July we met men with big rigs parked there. We also met other men, black men, who have built permanent housing.  These tiny abodes have kitchens, dens and studies. We saw within these public spaces an opportunity to expand the notion of community development. Not unlike the kinds of human relationships which develop in harsh or challenging circumstances, found in natural and manmade disasters – homelessness is a common variable which on a positive note allows people to choose how they want to interact and at what level of permanence they want to live.

Safety is a challenge and since these communities are outside the municipal structure, police do not necessarily protect these citizens’ property or persons. In fact, these public servants are often the cause of distress. I hear of police trashing residents’ belongings and roughing people up. One man’s brother, who was in a wheelchair, father of two, was picked up and beaten so severely, he died.

At the meeting in August a white man hit a black woman several times. Nancy Halloran, Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless Program, saw him hit this woman and demanded he leave. After the meeting we learned that this man did not even know her. It is dangerous for women on the street. This is why many women live communally or are tough, like a young woman I met who lives in a Mercedes convertible. One Sunday, I gave her a jump. Girlfriend set a young man’s house on fire. He said, “I was being stupid.” He lost everything, but he says he learned a valuable lesson.

There were so few black people at this meeting – less than seven; it was really noticeable. Many of the business owners, one woman in particular, blamed the homeless encampment across from her shop for a recent theft. Towards the end of the meeting, her views on the homeless community had shifted quite a bit for the better. Conversations like this are ways to demystify and humanize the homeless.  As long as the homeless are absent from the dominant discourse, the power differential will not shift.

Savlan Hauser, Executive Director, Jack London Improvement District, who moderated the discussion stated at the beginning of the meeting that the gathering was to look at ways business and the homeless encampment residents in this area of Oakland can work together in ways that are mutually beneficial. Present in the audience were Ambrosia Sharpiro, Bay Area Community Involvement Coordinator, Covenant House California; Chris Boss, Operations Manager, Block by Block, and others. I do not think anyone was present from the Federal government’s Housing Urban Development (HUD). Perhaps next time, the federal government will be invited, so something can change.

Alameda Community Meeting to discuss their Homeless Issue, Sept. 27

Almost two months later, in another city, Alameda, I attend a similar meeting at the Mastick Senior Center. Alameda has so few homeless people, one police officer, now two, are liaisons between the municipality and the homeless population. To illustrate this, I saw the police chief call a few of the men who attended to meeting by name, and when they got emotional and couldn’t wait their turn to speak— a change in Police Chief Paul Rolleri’s tone of voice and instructions to his men, quickly quieted down an impending ruckus.

Up to now the homeless “problem” in Alameda seems to be concentrated in the West End of the Island town where there is a huge gated lot which is allocated for a
the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park. At that time, the encampment which is not visible from the street, will have to go. Residents will get 30 day notices, however, presently, there is no housing for the people displaced when the time comes. (Near the entrance to the Webster Tube, on the Oakland side, the tents are increasing in number.)

Enter Operation Dignity. I have seen their calling cards next to evacuation notices at encampments The Auset Movement serves.  Finally I was able to put faces to the name.  Granted, I’d seen the founder, Vietnam War veteran, Alex McElree honored at “In the Name of Love,” the Martin Luther King Jr. event in January, but when I called
Operation Dignity to see if any of their people could come to the encampment on 35th and Peralta to do a needs assessment and offer services, I got the runaround and nothing happened.  

So I was not impressed. I thought OD was an arm of the Oakland Police Department or in this case Alameda Police Department. Judy and Tamika told us that what OD does is tame the natives.  No, no that’s not what they said, but if Tamika goes out with the mobile outreach team with food, toiletries and does a needs assessment yet cannot provide any shelter or even care, what is the point? Soon, this encampment will be displaced with nowhere to go. As I write this report, it is raining.

Since November of last year, The Auset Movement has purchased tents, clothes by the pound, blankets, tarps, socks, underwear, long underwear, hats, gloves, toiletries, first aid kits, nonperishable food items like trail mix, granola bars, canned goods with flip tops, water, toiler tissue, depends. When the rain storms caused flooding, RJ and I drove out to Public Works by the airport and got sandbags and took them to the encampment on Wood Street. We have been looking for permanent solutions, however as David Modersbach, Alameda County, Health Care for the Homeless Program, stated at the August 1st meeting, this problem is bigger than any one city. It is a federal problem and we need federal money to address it.

In the Q&A at the Alameda meeting at the Mastik Senior Center, one person asked the Taskforce what the plan was for a person who wanted to leave the encampment tonight. The answer, just as stated earlier, nothing. The wait is minimally 3 months Doug Biggs, Executive Director, Alameda Point Collaborative, stated. However, the wait is probably more like 6 months to a year. There were two women there who live in a car. She spoke of being on a list for housing at the base for at least two year, but each time her name moved up the list, the list would be purged and then she was have to start the climb all over again. All the tearful woman was told, was to come to the Dignity office when they open the next day. It would have been appropriate to get the woman’s number or talk to her right then. Evidently she is in crisis. 

People were clearly frustrated. No one wanted to be the one responsible for displacing or incarcerating homeless people, whether they were the loud couple just beyond his or her fence or a mentally ill elder. It didn’t make sense to hire Operation Dignity to do a needs assessment if the report is going to collect dust. There was lots of talk about drug use and domestic violence and mental illness among those who live at the encampments and visitors.  One man wondered why the police were not putting the offenders in jail.

A young woman spoke during the public comment about her mother who lives on the streets in Alameda. She is schizophrenia and refuses to live with her family or take her medications. The young woman does not want her mother criminalized, yet knows the option for traditional housing is not one her mother will accept. Other members of Alameda’s homeless community were also present. One older man made the link between his current situation and that of those in the room. Several other speakers acknowledged the shared humanity between those housed and those under housed. It was also noted that this is where a better assessment of needs could help the City of Alameda respond more effectively to these fellow citizens.

NIMBY was in the room, however, only one person directly addressed its presence. He stated that most of the homeless population were drug addicts. He named places where homeless people camp use drugs. He also pointed to how the island town has changed over the past 30-40 years with its growing development and influx of (undesirable) people. He asked the police chief why he wasn’t just locking people up for drug use and possession.

The Alameda police chief lamented the changed laws which reduced certain offences from felonies to misdemeanors. This means that people get ticketed for crimes like possession or use of drugs, not incarcerated. However, the situation which triggers the drug use was not addressed. Mobile mental health specialists were not mentioned. What was mentioned was that the City of Alameda, is resource poor.

There should be a public health plan implemented, since Alameda rents are increasing and the possibility of other people in the room with me becoming homeless is highly probable. Where the encampment is is a place where that is closed to public use. The lock on the gate is frequently broken off, probably by an Alameda resident who lives nearby, not by a homeless person, which then gives everyone an opportunity to “trespass.”
To his credit, the police chief said that he didn’t want to give trespassing tickets to people who were not able to pay them. If he gave tickets to homeless people who have set up housing there, he would also have to give tickets to people who walk their dogs there too. He also stated that he was not telling homeowners in the area to stop reporting disturbing behavior like loud noise, loose dogs and drug use.

A young couple played a taped conversation of a homeless couple whose tent is just outside their fence. The frequent arguments wake them in the wee hours of the night, and in the daytime the ruckus prevents them from taking their child outside to play in the garden.  In the recording, we hear two voices, one male, the other female. The voices are raised and heated as name calling and profanity pepper the dialogue. There is also physical violence – the homeless woman, the victim.

Alameda residents near Wood Street asked Dignity how they will address this nuanced problem. The hope is that by building relations with the homeless community within the encampment, they are address certain needs before they escalate; however, at 20 hours a week for a finite time, Dignity Housing will just be generating a report and making promises they might not be around to implement. Because as soon as construction starts the encampments will all be cleared away. There was no date given for this construction or the 30 day notices to residents, but it is imminent. Once the park construction is underway, there will be no encampments allowed. After the park is complete though, then everyone would be able to enjoy the park, the homeless included.

Paul Diggs, Alameda Point Collaborative, said that the list for public housing stock has been centralized. All intake is in Oakland and people do not necessarily choose where they live. If there is an urgency, the apartment might be in a city the person does not want to live in. What if a person wants to live in Alameda, yet the opening is in San Leandro. People don’t just want shelter, they want a home in a community they love.

When we left, the plan is for Operation Dignity to spend 20 hours a week getting to know the 50 or so homeless adults in Alameda. They will work with Alameda law enforcement officers who know the population well. At the meeting, the Chief knew people from encampments by name. He also knew many of the Alameda homeowners who were are the meeting.

The 50 adults does not include under-housed people or people living in cars and/or couch surfing.  Just across a bridge or through the Webster tube, just one Oakland encampment has more than 50 residents. At the Downtown Neighborhood District meeting in August a suggestion was to coordinate services and policies throughout the regions, Northern CA, San Francisco Bay Area so that policies, if not services in one municipality, match those in another. As the local and national housing stock shrinks further, because housing stock is economically inaccessible to a significant majority—single parents, veterans, mentally ill, disabled, the formerly incarcerated or convicted, people will move from city to city to find places where their needs are met.

On November 1, the City of Alameda will apply for a StopWaste state grant for funding to clean up hazardous materials from abandoned encampments.

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