A Conversation to End Homelessness Summary, Part 1

Since not everyone was able to be at our first meeting, and we want to be able to reference what we went over, here is my summary of our first Conversation to End Homelessness.

First, the ground rules that we agreed to:

-Do not quote someone in media, including social media, without their permission. Homelessness can get really complex, and we all are going to say things that, upon further inspection, we will discover are foolish. It’s important that we give ourselves the freedom to revise how we think about these things without having to deal with a public backlash to our words.

-We are not making a perfect plan. Homelessness is a complex issue, and every person who is homeless has their own unique struggle. My goal is to create a plan that we all believe has a reasonable chance of success. Let’s not get bogged down in trying to create the perfect plan.

-Let’s not play the blame game. It really does not matter who is at fault for how things are, what matters is what we are going to do about the reality on the ground. We will not be entertaining conspiracy theories or blame about why this issue is as bad as it is.

-This conversation will probably get emotional. It’s good to own up to being upset, when we are upset. I’m going to be doing that as the facilitator, just so I can be successful facilitating.

-Civility. We must all practice civility. My guess is that people have been reluctant to engage in this conversation because there has historically been a lack of civility around this issue in this region. Only by being civil with each other are we actually going to be able to move forward to find solutions on this issue.

Everyone who was present when we went over these rules expressed that they agreed to them.

The Data

We went over notable data that is available in this county about homelessness. Here it is:

-The Point in Time Count for Santa Cruz County counted 2,167 people who are homeless in our county. 78% of those folks are estimated to be unsheltered. 53% of the homeless families in the county are estimated to be unsheltered. An estimated 74% of the people in our county who are homeless lived here when they became homeless. 23% spent time in foster care, 28% have spent one or more night in jail, prison or juvenile hall in the past year – these are estimates as well. The whole report can be seen here.

-Smart Path assessments are done for every person who is homeless that would like to get into a housing program in Santa Cruz County. In the fiscal year 2018-2019 (July 1 2018 – June 30 2019), 1,110 people were assessed. 276 of those people were referred to a program. That means that just about 25% of people who took the first step to get assistance getting off the street actually received some sort of assistance. It speaks to the extreme lack of capacity in our homeless services throughout the county. 47 of those referrals resulted in people moving into transitional housing. 51 of those referrals resulted in people moving into permanent housing. I noted that the communication from housing programs back to the county is not terribly reliable, so those last two numbers of placement into housing are probably low.

-Smart Path was implemented on January first, 2018. There have been 1,973 total assessment since that date. Of those folks, 1,750 are still in the queue to be referred to a housing program. Why that discrepancy is less than the 276 people referred in the previous paragraph, I’m not sure. It may be because that previous number counted every person in each family.

The numbers in the two paragraphs above came directly from the county.

-The Santa Cruz County Office of Education estimates that 3,493 kids in their school system experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year (the most recent for which we have data). The Office of Ed defines homelessness slightly differently, however, including people doubling up in housing and couch surfing. This report is available here.

-We received an estimate from one participant that the current waitlist for Section 8 vouchers in Santa Cruz County is about 9,000 people long. Documentation of this number is still pending.

After going over the data, we engaged in a conversation about why it is important that we end homelessness in our county and why each of us personally was engaging in this conversation. It seemed that there was universal agreement around the point that it truly is our moral duty to end homelessness here.

Our next meeting will be September 26th from 6-8pm. Everyone is invited. We left with two pieces of homework; to invite people in the community to come to the next event, and to come with ideas about possible solutions.

We do have the Santa Cruz Library booked for the next meeting, however we may move to a larger space to better accommodate everyone who is coming and to have a safe place for people who are homeless to keep their things during the meeting.

This is written from memory. Since I was facilitating the event, I may not have gotten every detail exactly correct.

Maybe It Takes Getting to Know One Another

“People aren’t being seen”

For a long time now I have been pointing out to anyone who will listen that community is broken in this country. At least where I live, in California. I think we are seeing the consequences of that brokenness all around us; in our crazy political environment, our high homeless population, the ridiculous numbers of people in prisons and jails, even in the wide wealth disparity. Our rising suicide rate, our daily mass shootings, the mind-boggling amounts of money we spend on health care – the list of symptoms of our broken community just seem to go on and on. Oh, our lowering life expectancy too.

Since I work with people who are homeless, I do a lot of reading specific to the field. Street Roots published an article about the cognitive reasons why housed people struggle to feel empathy for people who are homeless. Not only is the article relevant to homelessness, I think it’s relevant to every aspect of our civic culture today. The italicized portions below are from that article.

“People aren’t being seen,” (Harris) said. “If I’m a busy person, going through a city where there are tons of homeless people, and I have to stop and consider the minds of all of these people, that might make me feel very uncomfortable. Moreover, if I don’t feel like I have the resources to help, there’s nothing I can do to alleviate that suffering. That feeling stays with you. Our brain says, instead, if I take a second to stop and think about your suffering, it’s going to make me feel bad. So, dehumanization becomes a kind of emotion regulation strategy.”

Online, with social media, we have all faced a time where we were forced to consider the mind of someone who clearly has wildly different views than we do. How much easier is it to tune those people out than is it to actually think about what they are saying? How much easier is it to, then, just write off people who share those views and de-friend them or block them out entirely? How hard is it to have your ideas challenged online and to refrain from yelling or letting the conversation devolve into insults?

“We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable,” (Zak) said. “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts. This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal cortex called the subgenual cortex. It’s full of oxytocin receptors, and it appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.”

In America, there seems to be a very strong desire to withhold services from people who don’t “deserve” them. This makes sense if, when we feel powerless, we dehumanize the people in our communities who need help. Since they are still suffering, they are living proof of our failures….

I’ve been wrestling with the idea that humans have an innate desire to help other humans. That commerce is based on contribution. What do people pay for? They pay to be contributed to. Whether it’s food, housing, entertainment, interaction. We pay for other people to contribute to us, and we want to contribute to other people. When we see people who are homeless, most of us see people we can’t contribute to. Most of us see that we have failed to help them.

Is it easier to blame the homeless than to take responsibility, as a community? I would guess that most of us don’t even think in terms of our community. We don’t think about what services we want to be sure that our community members have access to. We don’t think about what we as a community are doing to alleviate suffering in our midst. Is it easy to say “they made their choices,” “they are addicts,” “they are getting what they deserve?” Maybe the people who say those things felt the powerlessness of dealing with someone who’s choices were chaotic and out of control. Maybe they had to detach from a loved one to maintain their sanity and control over their own lives. A real community has each other’s backs. What’s it going to take to start thinking like that?

“If we design interventions to help people meet members of such stigmatized groups and get beyond the stereotype and see the person behind the social category, they tone down their judgments and feelings,” (Hewstone) said.

Hewstone is literally saying that if we get people from different social groups to meet and interact, then we will ratchet down the judgement, the yelling, and the divisiveness.

WHAT A THOUGHT

So then, if we had strong communities, maybe we wouldn’t be having this problem in the first place?

Now I’m going to talk about politics. I think that the level of division in our country is a security threat. It is a threat to our democracy. It appears that multiple foreign countries have figured out how to manipulate our elections and political process for their own gain. Almost exclusively, they are preying on our own divisions to do so.

Is it an incorrect conclusion then, that the best way to fight for and save our democracy is to get to know our neighbors? To meet and get to know people in our community who don’t think or live like us? To talk with the homeless, the middle class, and the rich? To talk with brown, black, white? To talk with young, middle-aged, and old? With men, women, and everyone in between?

That seems like a logical conclusion to me. It seems to me that it is time to do our patriotic duty. It seems like, all it’s going to take to stand up for the principles that our country are founded upon, is for you and I to go out and bridge the gaps in our own lives.

Bridge the gaps, instead of fighting for our point of view. No one is going to do it for us.

‘MERICA!

Our Little Nacho has left us

Today we put Nacho to rest for good. His decline was sudden. Just last week we thought we would have him for months longer. He saw the vet today, and today turned out to be the day. He was 14. He was a sweet little dog, and he helped bring Brenna and I together.

IMG_4178Here he is, with Jewel and Dulce. He loved sunning. This was our pack, for a few months.

BE134F25-15FD-486F-AC9E-A7E942B7A721

Minutes after he died and was taken away, Ash found his collar and began looking for him. Here she is, looking out the window for our cute little Nacho. She loved to pet him, and to poke him. He is part of the reason she loves dogs so much.

Goodbye Nacho. You had a good life, and we loved you with all we had. We’ll miss you.

Santa Cruz Free Guide is now searchable

After months of work, we’ve finished making the Santa Cruz Free Guide into a searchable website for people who are experiencing homelessness – or simply anyone who could benefit from being connected to services. Check it out at santacruzfreeguide.org!

Love Is Not In The Budget

I lost a client on Monday. He hung himself. He was 29 years old. A really sweet kid, who could have turned it around and had a real good life. Word on the street is that he was having relationship issues, and that’s what drove him over the edge. But undoubtedly, I’ll never know for sure.

Amidst my own heartbreak, when I was sharing my grief with some folks around me, someone asked me what was going on with this particular client. Though he had mental health issues, and substance issues, it seemed clear to me that what he needed was a family and a team in life. He had been in and out of foster care as a kid, then coerced into the military, then directly into homelessness from the military, and homeless ever since. At least that’s the story he told me.

The thing with homeless services in this county, as far as I have experienced them, is they are really focused. They are about getting people into housing.

After a year and a half of doing this, I have found that there are as many different reasons for becoming homeless as there are people who are homeless. But one constant, one universal, is a lack of social supports. Or, at least, a lack of social supports from people who are housed.

For instance, if I were to lose the ability to maintain my own roof over my head, I’m sure I would have a bevy of friends and family that would put me up for a short while until I was able to maintain my own roof over my head again.

People who are homeless either don’t have that support or don’t think they have that support anymore. Yes, some have mental health or substance issues that make it really hard for loved ones to care for them.

But why do people become homeless? Because their community no longer provides the supports they need. Or never did.

I wonder, if people who are homeless experienced being loved and accepted in their community, would they then be able to self resolve their homelessness? I wonder if we’ve been focusing on a symptom, homelessness, instead of the disease: lack of social support?

Every homeless service I have interacted with in this country is highly constrained in what it can do. Mine, for instance, can provide first and last month’s rent. We can subsidize rent in certain circumstances for a short period of time. We can help someone find a place to live. We connect people with other supports in the community, and help people stay organized and taking action. We can do this for most veterans who are homeless but not all. Not all veterans qualify.

We try to provide social support where we can, but that is not what we are set up to do. Love, community, and family are not in our program parameters. So we can’t focus on making sure our veterans have those things.

Love is not in the budget.

When I think about this veteran that is now gone, I think about how I and our team did the best that we could with him. We did the best that we knew to do, within the parameters of our program. And we lost him.

Some people will say that some people are just too far gone to be saved. Maybe. But he wasn’t.

If we were set up to make sure that our veterans had access to a reliable and safe community, I am sure he would still be with us. I’m sure that in ten years that, instead of remembering his death, we’d be celebrating his life with him. I’m sure that if we made sure that our non-veteran community members who are homeless also had access to reliable and safe community, we could accelerate the end to their homelessness as well.

I think it may be time to do that.