San Diego’s Crisis of Compassion: Scorn and Indifference Do Not Solve Homelessness

by on May 6, 2016 · 4 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Health, History, Homelessness, Life Events, San Diego

By Jeeni Criscenzo / San Diego Free Press

homeless familyIt doesn’t take the recently released Point in Time Count report to know that the number of unsheltered people in downtown San Diego is exploding.

Seeing every vacant lot encircled with blue tent and tarp encampments propped against chain-link fencing has ceased to evoke alarm. It’s now the norm.

The fact that we have become so accustomed to seeing human beings huddled in these makeshift shelters is a pathetic indictment of our city’s dismal failure to solve our housing problem. Worse is the increasing number of people who think it is acceptable to disdain and demean the men, women and children who can’t find anywhere to sleep beside the street.

To collectively accuse all of them of being personally responsible for their plight, and undeserving of our compassion or assistance, is ignorant and obscene. Shit happens to all of us, and the people being the most judgmental, should probably be spending a little more time being grateful that they’ve had the resources and good fortune to deal with their shit.

When one of our group spoke at City Council about the inhumanity of using pest-control tactics to repel human beings, two councilpersons actually giggled!

Last week, homeless advocates, including myself, confronted the mayor for authorizing installation of a $57,000 rock bed under an overpass where homeless people frequently camped. On social media, we were accused of being bleeding hearts who were giving aid and comfort to creatures who don’t deserve our concern. They called the ugly barrier that was built without a shred of effort to be attractive, a “rock garden”! When one of our group spoke at City Council about the inhumanity of using pest-control tactics to repel human beings, two councilpersons actually giggled!

When did we get to be so heartless and mean? When did it become acceptable to scorn those who are less fortunate and mock those who are compassionate? Do these meanies actually believe that the people they see living in squalor on our streets have chosen that life?

When these accusers lie in their comfortable beds at night, snuggled under clean sheets and quilts, their heads nestled in fluffy pillows free of insects and rodents, barely hearing the wind howling outside, do they ever wonder what it might be like to be a mother with young children, couched in a doorway to block that wind, forcing herself to stay awake and alert until daylight, terrified of being assaulted, or her children taken from her by CPS or traffickers, and seeing no way things can ever get better?

The fact that people survive at all is a testament to human ingenuity and strength. The fact that other human beings think it’s OK to kick a person when they’re down, is a testament to our capacity for cruelty.

There’s really no way out of homelessness without some help. The cascading consequences of having no place to live are relentless and cruel. The physical and emotional impact depletes you of energy and hope. The fact that people survive at all is a testament to human ingenuity and strength. The fact that other human beings think it’s OK to kick a person when they’re down, is a testament to our capacity for cruelty.

Last year, I sat through months of meetings with 25 Cities Campaign to End Homelessness. Along with other people with the best of intentions, I participated in setting goals to end veteran homelessness; end chronic homelessness; getting homeless people registered into a coordinated assessment database; prioritizing the most vulnerable… and in the end those goals kept getting moved further and further into the future because there simply is no affordable housing to move people into, even with vouchers, even offering incentives to landlords to open their scarce vacancies to our clients.

Todd Gloria, … responded to our suggestion of adding managed tiny shelter communities to shore up our inadequate emergency shelter, by calling it a “distraction” from getting people into permanent housing. A distraction? There is no permanent housing to be distracted from.

During that City Council meeting last week, when the City declared an emergency shelter crisis, Councilman Todd Gloria, who heads the RCCC – the county’s agency for allocating HUD funds for homelessness – responded to our suggestion of adding managed tiny shelter communities to shore up our inadequate emergency shelter, by calling it a “distraction” from getting people into permanent housing.

A distraction? There is no permanent housing to be distracted from. It’s years away thanks to the mis-allocation of redevelopment funds. His response was repeated on several news outlets in the days that followed: Tiny shelters are a distraction. No more discussion. No more innovative threats to the status quo.

So tell me, now that we have official numbers confirming the obvious, are we ready to admit that closing the homeless shelter and veterans tent that Bob Filner had managed to make permanent, and eliminating 250 transitional beds at St. Vinny’s to make room for 100 fewer shelter beds than we had before, when the numbers of homeless people downtown continues to increase, just might have been the stupidest thing ever done in a city that has done some really stupid things?

But a large shelter isn’t appropriate for many homeless people, including families, children and people with PTSD and other mental issues that make them fearful of being around a lot of people.

Alpha Project wants to open a 600 bed emergency shelter and that might sound like a lot of beds, but it’s not enough. Let them do it. But a large shelter isn’t appropriate for many homeless people, including families, children and people with PTSD and other mental issues that make them fearful of being around a lot of people. I came to regret pressuring the Veterans tent to take female veterans after the first night, when I got a call from a woman we had placed there, crying for me to come and get her – she woke up to being fondled!

Those who accuse homeless people of turning down shelter beds because they don’t want to follow rules need to think about reality. First, there are not enough shelter beds. As was quoted in Voice of San Diego, there is at least a 3 week wait for a bed in the Paul Mirabile Center. And not everyone is capable of following a lot of rules. It’s not a matter of “wanting”, it’s a matter of being able to survive in that situation.

Mental illness is an illness, not a crime. So do you want people with mental issues living on your sidewalk or in a place that gives them some space to be who they are without making your neighborhood miserable? That’s one population where our tiny shelter community might be a good interim solution.

[Some resident groups’] idea of ending homelessness is to do daily “sweeps” – making life as unstable and miserable as possible, so these “pests” will go pester someone else. They call this obscene use of our police and emergency systems, “abatements”.

Alpha Project is planning to locate their shelter outside of downtown. No doubt resident groups in East Village and Sherman Heights and Downtown insisted that placing the shelter downtown would attract more homeless people. Their idea of ending homelessness is to do daily “sweeps” – making life as unstable and miserable as possible, so these “pests” will go pester someone else.

They call this obscene use of our police and emergency systems, “abatements”. (Just like calling sharp rocks embedded in concrete, a “rock garden”.) The city assigns as many as six police cruisers, an ambulance, a fire truck and a sanitation truck to do an “abatement” on a different city street every day. Meanwhile our response to 911 calls is so abysmal that the parents of a newborn attacked by the family dog ended up driving their child to the emergency room because they couldn’t get emergency help.

Who is calling the shots here? Are we willing to let the meanies be the loudest voices?

Who is calling the shots here? Are we willing to let the meanies be the loudest voices? Yes, it sucks to have to walk around poor destitute human beings huddled under our overpasses. It forces us to think about how close we might be to ending up that way ourselves. We need to remind ourselves of the sacrifices we’ve made to keep our crummy jobs so we can pay the rent that keeps going up while our wages stay the same. We resent that these people won’t make similar sacrifices to stay housed.

We don’t want to consider the possibility that despite everything we do to plan for the future, we could fail, the systems could fail, disaster could strike, our friends might desert us, our family might turn their backs on us, we might get arrested for something stupid like smoking a joint, or have an accident after a couple of drinks, or get cancer and realize that the health insurance we got with our job will end when we are terminated for being too sick to perform.

We don’t want to think about the hundreds of things that could go wrong that could turn us into THEM. So we say it’s their fault and that justifies wanting them to just disappear. And then we call anyone who helps them an “enabler” so we don’t have to feel bad for being heartless.

We have a choice. We can demand that our city uses their resources to be mean. Or we could try being compassionate.

We have a choice. We can demand that our city uses their resources to be mean. Or we could try being compassionate. We could consider trying something innovative or we could insist on doing more of the same, that hasn’t worked.

Why not put tiny shelters on vacant lots? Before you wave your arms and proclaim it’s a distraction and won’t work, have you bothered to consider how you might help make it work? Not one of those “journalists” who were so quick to repeat Gloria’s condemnation that tiny shelters are a “distraction” bothered to contact me to find out how we have planned to address their concerns. Not one of the meanies who mocked the idea on social media offered something better.

I’m perfectly willing to listen to your objections, as long as you also have some suggestions to offer.

Here, I’ll make it easy for you, send me an email at jeeni@amikas.org and I’ll be glad to meet with you for coffee. I’m perfectly willing to listen to your objections, as long as you also have some suggestions to offer. Because it’s time we started rolling up our sleeves and actually doing something compassionate about this emergency housing crisis.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar LNMaggard May 6, 2016 at 12:20 pm

Legislation is how we deal with social issues; if we don’t like you we will make it impossible for you to survive. What happened to “life, liberty…?”

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Avatar tj May 8, 2016 at 8:52 am

btw – zoning & building codes…

cheers

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Avatar CliffHanger May 9, 2016 at 6:18 pm

Short term tiny homes … $7,000 each. The City could have built 8 of these instead of a punitive “rock garden”. Not a total solution but a stepping stone.
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/tiny-homes-homeless/413212/

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Avatar Lynn Eldred May 9, 2016 at 9:06 pm

This is an excellent piece covering the complexity of this critical issue. There is no single answer that will address homelessness.

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