Coronavirus: Day 16

Even if we don’t have it, it’s taking it’s toll

My county, Santa Cruz, issued it’s stay at home order on March 16th (if I’m counting correctly). So I’m counting sixteen days from that day to today. Santa  Cruz county also got over the 50 confirmed cases threshold today. I’m just gonna share the stuff that is on my mind:

-My wife has been working from home, essentially home-schooling our six year old daughter, AND wrangling our near two year old daughter, a puppy, a dog & a cat. Schools & daycares are shut down. My wife works in the schools system in Santa Clara county, their schools are shut down.

-I have continued to manage the homeless shelter that I manage. Which means I’m still going into work 40 hours a week, and interacting with shelter staff and participants.

-There is nowhere near enough time or energy for us to tackle everything we have to do every day.

-A friend brought us groceries and dinner one night a few days ago, and it was honestly manna from the heavens. Every time I’ve seen toilet paper for sale, when the shelves haven’t been empty, it’s been one roll of toilet paper at a time. We’re nearly down to our last roll, if I can’t find a package soon I guess I’ll be buying some rolls…

-It’s been really hard to see and hear about folks who are working from home, or simply at home not working, with no kids and nothing to do. Our world went from 3 full-time jobs (our jobs, and raising the kids while we aren’t at our jobs) to five full-time jobs (add in teaching our kindergartener and “daycare” for a toddler). My wife is taking the brunt of the change, and I’m doing what I can – but it is honestly just too much.

-I spent the last two weeks at the shelter being pulled in multiple directions at once, filling 2-4 roles. I think we have staffing levels at the right spot going forward, but I haven’t recovered yet.

-Before coronavirus, we had bunkbeds in the shelter. In order to create enough “social distancing” (which really should be called “physical distancing”) we’ve moved a portion of folks in the shelter to tents that we have set up in the parking lot. We have gotten much more thorough in our cleaning. Accomplishing this while dealing with the chaos and being short staffed has been rocky, to say the least.

-I’ve been watching the news very closely for mention of people who are homeless getting coronavirus. The only one I’ve heard of was a gentleman in San Jose, CA – who passed away from it. People are very concerned about coronavirus getting into the homeless community. Everyone has been told to practice “social distancing” to slow the spread of this disease. But our culture has been socially distancing from people who are homeless for decades. Social distance is not new for people who are living outdoors. It’s sad to say, but people who are homeless might have a higher risk of getting coronavirus from service providers and landlords than from anyone else. That being said, as soon as there is an encampment somewhere that produces about three coronavirus cases, it’s a totally different picture.

-I saw that there was a record number of unemployment applications sent in recently. Which is not surprising, given that so much is being shut down. But our food supply hasn’t been reduced. Our (already inadequate) housing supply hasn’t been reduced. What if it isn’t actually necessary for our society for those millions of folks to be working? What if we don’t need so many of us working to actually get everyone’s needs met? People who talk about Medicare for All (or single payer healthcare in general) talk about decoupling healthcare from employment. What if we decoupled housing from employment (or income) as well? This is a thought that came to me this week.

-Our whole family is processing through a cold. A definite feature of the coronavirus is the enhanced scrutiny that every sickness receives. We don’t have any reason to think we have it. Even so, I read the reports from Iceland – where it appears they are testing everyone – and it appears half of the people who get positive results have no symptoms whatsoever. It’s terrifying to think that our near two year old could get this, she had a series of medical issues recently and needs to be healthy for another couple of months before she’s out of the woods. Nonetheless, there is no way we would get tested in this country. There are  nowhere near enough tests for non-rich people who don’t have any of the primary symptoms.

-Our little mountain town has a nightly howl at 8pm, in honor of the healthcare workers on the front lines of this epidemic. It’s truly heartening to hear and participate it.

-Even though Santa Cruz county just got over 50 confirmed cases, we are currently weathering the storm relatively well. Santa Clara county, directly to the north of us (also know as Silicon Valley, for you international readers – and where I grew up), is up over 950 confirmed cases. The other county to the north of us, San Mateo, is up over 380 cases. I hope our county can keep it’s cases from exponentially increasing, but I’m not sure I would take that bet.

-At the Free Guide, we’ve had to switch to a “live” google doc that can reflect changes we’ve made to available resources for the homeless in Santa Cruz county the second we make them. We’ve had to do this because the list of resources is changing so fast.

-Merlin, the puppy, has been a boon to all of us at home and at work.

-Our oldest daughter cried today when she found out that her school will be closed for the rest of the school year. She misses her friends, and her teacher, so much.

Even though this has been hard, it’s not too hard. We’ll get through this. But all of this is tiring.

Goodbye, Cowboy

I lost another one today…

I lost another one today. This man was in his 60’s, a veteran from the Vietnam era. He was from the south. He went by Cowboy. And oh man, was he a cowboy. He also pushed a wheelchair to get around because he couldn’t walk steadily on his own. When I first met him, he had two black eyes because he had fallen on his face and busted himself up. His beard was a mess. He often stunk. But he always had something witty to say.

He also was a sex offender. I don’t remember what he did to become a sex offender, but I remember looking it up once and it was, well… he deserved to be a sex offender.

But he also did his time. He was never a repeat offender. That didn’t matter, though. Regardless of his clear disabilities and advanced age, he did not qualify for any of the long term programs in this county because of his sex offender status. There was no way for him to earn money, yet he wasn’t allowed entrance into the programs that are there to support people who can’t earn money.

When he was in a good spot, Cowboy was a pure southern charmer. His wit and sense of humor, while sitting on a cardboard box on the sidewalk, always made me laugh. I once got him into a shelter in San Jose for four days. Being under a roof was great for him. When I picked him up after he had to leave (through no fault of his own, but a bureaucratic reason), not only did he look incredible – he had managed to get himself a girlfriend. It was surreal, yet joyous, seeing this man who I literally picked up off the street look 10 years younger and have a tearful goodbye with a lady he would almost assuredly never see again.

Cowboy’s spirit, in the face of bleak circumstances, was formidable. He could find something to joke about in his darkest moments. Yet, honestly, I had come to avoid him on my trips downtown. Not because I didn’t want to see him, but because I wanted so badly to help him and was powerless to do anything. I couldn’t confront the obvious, aching need on his face and my powerlessness to do anything about it.

Cowboy probably died alone. Thankfully he died while the sun was out, so he probably wasn’t cold. I hope, and this is all I can hope, that with his dark sense of humor he was able to find something funny about his last moments.

I bet he did.

Goodbye, Cowboy. You truly brightened my days, and whenever I think of you I will smile.

Notes on A Conversation to End Homelessness, Part 2

We had quite a productive second meeting, in which we brainstormed what it would take to end homelessness in Santa Cruz County. It seemed like the best next step would be to rank all of the solutions that were presented. So I have created a Survey Monkey survey to do just that.

Allow 20-30 minutes to fill this out. There are quite a few options, and once I started going through it myself I found that it forced me to make quite a few tough decisions. I found it easier to drag and drop the options than to choose their number from the drop down menu, but play around with it and see what works for you. It is more cumbersome than I would like… But I’m going to run with it for now until we invent something better. I’m hoping that by our next meeting quite a few of you will have taken this survey (or suggested other solutions that we can also consider) and that we will have enough data to group the responses usefully. Here it is: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/FJTVS25

Our next meeting will be on November 7th, at the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Cruz, from 6-8pm. As always, it will be open to the public. We will be refining all the responses to this survey, putting solutions into categories, and looking at what scope it will take for these solutions to be effective.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel also ran an article about our last meeting, you can read that here.

A Conversation to End Homelessness, Part 2

You heard about Part 1, join us for Part 2! We’ll be looking what it will take to actually end homelessness here. Increase shelter space? Navigation centers? Transitional camps? Change building codes? Fund construction of low income housing?

Everything is on the table. Come ready to share your ideas, and to hear new ideas. We have plenty of experts, what we need are regular citizens of the county to give their views.

If you are currently homeless, there will be secure space to store your belongings at this event.

If you weren’t at Part 1, please check out the notes from our first meeting: bit.ly/endhomelessness1

It’s taking place on September 26th, from 6-8pm at the Veterans Memorial Building (846 Front Street in Santa Cruz). It was moved to this location so we would have more room, as we found we quickly ran out of room at the downtown library.

Here is the facebook event

A Conversation to End Homelessness Summary, Part 1

UPDATE: See the update on the county statistics at the end.

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.

UPDATE from Monica Lippi at the county: “I’m writing because I just want to clear up a couple of things re: the data.  276 referrals were made last year, but this number includes duplicates of people/families who were referred to multiple programs, so it’s not entirely accurate to say 25% of those assessed were referred.  It’s actually less. This information was included as an asterix in the email that I sent you, so I’m sorry if you didn’t see it.  Also, you made a comment that there was a discrepancy between the difference of those assessed and on the queue and the number of referrals made.  This is partly because that number of referrals includes duplicates, but also because people are removed from the queue for other reasons besides just when referred, such as when they move out of county, die, self-resolve, etc.  It’s also because many participants complete more than one assessment, so the number of assessments completed isn’t the same as number of people assessed.  Lastly, I believe CTA removes inactive people after a certain time frame (I want to say 2-3 years), but I’m not entirely certain about this so you may want to check with them to confirm.”

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!