When I spoke at the Community Advisory Committee on Homelessness about the unseen expenses the city of Santa Cruz has dealing with the homeless issue, here (facebook link).
Here’s part 3 of the Conversation to End Homelessness
Made an appearance on community television talking about running a shelter during coronavirus
the hatches are battened
So much has gone on in the last ~40 days. I’ll make a list:
-My brother in law passed away unexpectedly. He was 36 years old, married, with a four year old son. It’s still not clear why he died. He did test negative for COVID-19. Nonetheless, his death has been shocking, tragic, and painful for all of us. You can read what his widow wrote here (on Linkedin) and my wife wrote here (on facebook). The gofundme for his family is here.
-The homeless shelter I manage has been able to increase capacity while maintaining social distancing. We have increased staff. It’s now also looking like we will be able to increase the rate at which we are helping people to get housed. One of the reasons that we’ve been able to increase capacity is because of these. The organization I work for is Housing Matters, and I manage the program that those pallet shelters are in. I’m really proud of how we have responded to this crisis.
-Santa Cruz County has, as far as I can tell, done really well in it’s response to this pandemic. We’ve shut down beach access to folks from out of town. The county has opened more shelter and managed camping, including just across the street from our shelter. Our peak of cases was relatively low, and we already seem to be on the tail end. As long as we don’t open up again too soon…
Here’s the source for that image.
-Speaking of opening up again too soon, it’s really frustrating seeing people in the right-wing media bubble saying that we need to open everything up again to keep the economy from getting bad. There is no way that I’ve seen to open up again without infecting thousands of people with this disease, and thousands of people dying. An effective president wouldn’t have closed down the CDC office specifically responsible for containing outbreaks in their country of origin. An effective president would have moved quickly and decisively when this virus appeared in our country. An effective part of the shutdown would have included a total pause on all rent, loans and mortgages. It would have made sure people had access to food and medical care, as needed. All of these steps would have mitigated the impacts on our greater economy significantly. It seems to me that Trump supporters don’t know how an effective president would behave, and so they champion his unending string of failures, claiming they are successes. Of course, if you are reading this, I know you are going to have one of two reactions. Either you are outside of the right-wing media bubble and you’ll essentially say “no, duh.” Or you’re inside the right-wing media bubble and you’ll essentially say “I’m so sad to hear that you’ve been manipulated by the mainstream media.” Such is the state of our world today.
-Shopping for supplies is completely different now. The aisles in the grocery stores are one-way only, and everyone is supposed to stay at least two shopping cart lengths apart. A staff person is wiping down every shopping cart after they are used. Early on, a lot of store shelves were nearly bare. Now most stuff is at the store. But toilet paper is sold by the roll (it used to be sold 8-12 to a pack), and for a while at least there was a limit on how many rolls you could buy at once. Clorox wipes, which used to be a staple of our house, are now essentially impossible to find. I’m now doing all of the shopping for the family, because there is a limit to how many people in a party can go in a store at once. Below are my shopping lists, you can see as time goes on more things were available in stores.
-Geez, I nearly forgot! We had a wedding in our front yard during the stay-at-home. Short story shorter, this couple had to be married by a certain date but their courthouse wedding was cancelled due to coronavirus. So, they got married in our front yard. It was them, our family, and the photographer. We all maintained social distancing, and all of their family and friends watched online with zoom. I officiated. I’ve anonymized what I wrote for the occasion, but I’d like to share the text of the wedding with you all here:
Life has a way of taking us down unexpected twists and turns. And often, it’s those unexpected paths that take us exactly where we need to be.
Today, on an unexpected day, in an unexpected front yard, with an unexpected ceremony, We are here today to celebrate two people, who met by chance, not by design. Who found each other while swimming upon the wild seas of fate, and took a leap together. And, I presume, have kept taking leaps of faith together – and found themselves, after each leap, where they’ve always wanted to be.
Times, I understand, are always uncertain, however these times feel more uncertain than most. But uncertain times have a way of crystallizing our priorities. Today’s priorities are clear; love, commitment, family, each other.
I am honored, we all our honored, to be able to be here with you to celebrate your love and commitment to each other.
-My wife is still working from home, while overseeing our kindergartner’s schooling, while wrangling a two year old, while managing two dogs and a cat. Often when I get home she is exhausted from having to juggle too much in a day. Often when I get home, I’m exhausted from the highs and lows of managing a shelter and getting people who are homeless into housing. Though we have hit our stride, and made this our new normal, it is a fragile normal. It’s a high-stress normal.
-Nothing illustrated the fragility of our new normal than when the internet went out at our house. My wife, our kindergartner, and our friend who rents our back house all rely on being able to use the internet everyday during the stay-at-home to get work done. My wife and our renter do provide essential services, that thankfully are able to be done remotely. To suddenly be without internet doesn’t just impact them, but it imperils the commitments that they have made to the people in the vulnerable populations that they work with. I had to take the day off of work and spend 8 hours attempting to communicate with Comcast to get the internet working again. It turned out that Comcast wasn’t at fault for our internet going down, but it also wasn’t able to help us figure out what wasn’t working. Because the three of us weren’t able to work that day, three essential workers weren’t able to provide their services because of one bad internet connection. This pandemic amplifies everything else that isn’t working in our lives.
-Every day I work with folks who are carrying a lot of scars from life. Something that has struck me, in hearing stories from friends and family since this pandemic has started, is that the scars that people are getting these days are going to last a lifetime. I have a rule, not to tell anyone’s story on this blog but my own, but what people have gone through so far is going to stick with them forever. And…
-All of this may just be getting started. I’m wrapping this blog post up on May 9th, 2020. I fully expect that there will be another wave of coronavirus cases as many states in the US open up in the next few weeks. I expect the federal response to continue to be wholly inadequate – which means that not only will we be too slow to shut down again, but the second shutdown will also be mismanaged. Which will lead to a recession or a depression. We’re already hearing about meat becoming much more expensive soon, because so many meat processing plants have had to shut down because their workers are getting sick. The headline on the paper as I walked into the store today was that unemployment was at 14.7%. What else will we all lose before the federal government does the right thing?
-I miss hugging. I miss shaking people’s hands. I miss being able to relax. I miss being with my friends. I miss having lunch with people, in restaurants. I miss going to dinner. I miss walking through downtown. I miss seeing family. On a national level, I miss what life was like before 2016. I miss being able to focus enough to feel like I’m writing well.
I tell you what, though. There’s going to be a lot of fun to uncork when all this is over.
The Conversation to End Homelessness in Santa Cruz is currently on hold due to the county-wide shelter at home. However, after all the participation in the previous sessions, I expect that we will have an outline at our next session of a plan to end homelessness here. Keep your eye on this space for updates, once the shelter at home is lifted.
on the radio, on the interwebs
A more in depth update about life for us during the coronavirus is coming, but in the meantime check out where I’ve been in the press recently:
-Drew Glover had me on KSQD 90.7 to talk about nonviolence and working with people who are homeless. I really appreciated being able to get into the nuts and bolts of how de-escalation works in my conversation with him, and we also covered what we are doing at the shelter and community wide to serve the homeless population during this time. Here is the link if you want to hear it for yourself; at Radio Free America. It aired on April 10th (2020) on the Nonviolent Voices Show at 3pm.
-Jessica York, in her great ongoing coverage of the homelessness crisis in Santa Cruz, mentioned quickly what we are doing at the Free Guide. You can read the article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, I’m including it here mostly because it’s a great snapshot of where we were in this crisis a couple weeks ago. Honestly, our county as a whole seems to have really stepped up since the coronavirus hit, and it’s inspiring to see.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”