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Homeless in San Rafael

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“I feed the poor, I’m called a saint. I ask why the poor have no food, I’m called a communist.” Dom Helder Camara

I attended the July 24th meeting of the San Rafael City Council’s Homelessness Stakeholders Subcommittee hoping to hear serious proposals for reducing homeless in Marin County. Instead, what I got was complaint after complaint about homeless people messing up downtown San Rafael.

Starbucks homeless

Homeless people often meet outside of Starbucks in San Rafael

The panel of “stakeholders” was heavily weighted toward downtown business interests and their real agenda soon became obvious. Everyone took pains to sound politically correct, but it was evident that they had little understanding of the complex issues underlying homelessness or the faceless people they wanted out of sight of downtown visitors. The whole thing reminded me of a puppet show rather than a serious attempt to get work done on the larger issues.

There was someone from the Chamber of Commerce, a banker, a shop owner, a publisher, and a community activist known for his disdain for messy streets. There was one formally homeless person, but no one currently homeless, or anyone who had much personal contact with homeless people. At some point I realized that “stakeholder” meant having a stake in getting the homeless out of downtown San Rafael. The San Rafael mayor and a council member were also on the panel but had little to say after admitting the city had little leverage when it came to homelessness.

If I hadn’t know better, I would have thought this was the first meeting ever held about homelessness in Marin County. There was no mention of all the work that had been done previously by Marin organizations and individuals. Instead, an inordinate amount of time was spent tiptoed around the panelist’s obvious disdain for the chronically homeless who mess up “their downtown” and discourage paying customers.

The discussion seesawed between repeated complaints about hurt business interests and the need for affordable housing. Someone in the audience finally mentioned that affordable housing was not the solution to downtown loitering. People sleeping in doorways were most likely never going to afford any rental units in Marin, one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States.

Near the end of two hours, the audience was finally allowed a few minutes to share their views.

Rev. Paul Gaffney, Homeless in Marin County

The Rev. Paul Gaffney conducting a memorial service in honor of those who have died on the streets of Marin County.

After expressing his anger and frustration with the panel’s dehumanizing discussion of homeless people, the Rev. Paul Gaffney, Marin Interfaith Street Chaplin, made an impassioned plea for the panel members to personally meet the downtown homeless they would like out of their doorways. This is part of what he had to say:

“I’m Rev. Paul Gaffney. I’m the chaplain on the street here in San Rafael. . . I’m feeling passionate about this right now. These are people that I know. You’re talking about the numbers and how much money we’re spending –and people are dying, tonight, out here. I don’t think it’s a mystery. My challenge to this group before the next time you meet, why don’t you go out there and talk to two homeless people, each of you. Talk to them, ask them what their story is. Why they’re’ out there, what would help them. What they need, what they want. What their experience is like.

I hear their stories every day. These aren’t people who have just decided to drop out. These aren’t people who are lazy or causing problems just for the sake of causing problems. These are people who are hurting, they’re suffering, they’re in pain.

And hurt people hurt people.

OK? And I see it happen every day. For me, these kinds of meeting are really just …… I almost left a half hour in. Because I can’t sit here and listen to this knowing that we’re not even catching it, like you know, these are real people, and when we sit around the table talking about them as if they’re numbers or as if they’re something on a page, or “it’s a problem that we have to address,” you know, these are citizens …….  And I think the way to start addressing this is to stop talking about them as though it’s a problem. Let’s look at it for what it really is. This is a part of our system. This is a part of the way we live. Homelessness is a reality. No one is going to make it go away. Not in San Rafael, not in Marin County, not anywhere. Because its the fallout from the way we live our lives and the way we operate as a society. These people are the costs of our way of living.

So lets look at that. Let’s look at how we can do something about that. So it’s not going to cost you a dime. But the way to start this process, is to say to the homeless community, my brothers and sisters who are in the room right now, who are living outside, to say, “You know what? You’re here, we see you. We care about you. We want you to live the best life you can possibly live given the circumstance that you’re in” …… You do that and you ask the police department to be gentle to people, you give them a mandate to be nice to people, train them how to speak to people in a way that they don’t feel degraded or oppressed, and you will see, I guarantee you, you will see people being more respectful. You’ll see people not littering as much. You see people not standing in front of Starbucks being angry and acting out. Because they’re feel like they’re part of this city. It not’s going to cost you anything. It’s not going to cost you any tax dollars or anything out of your pocket to say to people we care. Once people feel cared for, the way that they act changes. And I know this for a fact because this is what I do every day.

The people that you’re afraid of outside of Starbucks they give me a hug because I treat them like human beings. And I tell them that I love them. And I want the best for them. So, I think it starts there. You go down to Starbucks and talk to those people. Introduce yourself. ‘Hi, I’m mayor Phillips, how are you?’ That’s how it changes. It doesn’t change here. This doesn’t change anything, I’m sorry to say. I’ve been to so many meetings over the last eight years, and this doesn’t do anything. What does something is connecting with people.


8 Responses

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  1. Very nice piece.
    The first photo captures a really powerful juxtaposition between corporation/individualism, wants/needs, and quite simply, haves/have nots.
    I live Charlottesville, VA and it was interesting when I went to Philadelphia for my first year of college; where the homeless live is different in every town and city. Charlottesville’s homeless congregate on a pedestrian mall because the town is rural-meets-university-meets-artisan. So the only “urban” area where it would be worth a homeless person’s time to beg would be in this area. Also, there’s a certain bridge in the university area that a lot of homeless people occupy too. Grant it, at any given time, I have never seen more than four homeless people within a few feet of each other at any of these locations. (I guess a smaller town population means the ratio of home owner to homeless decreases…?)
    Interestingly enough, however, when I went to Philadelphia, where I would begin many community projects via my school, the thing that caught my eye was the homeless. They weren’t tucked away in some of the poorer neighborhoods, obviously; they were in plain sight. But when I went into Center City, I noticed they were pushed off into side streets. In other words, the unwanted were clearly dealt with in a dehumanizing manner; don’t see, no problem.
    This past Christmas I went out to Coronado/San Diego. Now here’s a great way to deal with the homeless: the Coronado Bridge, which evidently, is not a pedestrian bridge, is where many a person has attempted/committed suicide. So not only is the no-sidewalk quality unwelcoming or a clear sign of denying the unwanted individuals without vehicles, but at one point in my over-analytic mind I realized that the bridge was quite eerie. Nevertheless, I learned that any individual that fell into the category of “homeless” in Coronado would be shipped back to San Diego. One could easily ask, “How can you tell if some one is homeless in Coronado?” Well, the answer is really quite simple if you’ve been to the beach-island that was rated number one for best beach in America: the non-tourist, BMW-driving schmuck who is sitting on the sidewalk is the culprit.
    And once in San Diego, unlike Philadelphia, the homeless were still lingering in touristy areas. In fact, I concluded that they were literally pushed to the waters edge when I visited the USS Midway.

    I think this piece, something I did after returning home from that vacation, mentions the comparison between cities:

    Jack Viere

    July 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    • Thanks for your response. Actually, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. The business problems of downtown merchants might have little to do with the homeless. Street people might be a convenient excuse for what is mostly a boring downtown.

      Ron Greene

      July 31, 2012 at 11:27 am

  2. What an eloquent observation of the City Council vs. the homeless denizens who, having no place to go, congregate on the streets. The mind set of the council is like perpetually trying to shoo away flies with fans, fly paper, but hopefully not the fatal swatter. They can’t see the forest for the trees. Rev Paul Gaffney’s plea to the Council and meeting attendees is simple and humane. I hope some kind of event can be organized to introduce the 1%ers to the homeless. Fat Chance.
    Your photographs, intense!

    Gene/Jane Beecher

    July 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    • Thank you. An attempt is being made to introduce subcommittee members to representatives of the homeless community.

      Ron Greene

      July 31, 2012 at 11:30 am

  3. You’ve touched a sensitive nerve at a sensitive time. I hope you keep pushing.

    Suzanne Miller

    July 30, 2012 at 10:37 am

    • I’ll do what I can do with this blog. It’s a tiny voice, but I’ll keep yelling.

      Ron Greene

      July 31, 2012 at 11:31 am

  4. Thank you for this article Ron. As a resident of San Rafael for 25 years, I am elated that you are one of (the few of) us who is stepping up to bring awareness of our social divisions to the front. Knowing the situation of street life in our city intimately has spurred me to dedicate my professional life to making whatever small difference I can to alleviate the sufferings in our community that homelessness brings us all. I too have been attending what meetings I can as I become more involved in the solution rather than the problem.

    While I can say “yes, homelessness is a problem that causes suffering”, I think a more accurate statement to make is “yes, there are problems that cause homelessness and further the suffering therein.”

    I agree that the roots of homelessness are anchored in our societal model which, in my opinion, is soiled with the self-seeking filth of classism. There are many of our community that just cannot thrive financially in such an elitist environment. Whether through inability, disability, or sheer bad fortune, that number of disadvantaged persons is on the rise. They are still our community however! To watch business and property owners – many of whom struggle economically themselves – turn a blind eye to the plight of the homeless members of this community is bad enough; to hear them lobby against the homeless in public forum is downright disgusting to me.

    That our system of ideals and operations require adjustment to relieve this epidemic and the problems it creates is evident. I propose that the changes made shall only succeed if they come from a place of compassion rather than separation, condemnation and persecution. The best place to start acting successfully in this case is awareness not just of the complaints put forth by our “haves”, but of those put forth by our “have nots”. In other words, listening to the downtrodden to learn what is needed to resolve our city’s issues with just as much attention (if not more) than the ear lent to those in power.

    This article and others you have published is right in line with my proposition, above. You are shedding light on both sides of the situation and for that I commend you. Keep up the great work!

    Grant Vaughn

    July 30, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    • Thanks you for taking the time to respond. I’ve suggest that the Ritter Center host a meeting between some of its clients and members of the San Rafael Subcommittee on Homelessness. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

      Ron Greene

      July 31, 2012 at 11:34 am

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