The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Tonight at the Post Office October 14, 2014

Filed under: Cold-Weather Policy,homelessness — Karen Shafer @ 9:29 pm

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Tonight at the Post Office

I walked into the local post office this evening to drop a package in the bin, and a young woman was sitting by the door on a blue plastic mail tub turned upside down. She was packed for travel — her belongings in disposable sacks — but she didn’t appear to be going anywhere. It’s unusual for anyone to be hanging out in the p. o., and as I left the lobby, I said to her, “Is everything OK?” “Not really,” she answered. Me: “Do you need some help?” She: “Yes, but I don’t suppose you’ll be able to do anything.” I’ve been out of the “homeless business” for several years, but, as things happen, the h.b. doesn’t let me go, probably because people without homes are everywhere.


“So what’s going on?” I asked her. “I need a place to stay for a couple of nights,” she answered, “I’m about to be out of a place to live.” She made it sound immediate and temporary, but I wondered if it was and asked, “Are you sleeping out tonight?” — not a good idea for anyone, and never for a woman alone. She said yes. “I know a few people I can call who help people who are homeless…” I hesitated, “I don’t know if you are…” “I am,” she replied. “Well, let me go to my car and get my phone and make a couple of calls,” I responded. “If I don’t reach anyone, I will give you some numbers to try later if you have a mobile.” “I do,” she said.


I asked her first about the local shelters, and she knew the ropes — too late to get in. I mentioned the possibility of emergency beds opening at midnight for overload, but she said that would only happen if the temperature was below freezing. “Should be 40 degrees,” I commented, for no reason, as it’s in the 70’s here today.


As I got back into my car and reached for my phone, I felt in a hurry — I was doing errands on my To Do List, and was running behind schedule. “Oh, no you don’t,” I chastised myself for feeling that there was anything more urgent than this lost young woman who had crossed my path. One of the things I’ve learned since being out of touch with “the street” the past few years is that one forgets… about what matters, about how it never is Us and Them, about the primacy of Now. We want life to be slick and smooth, and every cultural message around us tells us that is should be… but it isn’t.


I knew who to call — friends who run organizations helping unhoused people — and the first call I made was the right one. “Karen! How are you?” said my friend, who was still at work at 9 P.M. and still answering her phone. We exchanged regrets about not having dinner in a while, and I told her the situation, asking, “Can you find a place for her?” “If it’s an emergency,” she said. This woman always comes through for people in trouble as no one else does. “How will she get here?” my friend asked. “I don’t do this any more,” I said, “but I think I’m just going to bring her. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”


I used to take strangers in my car from time to time, but I’ve stopped for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it started to feel like not-the-right-thing for me to do. But most importantly, my eleven-year-old granddaughter, who is very wise, learned about it and asked me just last week if I did it still. When I said not usually, she replied, “Good, I don’t think you should.” I trust her judgment.


Back in the p. o. lobby and ignoring that judgment, I told Lakita, “I’ve found you a place, and I’ll take you there if you want to go.” She hesitated and asked where it was. I told her — “Not the best neighborhood, I know, but you’ll be safe there” — but she shook her head. “OK,” I said, “then here are the numbers of some people who can maybe help you tomorrow. If you get in trouble tonight, I think it’s safe these days to call the Dallas Police — didn’t always used to be, but I think things are better.” “Oh, they know me,” she smiled, “It depends on who’s on duty.” “So I’ve heard,” I smiled back. Gallows humor.


“Best of luck,” I told her. “Thank you,” she said, and I left the building.


As I walked to my car, Lakita opened the door of the post office and called out to me, “If I could, I’d give you the world!” I replied, “Right back atcha’!”







From Gangs to Gardens September 18, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Karen Shafer @ 8:39 pm

Click on the link to see how beautiful these gardens are!

From Gangs to Gardens: How Community Agriculture Transformed Quesada Avenue

Ten years ago, the residents of the crime-ridden neighborhood started planting gardens—and everything changed.

by Katherine Gustafson
posted May 30, 2012

Flowers bloom alongside Quesada Avenue.
Photo by Katherine Gustafson
In 2002, two neighbors armed with spades and seeds changed everything for crime-addled Quesada Avenue in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point area. The street had been ground zero for the area’s drug trade and its attendant violence. But when Annette Smith and Karl Paige began planting flowers on a small section of the trash-filled median strip, Quesada Gardens Initiative was born. Over the course of the next decade, the community-enrichment project profoundly altered the face of this once-blighted neighborhood.
Jeffrey Betcher is the Initiative’s unlikely spokesperson. A gay white man driven to the majority-black area by the high cost of housing elsewhere, he moved into a house on Quesada Avenue in 1998 to find drug dealers selling from his front stoop and addicts sleeping beneath his stairs. He told me about the day that he returned home from work to discover that his neighbor Annette had planted a little corner of his yard.
“Even though there was a throng of people—drug dealers who were carrying guns, pretty scary folks—she had planted flowers on this little strip of dirt by my driveway,” he told me. “I was so moved by that . . . I thought, that’s what life is about. That’s what community development is about. That’s what’s going to change this block faster than any public investment or outside strategy. And in fact it did.”
We too often fail to consider food a social good or to understand that growing, selling, and eating food is by its nature a meaningful social act.
A group of neighbors got together for a barbeque, and Jeffrey—who has a background in community organizing—started a conversation about the positive aspects of living in the neighborhood. What followed was a long-term, consensus-based process that resulted in the creation of a series of gardens on vacant land in the surrounding blocks. On Quesada Avenue, the median strip was transformed into a wonderland of Canary Island date palms, bright flowers, and leafy vegetation. Any neighbor who wants to can organize a new gardening effort, take responsibility for the existing gardens, or put together a public art project.
While Quesada Gardens Initiative is not specifically focused around growing food, it does incorporate a food garden used to teach local children about crops, as well as free-form community garden plots. And the way the project uses gardening as a powerful locus of community engagement and empowerment demonstrates an important truth about the social value of food that we seem to have largely forgotten in this country.

A major reason our food system is so damaged—so dominated by corporate interests, rife with unhealthy products, and unbalanced by unequal access—is that we too often fail to consider food a social good or to understand that growing, selling, and eating food is by its nature a meaningful social act. What we eat is far more than a pile of commodities. Not only is food’s essential job to nourish our bodies, but it can also serve as a creator of quality livelihoods, a locus of community engagement and cohesion, and an engine of citizen empowerment and education.
To improve our system, we must realize and act on this fundamental truth. Most of the industrial food corporations do not. Their central motivation is profit, and the highest profit apparently comes from treating food as a product like any other—a plate full of widgets that can be engineered, created, priced, marketed, and exploited.
Luckily, a growing number of people concerned with the origins and impacts of their food are rejecting this materialistic and one-dimensional view of what we eat. Projects and organizations all over the country are putting food back into the social context it has traditionally inhabited.
“The change that we’ve created is not about the garden, it’s about the gardeners.”
For example, companies and cooperatives that supply local food to an area’s population strongly demonstrate that food is central to community cohesion and to local economies. In school garden programs, students learn the complex processes and intense collaboration that go into making what they eat. Projects that help underserved populations like refugees and inner-city residents grow produce help make food once again a central concern of family and community life.
Quesada Gardens Initiative reflects the power of growing things to bring a local community together in a powerful way. Jeffrey made this point as he took me on a tour of the garden plots dotted amongst the houses and stores of the surrounding neighborhood.
Quesada Avenue, the block once known as the most dangerous in the area, has been transformed completely and now serves as a hub of community life. At the top of its hill, Jeffrey showed me the beautifully designed food garden for educating kids. Behind the chain-link fence, stalks of corn stood at attention beside a glowing patch of leafy greens.
At another garden a few blocks away—a patchwork of small plots that had previously been an improvised trash dump—a sandbox and rope swing indicated that the garden was for more than growing food. Kids, in fact, had painted the signs that ringed the garden’s perimeter with such slogans and quotes as “Don’t dump on my garden” and “If you want to change the world, start in your own neighborhood – Harvey Milk.”
Quesada Initiative’s success arises from the project’s appreciation of gardening as the means to an end more profound than a harvest of lettuce and peas. While the plants produced are of course a key motivation for any gardening enterprise, growing food can also—should also—serve other important social purposes, like cultivating a culture of civic engagement and an ethos of community participation.
“The change that we’ve created is not about the garden, it’s about the gardeners,” Jeffrey told me. He stopped to greet a neighbor as we rounded the corner back onto Quesada Avenue. As we continued on our way, he smiled at me with satisfaction.
“We realize we have done something right here,” he said.

Katherine Gustafson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Katherine is a freelance writer and editor based in the Washington, DC, area. Her first book, Change Comes to Dinner, about sustainable food, was published this month by St. Martin’s Press.


Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent September 12, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Karen Shafer @ 7:42 pm


Boston’s Homeless: A Major Shift September 8, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Karen Shafer @ 7:46 pm

Pine St. Inn’s bold move to end chronic homelessness

By Shirley Leung | GLOBE STAFF JULY 16, 2014

Last winter, the Pine Street Inn saw an overcrowding of homeless men trying to escape the extreme cold.

Five years ago, Lyndia Downie had a crazy idea. What if Pine Street Inn, a haven for Boston’s homeless, reinvented itself, turning from an emergency shelter provider to a landlord?

Downie, who runs Pine Street, warned her board it would be a hard-to-stomach decision, one that would involve closing some shelters and shifting those resources to instead buy homes. Today, that change is official: Pine Street Inn now manages more beds in homes than in shelters. Just a decade ago, the ratio was about 30 percent housing to 70 percent shelter beds.

It’s a bold strategy and one the city, which also runs shelters, is accelerating under the Walsh administration. Could Boston be on the verge of solving chronic homelessness?

“I am hoping within a handful of years,” said housing chief Sheila Dillon.

That’s amazing, given that we just went through a deep recession, and signs point to a widening gap between rich and poor in this city, where there will be two Four Seasons but hardly anywhere for the middle class to live.

What Downie saw years ago was buried in a trove of data she scoured: 5 percent of the homeless population took up more than half of the beds at Pine Street on any given night.

The truth is that most people who come through Pine Street are there because of a temporary crisis.

They often just need a place to stay for a few days. But Downie began to imagine what would happen if Pine Street focused on that 5 percent — the people who live on the street for months or years.

Few people thought her idea would work. These street people didn’t want help.

Not true. A year after moving into a Pine Street home — where they also receive counseling — 96 percent of the chronically homeless are still there.

Downie didn’t come up with the idea of “housing first” for the homeless. It actually came from New York. But while it will take more than one good idea to solve New York’s massive problem, Boston stands a fighting chance.

Our city has about 300 chronically homeless, down from about 570 in 2009.

“That’s solvable,” Downie said this week at a former Mission Hill hospice Pine Street has converted into a 18-unit house, one of three dozen the nonprofit owns in Boston and Brookline.

Overall, Pine Street manages nearly 900 permanent beds compared with about 670 emergency beds. And thanks to a recent $20 million capital campaign funded by private donors, it will be able to maintain those properties and buy more.

If not for the Mission Hill house, Paul Sullivan would be in and out of shelters.

He had a drinking problem that left him jobless and homeless. The former insurance administrator is now sober and has lived under the same roof for five years. Sullivan, 61, pays $238 a month in rent, or 30 percent of his Social Security disability income.

He has his own room, and shares a kitchen and bathroom. It feels like a home. “The camaraderie is terrific,” Sullivan said. He does volunteer work and hopes to some day get a part-time paying job.

That’s good for everyone.

The chronically homeless regularly end up in emergency rooms and tax public safety systems; keeping them in long-term housing adds up to an annual savings of $9,500 per person, according to advocacy group Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

That’s a big reason why the Patrick administration is also helping to fund Pine Street Inn’s “housing first” initiative, as well as similar efforts around the state, said Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary for housing and community development.

No one is saying that emergency shelters will disappear, certainly not at Pine Street. But we have a shot at making chronic homelessness a thing of the past.

Related coverage:

• Graduates of Pine Street Inn’s job training celebrate

• Bitter cold drives homeless to shelters

• More young adults call streets of Boston home

• Kevin Cullen: Moving story of a once-homeless veteran

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.


Half the Sky September 2, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Karen Shafer @ 7:59 pm

A loving family…  what everyone needs!


Homeless in Calais August 28, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Karen Shafer @ 8:54 pm

Does this look familiar to anyone aware of the situation of homeless people in the U.S.?  How do you feel about the way they are being treated by authorities?

How would you feel about having these people as your neighbors?  Would you feel that they were taking your jobs and benefits?

Food for thought…



A Child is Born December 24, 2013

Filed under: Christmas — Karen Shafer @ 10:08 pm

Christmas, 2013

“Every child comes with a message that God is not yet discouraged of Man.”


~~  Tagore


 “Ask yourself what you can do, and what you need to let go of, that God’s light of love and truth might shine through you.  Pray to Him to help you clear away the debris of fears, worries, resentments, or other limiting thoughts that create obstructions between you and Him, and between you and other souls.  

As the Lord Jesus shared our human nature and felt infinite compassion for us in all we pass through, let us try to be patient with ourselves and forgiving toward those around us.  Every though or action that reflects divine understanding and harmony allows God’s grace and blessings to flow into your life, which in turn can enlighten others in this world…”


~~  Sri Daya Mata,  Christmas Letter 2004, Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda




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