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Fear the Homeless

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Marin County | California

Those of you who have followed this blog know that I’m interested in finding ways of housing as many segments of our homeless population as possible, and at the same time providing a full range of human services to those who remain unhoused.

For a number of reasons, including that several important social service agencies are located in central San Rafael, city hall has taken on the brunt of the responsibility for trying to unravel the complicated issues of homelessness in Marin County. And because elected officials answer mainly to homeowners and business interests, there is a natural reluctance to implement any new services that might attract more homeless people to downtown San Rafael.

In the past several years, Hugo Landecker has emerged as a spokesperson for people in the community who are concerned that homeless people are hurting property values and business interests. Mr. Landecker shares his views almost daily with a mailing list of several hundred, and seems to have an influence well beyond this number. I believe he is well meaning, but at times comes off as lacking compassion for the most destitute in our community.

Mr. Landecker was recently named Citizen of the Year by the San Rafael City Council.

A more critical view of Mr. Landecker’s activities is held by the Rev. Paul Gaffney. Somewhat quaintly, some would say naively, Rev. Gaffney holds that the values of love and compassion are at least as important as economic interests. As you might suspect, naive or not in today’s consumer culture, I agree.

Recently, Rev. Gaffney took strong exception to the ideas expressed in one of Mr. Landecker’s emails, and asked that his response be sent to the mailing list. Mr. Landecker has not done so, prompting me to publish the two emails here.

Paul Gaffney

The Rev. Paul Gaffney at a memorial service for homeless people who have died on the streets of San Rafael.

January 22, 2014

Rev. Paul Gaffney, Chaplain
Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy

Hello Hugo,

I feel compelled to respond to this email ( Dated Jan. 22,2014 and found below). I am hopeful that you will share my thoughts with your San Rafael Group list.

First, to title your email “A different perspective” seems a misnomer to me. The email that you include from one of your readers appears to provide no different a perspective than any of the other emails that you have sent. The tone is harsh, demeaning, and does not recognize the complexity of homelessness. What I read here is that at least 70% of those who are living outside are a nuisance, needing to be relegated to some place where they will no longer disturb the rest of us by causing us to feel uncomfortable. Granted, the writer says that we should respect the “well-behaved street people” in our community. However, there is no insight presented into why those who are “socially inept” act that way in the first place. Rather, the writer talks about this community of people as if they are vermin, needing to be “herded” out of our sight.

To assert that San Rafael has “the best local services in the Bay Area” is simply not true. While there is much good work happening here, the services that are provided are merely capable of allowing people to survive while they are homeless. There is no affordable housing, no long-term, adequate capacity shelter, no substantial living wage employment. To further assert that people flock here to take advantage of what those services offer is also not true. Of course, there are people who travel here from other places, people who get stuck here who didn’t have the intention to stay when they arrived – but these are the exception, not the rule. And their reasons for staying tend to be far more complicated than simply wanting what St. Vincent De Paul and Ritter Center have to offer. Why is it so difficult for us to admit that there are people from Marin who are now living in poverty, addicted to drugs, mentally ill, and homeless?

You ask “Isn’t the real problem about what that the patrons of the downtown, merchants, visitors to San Rafael and users of our public spaces see and hear?” and my answer is emphatically “No!” The real problem is that there are people living in our community who are suffering, sick, mentally ill and untreated, addicted without hope, dying on our sidewalks and on our hills. Here. In one of the wealthiest places on the planet. And the way that you and the writer whom you presented to us wish to deal with this is by blaming them for their plight, which is no direct fault of their own. I know that you and others may disagree with that sentiment, but I know some of their stories – what got them in this horribly impossible situation in the first place. And none of it is pretty. Folks who live outside, especially the ones who are “socially inept” have endured some of the worst imaginable traumas and tragedies.

Could you imagine having a psychotic break in your senior year of college, just 3 credits shy of graduation, a major part of your psychosis being that you have no awareness of your illness? Could you imagine your entire family dying in a tragic accident, and your only support system being friends who encourage you to drink and use drugs to forget? How would you respond if you came home from serving your country, only to find that your parents had passed away, and the house where you had grown up had been seized by the bank? What if you were an abused woman, fleeing for her life, terrified that her husband was after her? Or a teenager whose parents were abusive or never available because they were always working or drinking or using drugs? Or a young adult who aged out of foster care and was told by her group home or foster family that they weren’t wanted anymore? Wouldn’t you be angry? Afraid? Now, put yourself in the midst of a community that tells you that you are the problem, tells you to suck it up and get a job and a place to live or get out, tells you that there’s already too much help available for you, that you should be grateful for their unwanted clothing and their scraps of discarded food, but also ashamed of relying on it to survive…wouldn’t you be acting out? I’m certain that I would.

Not a single person that I know, that I work with who lives outside is proud of the way that they are living. Every single one of them wants something better. Their version of “better” may not look like your version or my version – but not a single person I’ve met ever says, “I’m happy being a lazy drunk.” or “I can’t wait to cause a disturbance today.” I’ve never met a single homeless person who told me that they woke up one day and decided to be homeless. I met one man who said that God told him to leave the comforts of his home to go and preach the Gospel. I met another who said that he simply prefers to sleep out under the stars. But deeper inquiry into their life stories revealed pain and trauma that manifested in their lives in ways that caused both of them to lose everything they ever had. The only way to get beneath the surface to the deeper, real story is through relationship. We have to be willing to be in relationship with people if we ever want to understand the complexities of their situations. We also have to understand and remember that each of us is unique – we don’t all have the same opportunities or support networks. I know that if there were just one or two things different in my life, I could have been homeless myself, or my mother could have, or my father could have. So every time I speak with a homeless person, regardless of how drunk or high or mentally imbalanced they are, I see them as a son or a daughter, a mother or a father – because that is who they are to somebody.

So, what is the solution? Well, frankly, there is no solution for homelessness in a community where we are unwilling to do anything that might allow poverty to be visible; where we are so uncomfortable with “the other” that our best solutions are to corral and separate. The only way to solve this is to admit that it is here. That this is not some kind of invasion or infestation. That this kind of poverty and desperation and addiction and mental illness exists here, grew up here, sprouted from seeds that we planted here. If we are able to really look at it, get to know it, even embrace it – then and only then will we be able to begin to find ways – truly productive ways – of addressing it. We need to talk to our neighbors more, get to know the people in our community who frighten us the most. There are ways, safe ways, to learn how to do this. As long as we don’t know one another, it is very easy to place blame on those who make us uncomfortable. And as long as we are willing to put the value of our property and business interests over and above the value of human life, we will fail to preserve either.

I envision a community where people are cared for, told that they matter – regardless of their appearance, their smells, or their habits. I envision a community that is proud of its ability to help those who are less fortunate, who are suffering, who are in need. A place that feels honored and blessed by the opportunity to serve others. I know that I am not alone in this vision. Compassion and care are transformative – I have seen it happen. When people are cared for, they feel less of a need – less of a compulsion to act out. When addicts are shown love and compassion, their self-destructive behaviors are easier for them to see. When people with untreated mental illness are not ignored, but engaged with tenderness, their sense of self begins to re-emerge. Of course, this all takes time and patience and a willingness to be uncomfortable – but my experience is that everything of true value requires these things of us.

Hugo, I know you’ve heard me speak along these lines before. Perhaps some of your readers have not. I hope that you can share my remarks in their entirety and open a dialogue that includes truly different perspectives. If you do decide to share this, please include my name and email address so that folks can respond directly to me if they so choose.

Thanks for your passion on this subject. I hope we can continue the conversation.

Blessings,

Paul

Rev. Paul Gaffney, Chaplain
Marin Interfaith Street Chaplaincy
http://www.homelesschaplaincy.org
chaplaincy@homelesschaplaincy.org

Hugo Landecker

Hugo Landecker is a frequent speaker before the San Rafael City Council.

Mr. Landecker’s email to his mailing list 

January 22, 2014 

San Rafael Group — A Different Perspective

Good morning,

A few days ago I got an interesting email response to one of my emails. Take a look at this. Doesn’t it say what the problem is and doesn’t it sort of lead into a solution?

 The email:

As with any issue, we can divide and conquer or we can pile up hatred against a dam of great magnitude. If the entrance to Albert park had benches and lawns crowded with well dressed local homeowners or the such, there would be no issue and more benches would be installed. I suggest several solutions:

1.) The chronic lazy, inebriated, heckling and otherwise socially inept should be processed out of our public places immediately and everyday until they learn to behave or stay away. End of discussion. An efficient, effective, inexpensive method needs to be found. Arrest is too expensive.

2.) St Vincent’s accepts dirty, drunk and often otherwise socially unacceptable meal clients (morning and afternoon). Client behavior at the chow hall IS required to be quiet and non-harassing to other clients and staff. Many are not allowed in or are banned for 30 days. This must be extended to our parks and public downtown areas or this magnet of the best local services in the Bay Area will continue to attract scofflaws.

Fortunately and unfortunately the rules for sidewalk and park behavior are much tighter AND much more difficult to police. Again: the City and other non-profits MUST find a efficient, inexpensive way to process this horde of clients that are clogging the West entrance (near the community center) to Albert Park and other downtown areas.

3.) There are also some unkempt (or not), but otherwise polite and coherent clients: these have potential as “herders” or helpers of the less coherent ones to less visible areas or waiting transportation. There is a need here to be filled by, perhaps an existing non-profit.

4.) I continue to believe that nearby, out of the way sites/programs need to be found for both of the major two offending groups: the inebriated and the otherwise misbehaving (littering, dogs off leash, camping, open containers, heckling, panhandling).

5.) I also continue to believe that if we respect the behavior of the “respectable homeless/street people” and concentrate on the ones with poor behavior, we can stop the influx of the misbehaving, problem-makers.

Hugo, if you agree, please help me concentrate on these three major issues: trouble-makers, inebriated and an inexpensive way to process these two groups off our parks, streets and public places. My close observation, is that about 25%-30% of the homeless/street people are not trouble makers nor even homeless, but good, helpful citizens relegated to the bottom of the economic pile for various circumstances. Please respect them. I would appreciate it if you would forward this to your various lists.

Hugo comment:

Isn’t the real problem about what that the patrons of the downtown, merchants, visitors to San Rafael and users of our public spaces see and hear? Aren’t most of the problems really an issue of proper conduct? Okay, what is proper? That is a subjective word. In prior emails I have mentioned “inappropriate behavior” many times. The end result is that there are two segments of our society that are clashing.

Part of the problem in San Rafael is that the agencies serving the homeless population are spread out in our downtown. Sometimes I think of San Rafael as having a smorgasbord of social service agencies serving the needy. Maybe the solution is the campus concept. Put all the agencies in one place (campus). Have services such as counseling, employment, transitional housing, a place to spend the day, REST, food, etc in one place that is not in or adjacent to a commercial area. Seems like this would be more humane for all involved. Sort of like a shopping center for the needy. Win-win would be the end result.

Let’s promote the idea of a “hand up and not a hand out”, but do it in a better way than we do currently.

Hugo Landecker

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Written by Ron Greene

February 28, 2014 at 3:49 pm

One Response

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  1. Very compelling…..it changed my thinking. Really.

    Stephen J. Johnson

    SteveJ

    February 28, 2014 at 5:20 pm


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