Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Some thoughts on our homeless population

We’ve had a cold & rainy winter so far, & like many people around here, I feel sympathetic towards our homeless population in general & have even developed a fondness for some of them as individuals, including: friendly, effusive, round-faced Halle the biblical scholar who declares himself an “Essene” (I didn’t even know that sect existed any more & he’s a long way both time- & distance-wise from the biblical deserts in which they prayed & meditated for 40 days & 40 nights); the scruffy blond guy on roller skates; & the nut-brown, wiry, older gentleman with the long & scraggly gray beard who lets my daughter bang away on his bongo drum when we go to skip stones along the river.

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.


Anonymous said...

The cold hard truth is that most people are just lazy bums if they want to be and we just feed into it. I've lived in Berkeley all my life and absolutely sick of what I see. It saddens me to hear that it's out in Sonoma county because I plan to move out there soon. However, in light of your communities homeless tolerance I may cross Rio Nido off the list.

You may be saying at this point "well good riddance , you are probably a bible thumping die hard conservative" or something that many people come up with. On the other hand, you've already demonstrated a modicum of reflection by posting about those "other" people who tend to share my views about what most homeless people contribute. Most importantly, I am one of those people who help others...

but I'm not fond of people who refuse to help themselves. I'm also weary of people who live to make excuses for such people. It's a terrible waste. The energy and resources put into the hands of struggling yet vibrant families would go 10 times farther than in the hands of a bum who pisses it all away and who at BEST makes some naive philanthropists feel sorry for them.

At their worst, of course, it only gets well...worse.

You want the community to contribute to homeless people? How about asking homeless people to first contribute to the community?

Of course, there are many in the community who embrace this plague.
The reason is simply that the doogooders aren't a lot better than the dobadders and they embrace the idea of a person being "homeless" and needy and will therefore support the cycle.

This isn't the third world. This is one of the richest countries in the world. And, if housing is expensive, do what any other person with some common sense does...move! Then...say it wiht me people...get a job...then...come back it you like...if not, have a good life somewhere else.

But for people to be subject to excuses like housing and drugs when the rest of us deal with these choices EVERY DAY by simply being alive...well...I don't know why anyone would expect me or anyone else to feel sympathy, except for the fact that an individual choose to stay in the rut that they are in and sell themselves out.

Beyond that, I've got too many positive things in life to contribute and frankly I've wasted too much time giving thought to people who just don't care about anything.

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Molly Lin said...

Well put.

Molly Lin said...

Well put.

Anonymous said...

While quite a few of the homeless people around town are pretty harmless and trouble free, there are others that really just need to be exiled. After living for several years out in Rio Nido, I'm afraid that I just can't deal with the parasites anymore. My mistake was trying to be helpful and friendly. Never again. I now have a hostile enemy in downtown Guerneville(every day all day)because I gave him a warm place to live for free all last winter. 3700 pounds of trash in the house plus forgotten drugs and paraphernalia afterward, oh what a joy. He and the other dudes that always want money or a ride somewhere. Those crumb bums are too much for me, a thirty-something construction worker who has been homeless himself. I can only wonder who else has left because of them.

Anonymous said...

My town of Guerneville, has been overtaken by young people who just want to camp, and destroy our beautiful river with their garbage, and what do we do? We perpetuate the problem by giving them free food from Sebastapol, so that it is our problem and not theirs.I am tired of these die hard liberals, who feel we as a community should take these 3rd generation Americans who had all the oppurtunities from other states and counties, and feed them. I drive by the 7 eleven store every morning, the only people I see are hispanic, Individuals that have traveled very far to try to build their future.They want to work! why else would they be standing there at 6:00am. YOU will never see a 20 something individual WHITE 3RD GENERATION AMERICAN standing with them and looking for work. Why? because of the illusion of intitellement, they want what they cannot have, they don't want to work obviously, so they CAMP on our beautiful river, and leave their garbage, and why should they? As long as you do not put any demands on these drifters from other states of the U.S. they will continue coming here. Putting more money for the homeless that don't want to better themselves will only escalate the homeless problem in Guerneville. STOP FEEDING THE PIDGEONS, as soon as you finish they will go, and take advantage of the next community.

Anonymous said...

I hope that this Spring and Summer does not bring another influx of not homeless, but young drifters that just want to hang out and live on the banks of our river. PARTY ON!!!!!!! Do your METH and whatever, Its PARTY time in guerneville. We have showers and haircuts, and mental health help, COME ON DOWN TO GUERNEVILLE!! We have the help to enable your LIFESTYLE, you can't find help like this anywhere else,WE ARE A HATE FREE COMMUNITY, so come on down, you all have free cell phones, so call your friends and COME to GUERNEVILLE!!!! This is the place to go, so come on, leave your garbage, don't worry someone else will clean it up! Its the best place to take a shit on! And better yet? Soon you will have a SHELTER yes a SHELTER!!! where you can shower, get FREE FOOD, even a haircut and shelter when your river camp floods.Then you can go into the town of guerneville and rant and ask for money. I would hate to be a merchant in Guerneville, The only time I would be making serious money to make ends meet would be in the spring and summer and then they plan to make the BANK OF AMERICA parking lot, as a tent city! Yea, that would be good for business! I don't know who is running this town, But it is time to take care of the people that are PAYING THE PROPERTY TAXES! and not subjugating the DIRT DRIFFTERS and PEOPLE who don't want help, TIME TO TELL THEM TO LEAVE!!!!!!!!!

Rliptak2 said...

Listen I don know. I don't know your situation at all or your political climate or anything. I only know one thing. I spent the last two weeks in guerneville on vacation and avoided downtown guerneville like the plague because of homeless loitering under the bridge by the Mexican restaurant. Homeless loitering at Johnson beach. Homeless loitering around the Safeway parking lot. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is an awful lot of homeless around and why would I want to bring my young kids around that? So I spent my money in Santa Rosa or Monte Rio, or down by goat rock beach but I spent almost no time in guerneville itself.

Rliptak2 said...

Listen I don know. I don't know your situation at all or your political climate or anything. I only know one thing. I spent the last two weeks in guerneville on vacation and avoided downtown guerneville like the plague because of homeless loitering under the bridge by the Mexican restaurant. Homeless loitering at Johnson beach. Homeless loitering around the Safeway parking lot. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is an awful lot of homeless around and why would I want to bring my young kids around that? So I spent my money in Santa Rosa or Monte Rio, or down by goat rock beach but I spent almost no time in guerneville itself.