Many folks around here work hard to reach out to the homeless & provide for their material & spiritual needs, even though they don’t necessarily have much themselves, including: My friend Andrea & her family from the Mill Street Thrift Store; Pastor Pam & her husband Zack Tinnan from my church (the Guerneville Community Church on Armstrong Woods Road); Elisabeth Middelberg, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church; Betty & Tom Thoemke of the Guerneville Community Church; & Brian Plaugher (Music Director at the UCC in Sebastopol, Director of a local hospice, father of one of my daughter’s schoolmates & a major mover in getting the River Child Care Services building rehabilitated & who has been honored by them with a dedicated pantry in the building with food, diapers, & other supplies for our homeless & low-income residents); & also Larry Lane & other members of Coalition for the Homeless.
I applaud these people’s compassion & efforts, yet something REALLY bothers me about all this. And it finally came to me: What about everybody ELSE? It seems like the social services, homeless advocates & other community organizations can’t help anyone or provide much support until they’ve already hit rock bottom financially, emotionally, physically, or all of the above. We don’t provide the safety nets that other modern, Western, industrial societies support – like universal health care, universal childcare/preschool education, & unemployment or disability insurance that people can actually afford to live on until they find a new job & train for a new career if necessary.
While I know many people who try to help the homeless, I also know many other perfectly nice people who would never hesitate to lend you a hand when you run into trouble, & who nonetheless seethe with resentment over the effects of the homeless on our community’s general quality of life, & say things like this:
- They camp out along the river; pollute the river by defecating into it; leave broken glass, garbage, drug paraphernalia, & other unsavory items lying around; & generally turn our beautiful surroundings into a dumping ground;
- They get their disability checks at the beginning of each month & go on a wild drug, drinking, & partying spree until the money runs out & then come looking for handouts;
- We can’t build public restroom facilities for our recreation & shopping areas because They will abuse them;
- They aggressively panhandle & act obnoxious, & hence We don’t like to shop in our downtown shopping areas, or take our kids to the playground;
- They make huge demands on our medical & social services & there are no funds or resources for anything else, while We play by the rules & struggle to make ends meet
At first, I smiled tolerantly at these statements while mentally sweeping them into my ideological rubbish bin. After all, the homeless population seems so small, non-aggressive & unobtrusive compared to belligerent & intimidating hordes of panhandlers so ubiquitous to our former San Francisco & Berkeley communities; & the infamous “squeegee men” from my New York childhood (the guys who would go up to cars in gridlock traffic jams, splatter buckets of dirty water on your windshield & force you to pay them to clean it up before the light turned green).
But gradually, it occurred to me: These friends & neighbors have a right to their feelings, & they’re feeling angry & alienated. Don’t their feelings & opinions count, too? Why SHOULDN’T we have nice riverbanks, public spaces & public restrooms so we can hang out here instead of fleeing to parks in Sebastopol & Santa Rosa? Why should the presence of our homeless population determine what we can & cannot have? Coming from the intense urban areas I mentioned above, I personally don’t think the homeless problem is so bad & find our parks & public spaces to be beautiful & don’t mind occasionally picking up some trash. But if local citizens are feeling encroached upon, shouldn’t we consider their needs too? Why should they be subjected to my low standards? After all, these folks didn’t move to the city, I moved away from the city? And do we have the right to write them off as cruel & heartless just because the homeless situation makes them feel resentful, intimidated & encroached upon?
I’m curious … have any individuals, organizations, or government agencies collected any data? Seriously, how many homeless people actually collect disability checks around here? And where do they go to receive these checks (a P.O. box? West County Services?)? Do the local bars, liquor stores & medical marijuana distributors & drug dealers experience upward spikes in business shortly after these checks are distributed? (Alas, there is probably no reliable way to gather valid statistical data from drug dealers). Is there a mathematical correlation between the number of local homeless residents & the level of water contaminants in the river & the amount of litter, broken glass & drug paraphernalia? I would also like to know the number of occurrences & dollar amounts of police, ambulances, hospitalization & other emergency services which can be attributed to our homeless population.
At last count (according to the January 2008 issue of the Russian River Monthly), there were over 200 souls living along the Russian River with no roof over their heads. Our homeless population is indicative of larger problems in our society – like mental illness, addiction & the high cost of housing & health services – and the fact that we, as a society, don’t take good care of one another to begin with. I know at least two families who don’t appear to be homeless & whose children are nice kids who do well in school & yet they ricochet back & forth between hotels, the couches of friends & relatives, their cars, & the occasional apartment which they can never afford to keep for very long. I know other families who are totally melting down due to bad luck or financial & emotional stress who won’t or can’t seek help because they can’t manage all the paperwork & fear the stigma of being “in the system” & accepting “charity” (never mind that we all pay taxes for these services & hence should use them when necessary).
And most of all, I wonder: Aren’t there any ways for us to address EVERYONE’s issues & take steps towards making our community cleaner & more livable while providing for the needs of our homeless population?
For starters, I feel that we should consider associated some of the services our community provides to the homeless (distribution of clothing & sleeping bags; fundraisers; & our soup kitchens) with local, volunteer clean-up events. Encouraging the homeless to constructively participate in the civic life of our community, while encouraging others to work side-by-side with them & see them as individuals & human beings would be beneficial for all of us.
We already do have a few examples of projects & events which help the homeless but which also draw participation from a broader range of our local population, including:
- Andrea at the Mill Street Thrift Store already succeeds in doing this sort of thing on a smaller level. She feeds & clothes homeless people, but she also requires them to be sober when they’re in her store, & often gives them odd jobs to do. People seem to absolutely adore Andrea & enjoy doing things for her. The store also provides a valuable service to the community because we can all purchase clothing, household items & toys that some of us could not otherwise afford (& these things are almost always in excellent, working condition). It also functions informally as a community center with lots of folks volunteering on a regular basis to help sort clothing, cook food, & gather around to exchange information & local gossip.
- Pastor Pam from the Guerneville Community Church has also started a Street Ministry, which meets on the Guerneville Bridge at 1pm on Sunday afternoons. It’s a fun little gathering with a brief sermon & upbeat music from our talented singer-songwriter-guitarist, Michael (who owns the snack bar, Flavors with his wife Carolyn), followed by delicious soup & sandwiches prepared by Nancy (a member of our church) & others. It’s a nice way to socialize & obtain some robust nourishment for our souls & our tummies.
- West County Services has recently launched an Empowerment Center to provide mental health services & emotional support to the homeless & others in our community.
- River Child Care Services' new food pantry (in partnership with Brian Plaugher & others).
- And, of course, there’s the annual holiday Christmas dinner held at the Guerneville Veterans Hall, which is organized by Leslyn Dooley from River Plumbing & others. I haven’t gone to it yet, but I’ve heard that it’s fun, that the food is good, & that Santa distributes nice Christmas gifts to all of the children who are present. I definitely want to volunteer for this next year.