The folks that showed up for the church-sponsored community forum last night (July 6th) at the Parish hall of Sacred Heart hoping for a quick fix to Ocean Beach’s transient problem were disappointed. Those that showed up hoping for a chance to vent their anger in front of a crowd over this issue were left with no opportunity to do so. The “pitchforks and torches” approach wasn’t even up for consideration. Based on my observations of the meeting, it’s safe to say that those descriptions of approaches to the homeless issue were left off the agenda.
About twenty people got up and left immediately after the announcement that the over-capacity crowd would be broken down into smaller groups to explore the community’s concerns and discuss approaches applicable to the transient/homeless/travelers troubles’ that have spilled over into to mainstream media lately. An even larger number left during scheduled break in the discussions, some because of time concerns (the event ran somewhat sluggishly because of the logistics involved in handling the surprisingly large turnout) and some clearly frustrated that their immediate concerns were not being addressed.
That said, the contrast between the scene at Parish hall and the scene on the picket line in front of the Black a couple of weeks ago couldn’t have been more remarkable. Property owners, business people, a very diverse group of residents and a smattering representation of the homeless population sat together and listened to each other’s points of view. There were no “pigs”, no “fascist landlords” and no “bums”. There was no shouting, no cursing and no undertones of mob violence. TV news cameras were asked to leave once the event got under way–they wouldn’t have had much to film anyway because actual citizenship just doesn’t make for dramatic footage.
We were broken down into ten groups and given a specific set of questions that each member in the group was allowed to address. Good manners were strongly encouraged via a set of guidelines that all participants agreed to follow. The word “homeless” or any of its many synonyms did not appear in the questions we were tasked with expressing our opinions on. This had the effect of steering the conversation into broader areas of concern in the community in the hope that these issues would be debated in the context of those broader areas.
It became clear that many of the concerns expressed could not be limited to the transient population–litter, public intoxication, vandalism, graffiti, rowdiness and dog/human shit on the streets (among others) were not going to go away if the fifty (that’s the official number) tumbleweeds on OB streets are somehow made to disappear. It was also clear to me that many people are not aware of the extent that cuts in city services (to all parts of the community) have manifested themselves.
A document distributed at the meeting reveals, for example, a Federal audit by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Housing and Urban Development that takes the City of San Diego to task for failing to properly administer $228 million that should have been used to provide assistance to the poor and homeless in the community. Funds that were supposed to be utilized to “address…a serious and immediate threat to the health or welfare of the community” have been used to buy flower pots for streetscapes in Little Italy.
Then there’s the County Grand Jury report, issued a couple of months ago, that urged the City and County to create a regional agency to pool resources to address the local street population, citing the 774 homeless people that have died on the streets of San Diego over the last ten years and calling the issue a “blight on our humanity”.
Common themes that were circulated within the group that I participated in were: a call for increased personal responsibility throughout the community, a need for ongoing cooperation between community and governmental organizations, additional public restrooms and the sense that nobody wanted to see the types of re-actions to the homeless population that would denigrate OB’s reputation as a laid back/unique community.
The folks that organized this meeting at Parish hall will be issuing a full report on the topics discussed in Tuesday night’s meeting (which will be shared in this venue). A follow up meeting that will focus on more concrete steps that the community can take will be happening later this month.
For those of us that had the time and the willingness to participate in this gathering came way with an increased appreciation for both the anger that some residents feel and the magnitude of the tasks that will face Ocean Beach as it struggles to come to grips with solutions to the problems facing the larger community. There are no easy answers here. Superman’s not gonna appear and bring the bad elements on our street to justice. Martin Luther King’s not gonna rise from the dead to ease the pain of the poor and oppressed. And acting like Glen Beck by playing to people’s fears isn’t an option for the vast majority of Obceans.
It ain’t easy. It won’t be quick. But together we can make a difference.