March 15, 2004
Soup kitchens and communal bunk beds, can you imagine yourself there?
That's the future for many Americans, especially those in the
"baby-boomer" generation. Witness the U.S. dollar declining in value on
global currency markets, the record-smashing trade deficit, our runaway
national debt to foreign banks, that unabashed corporate welfare in the
guise of tax breaks and inflated government contracts. Have you noticed
the steady migration of domestic jobs, now more than two million per
year? Consider Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan's recent
recommendation to cut Social Security benefits.
Do you have your retirement cottage picked out? Be aware that today an increasing number of older Americans are finding themselves "without" due to already insufficient social security and health care benefits. Most people living on fixed incomes have little hope of overcoming any unfortunate circumstance that may arise, whether it is an injury or illness or loss of material resources, and their numbers are growing. Remember those stock fraud piracies that stole the life savings of tens of thousands of retired people? It's a dangerous society we've created for ourselves, both inside and out.
Few people realize the immediacy of the threat, they believe it could never happen to them; they could never end up on the street, gone homeless. Most Americans have an absurd tendency to insulate themselves with intentional ignorance; they overlook those unfortunates, the pariahs in America's dream, unwelcome reminders of fallibility. They are victims of their own failures in an America where success is respected, defeated by their incompetence, they are bottom-feeders all.
You'd be surprised at how quickly you may join them.
And no one knows how many there are. Occasionally tracked for statistical purposes, they drift in and out of institutional observation like phantoms that appear only to believers. Relegated to the outback of America's Dreamtime, imprisoned if captured, disappeared by all means, chased from doorway to doorway, bush to bush, then into a corner, yet some slip away.
Where do they go, what space is allowed them?
Don't plan on sleeping in your car. Fact is, in most places sleeping is illegal unless you have a residence or are someone's guest. You may take your chances with a tent but be sure to pitch it after dark, in an area unseen, and take it down before sunrise reveals you or your footprints. Albeit, neither of those options is safe regardless of the few precautions you may legally take, especially if you are a woman. You may exist as long as you are moving, if you're lucky, but don't stop or you'll be asked to disappear.
Traditionally now, for a century or so, America's refugees have been cared for by missionaries of various religious creeds. The Salvation Army was one of the first, a prominent London minister named William Booth, who felt compelled to help the destitute of his day, founded the organization in the late 1800s. Now established in countries worldwide, the corps is structured in military fashion, is very rigid and dogmatic, and is primarily interested in "fundamentalist" Christian proselytizing and in reprogramming people for the capitalist/Christian hierarchy. They do maintain some retirement facilities and transitional housing for people who are "on-track," but in recent years the Salvation Army has become quite "top-heavy" with administrative structure and has abandoned its original goal of providing shelter, food and hope for the most "downtrodden" among us. Instead, "God's Army" has infiltrated the military forces of many western countries and become one of the most popular religious charities in the capitalist world. Joan B. Kroc, wife of Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's Corporation, has left the "Lord's Solders" an endowment worth more than 1.5 billion dollars. And how much help will they provide for you if you end up destitute on their doorstep? Don't ask; just move along.
Which brings us to the next stop, just down the street, the "rescue mission." The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions was founded in 1913, it has 290 member rescue missions that provide 30 million meals and more than 12 million nights of lodging each year. The missions are staffed by more than 9,000 full-time workers and 300,000 volunteers. Like the Salvation Army, they too are highly structured and quite dogmatic in their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. The missions have also taken a leaf from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), they implement the same type of twelve-step recovery program but rather than addressing a "higher power" when they pray, as is done in AA, those in the missions' "Alcoholics Victorious" program pray only "in Jesus' name." As you might imagine, the focus of the missions is upon those who have substance addictions and it assumed that anyone on the street must have some problems with substance abuse, or they simply wouldn't be there. At most rescue missions you must have your breath analyzed for alcohol before you may enter.
Recently a more comprehensive and practical concept has evolved through civil operatives engaged in consolidation of services for homeless people and networking of service providers. Locating as many health and human services and providers as is possible in the same building, with inclusion of dormitories, showers, laundry, kitchen and dining facilities, enables management of an all-inclusive program in the most efficient and effective manner. A fine example of this innovative approach has been established in Santa Barbara, California.
When I arrived at the Casa Esperanza Homeless Center I was immediately impressed with the beauty and cleanliness of the facility. The building is a Spanish/Mediterranean design of modern adobe, the interior is spacious with large open rooms, and walls are graced with numerous hand-woven Mexican rugs. "The shelter, located at 816 Cacique Street, was established in 1998 by The Coalition [to Provide Shelter and Support to Santa Barbara Homeless] and renovated from a warehouse into a dormitory-style shelter in 2002. The 25,000-square foot building contains one women's dorm and two men's dorms, with a total of 200 beds. . . . The Community Kitchen of Santa Barbara, adjoining the shelter, serves breakfast and dinner to registered clients at the center and lunches free to anyone." (Daily Nexus, December 4, 2003; see link in the resources below.)
My next impression was of the staff: they were friendly and fair, even kind, and maintained an open door policy with respect for all who entered. If need be, they can be firm with those who violate the rules and, most importantly, they show no favoritism.
On the counter of the shelter's front desk is a row if clipboards, they hold sign-up sheets for a number of programs. Santa Barbara County provides Mental Health and Social Services staff as well as a County Health Nurse. There is a Job Development worker to assist clients with resumes, placement and encouragement, a Family and Child counselor works onsite, a "Project Recovery" outreach director places clients in programs for drug and alcohol addicts, and Case Management staff assesses each client's needs and offers assistance and referrals. The whole operation is overseen in a most elegant and practical manner by a person with 20 years of experience working with the homeless population in New York City; his name is Hal Onserud.
"It is our policy to turn away no one. Everyone is welcome at Casa Esperanza, even if they are intoxicated, as long as they are not abusive of others. People are sometimes "exited" for misbehavior but never permanently, we always give them another chance. Sometimes it takes years for our kindness to touch them."
In addition to the comprehensive assortment of services and referrals, the center also offers a unique and popular series of classes onsite in "The People's Institute." They include: drawing, poetry, dance, creative writing, yoga, human rights, photography, conversational English and Spanish, songwriting in Spanish and English and group discussions for women and veterans. Offering people opportunities to create and expand personal expression opens access to new and greater prospects. Encouraging creative thinking helps broaden perspectives and gives insight into opportunities otherwise unseen. When individualism is stimulated, those who would otherwise become institutionalized grow into more empathetic and responsible human beings. The result is a more hopeful and positive environment peopled by more helpful and caring persons. Therein lies the key to transforming lives and enabling the evolution of people and humanity.
Like many of those in the "baby-boomer" generation, I have searched far and wide for a 'meaningful' life. We read everything from "Siddhartha" to "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." We grew up with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Carole King, Neil Young, Joan Baez, too many great artists to mention. Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Rachel Carson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Fonda, Gandhi, King, Chomsky, Nader, Zinn, and so many other great people inspired us.
And what have we learned?
Beyond the trap of capitalist competition and inhumane indifference we have learned that another reality exists. We have found that deep inside each of us is a need for community, that we are all one and that no one may be left behind. Within the depths of our humanness we find our communion with all life, we realize how interconnected all life is on this Earth we call home.
In mid-December of last year I began a quest in search of the best available help for those who've gone homeless. My journey took me to Santa Barbara and, in the course of my research for this column, I was so touched by the experience and impressed by the operation that I took a job with the staff of Casa Esperanza. It's great employment with wonderful people in a beautiful city.
Some of the critics of Casa Esperanza, and other similar endeavors, say that we are "enablers," and they are absolutely correct. To enable desperate, desolate people requires great patience but no one should be turned away and all must be encouraged to find themselves in our community; this great community we call life.
To enable people, we have found, is to turn them inside out.
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Related Internal Links and Resources
Homeless - Michael Stowell (Dec. 2003)
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
SB Homeless Shelter Reopens for Season, by Jenny Mayock, Daily Nexus (UC Santa Barbara's Student Newspaper), December 4, 2003 (as of March 13, 2004).
The Salvation Army
Association of Gospel Rescue Missions
Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Catholic Charities USA
Massachusetts Coalition For The Homeless
Greenspan's Recommendation to Cut Social Security
Michael W. Stowell on Swans (with bio).
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