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-Do not quote someone in media, including social media, without their permission.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!

Let’s Take On Ending Homelessness in Santa Cruz

It can’t happen if we don’t talk about it

Join me, join us, to get this process started. For more info, you can email me here: evan (at) thefreeguide.org

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.

Project Homeless Connect and Veteran Homelessness in Santa Cruz

On Tuesday I made an appearance on Community Television of Santa Cruz County, talking about Project Homeless Connect and veteran homelessness. Project Homeless Connect is an event that brings every service that someone experiencing homelessness could need into one building on one day, so they can get a lot of their needs taken care of at once and get into housing more quickly. You can check out the website, and volunteer on the day of the event, here: phc-santacruz.org

Here is the link to the Community Television episode on YouTube.

You can also donate to my work, and come and volunteer with me and my team, by visiting santacruzhsc.org

Talking About Homeless Veterans In Santa Cruz County

I gave an update on the Homeless Veterans situation to the Veterans Take Charge radio show this last Sunday. If you listen before June 2nd, it’ll be the episode right at the top of the page. Otherwise, it’s the one dated May 26th, 2019. Here’s the link: http://www.zbsradio.com/show_detail/id/81

It’s Me

Here this is, for you to read

If there’s ever a day
When you’ve found you’ve
lost your way
and you’re looking for
someone to reach out to

And you don’t know
who’ll be there and
who won’t
who’ll listen and give you
something to hold on to

I’m not so far
just a message away
if you’ve got something
to say
or need someone
to walk with

Who’s gonna be there when
you’re in your worst moment?
Who will watch you as
you cry and you scream?
Who will put out their hand
when you need someone to hold?
Who will rock you back to sanity?

It’s me

It doesn’t bother me
if it’s been a year, or two, or three
a decade, or more
since you spoke to me

You are my friend
I mean that to the end
As long as I draw breath
you are part of me

If you don’t have
a roof over your head
if you’ve got track marks instead
If self harm seems like
the best solution for you

If you’ve lost your last sense
of direction

It’s me

I will be there
when the darkness closes in
when there’s nothing left
but the feet your standing in

I will walk a mile
or a thousand more
to get to your door
or take you to a new one

You’re never alone
in this world
when it’s cold as stone
As long as I draw breath
you’ve got me

Who’s gonna be there
when you’re in your worst moment?
Who will watch you as you
cry and you scream?
Who will put out their hand
when you need someone to hold?
Who will rock you back to sanity?

It’s me

I was listening to “It Ain’t Me” by Kygo and Selena Gomez yesterday – which I think is a beautiful song – and was experiencing a sense of cognitive dissonance deep in my soul. It’s essentially a breakup song, the way it’s performed it comes across as a lady saying that she isn’t going to support a guy anymore in the moments where he can’t take care of himself. Which, is a sentiment I can appreciate. As the song went along, I realized that it is me. That I want to be there in those moments. That, though I may not be in the habit of communicating this to the people I care about, it is exactly my intention to be there for my friends in their hardest times and any time. That when I become friends with a person, I am making a lifetime commitment to them. That, though I’ve struggled with the logistics of that commitment, as I’m sure we all have – it has been my commitment my entire life.

So, even though I haven’t written poetry for years, this poem just sort of spilled out of me. I wrote it roughly to the tune of “It Ain’t Me.” Apparently I’m much more of a lyricist than a tune-writer. I didn’t go and re-write the song word for word though, I just wrote what came to mind. Since the words of this poem are what I am feeling deeply on a daily basis these days, I thought I’d share it with you.

The Santa Cruz Free Guide (a re-Introduction)

Some of you may know that, for months now, I and a handful of other people have been working on building a truly comprehensive resource guide for people without housing who live in Santa Cruz County. Today we launched the new guide, as well as one of our new services: real time schedules of all the services in Santa Cruz County.

It has truly been serendipitous that this project has come together the way it has, and I am grateful for all the folks who have worked on it.

Also, this truly is just Phase 1 of this website and project. There will be more features and improvements coming in future months.

Here is the announcement email that went out today to service providers throughout the county:

Hello Everyone,
Attached please find easy-print, double-sided, county-wide resource guides to free services serving people experiencing homelessness in Santa Cruz. Please feel free to utilize and print these guides for yourself, your organization, your clients, friends, or neighbors in need.
We are pleased to announce the formation of The Free Guide, a non-profit 501c3 organization dedicated to maintaining a permanent local hub space for hosting this information. We know resources in our county are limited, but information need not be.
We are dedicated to keeping information free and accurate, up-to-date, local, and easily accessible. Feel free to take a look at  www.santacruzfreeguide.org
Check our  More Resources page for downloadable fliers. We’ve got a leaflet on the new Santa Cruz Winter Shelter program, Watsonville Winter Shelter program, Smart Path access points, the Warming Center’s Storage program and more.
Check the new Calendar Resource page for carefully maintained google calendars listing service times and locations. Feel free to upload these to your smart phone or mobile device.
Is your organization, resource, or service listed correctly in the web and/or print versions of the guides? Is there something we’ve left off that you think should be included? Space is limited in the print guides, but we can copy-fit or we may be able to include additional info on the web pages. Do let us know at santacruzfreeguide@gmail.com
And of course if you wish to be removed from our list to receive updates, simply respond with “Remove me” in the subject line.
Thank you,
The Free Guide Team
Evan Morrison
Alec McLeod
Maile McGrew-Fredé
(I’m not actually attaching the files here, so you can go to the website and see what it’s all about)