Monday, April 6, 2015
“Give Me a Shot of Anything: House Calls to the Homeless”
I find these video clips to be riveting. What do you think?
Night Time House Calls
The Film Maker
Boston Health Care for the Homeless
Monday, April 6, 2015
“Give Me a Shot of Anything: House Calls to the Homeless”
I find these video clips to be riveting. What do you think?
Night Time House Calls
The Film Maker
Boston Health Care for the Homeless
From the Boston Globe: listen to the story here…
Why Some Bostonians Refuse Shelter In The Dead Of Winter, And How They Survive
A van crawls through the streets of downtown Boston, pausing at the intricate iron entrance to a city landmark or a doorway carved in stone. By day, these openings are passages to power and wealth. At night, they are coveted shelters from wind, sleet or snow. People inside the van know this. Their carefully trained eyes scan the shadows of every building, stairway or bench, watching for hints of life.
On Winter Street, at the end of a brick alley, there’s a flicker of movement. The van pulls over and a figure in a light coat emerges.
“Is that you James?” asks a man with a reassuring, deep voice who has stepped out of the van. “You going in tonight?”
Nelson Bennett knows James. He sees this young man often as Bennett circles downtown Boston in Pine Street Inn’s outreach van. It’s packed with blankets, hats, gloves, underwear, socks and sandwiches. Large insulated containers keep hot water handy for instant soup, oatmeal and hot chocolate.
“It always helps, especially in these conditions, to get some warm liquid into your body,” Bennett says.
Bennett and his crew are also out every night trying to persuade people who plan to sleep on the street to spend the night in a shelter instead.
Now, with the temperature at 15 degrees and dropping, Bennett wants to know, will James come in?
No, James says. His girlfriend was assaulted at one of the shelters and won’t go back, so he’s staying out with her. James stands next to a pile of ripped boxes from which he’s pulling pieces to build their bed. It will be three layers of cardboard pushed up against a glass office front with a short wall around the sides.
“I kind of go a little overboard,” James says, laughing. “I don’t want any of the rodents and whatnot getting in.”
James explains he collects new pieces of cardboard every night and throws them away in the morning.
“Once you get in this situation, it’s like impossible” to get a job and get back into housing, James explains. “I have my own issues up here,” he adds, tapping his head. “I’ve had a lot happen, but I don’t want to deal with it so…”
“Where do you guys stay during the day?” asks Lyndia Downie, the president and executive director at Pine Street Inn who is listening to James’ story. “Have you applied for housing?
Yes, James says, pinching his hands to stave off frostbite, but he’s discouraged.
“If you don’t have kids or you don’t have a disability, they make it seem like you can never get housing. I can’t even explain to you how hopeless I feel sometimes,” James says. “My dream is to be able to come home from work again, just fall back on the couch and mind my own business, and I feel like it’s never going to happen.”
Downie takes some more information from James that she will give to Pine Street’s daytime street team. Bennett brings James some underwear, hot chocolate and two blankets. They are the only bedding James has.
“Thank you, thank you very much,” James says as the crew moves on.
At this hour, around midnight, the streets are empty except for a few garbage trucks, taxis and Pine Street’s van.
‘Justice To The Body’
Outside Macy’s in Downtown Crossing, Bennett approaches bundles of people in each doorway. Cindy peaks out from under a cloth sheet, a Mylar and one wool blanket. She and her husband Carl are among three couples who claim the store’s sheltered entrances every night, in snow, sleet and bitter winds.
“Because we’re married,” Cindy says. “We stay together. We sleep together. There needs to be shelters where married people can get on their feet as well.”
Cindy says she sleeps with one eye open. A few nights ago someone took one of the couple’s blankets.
“But we manage,” Cindy says. “Body heat, love, big word, [and] strength.”
A van outreach worker comes back with the couple’s order, soup and sandwiches. Carl asks if they can also get a blanket.
Pine Street will hand out 60 to 70 blankets tonight, between two vans: one that circles downtown and another that runs through Back Bay into Brighton and Chestnut Hill. A handful of people refuse all offers of help.
“This guy won’t talk to us,” Bennett says walking up to one of two cocooned figures. He stands quietly for a minute, watching for any sign of life.
“We’ll make sure they’re OK, they’re breathing, the blankets are moving, and we’ll leave ‘em alone,” Bennett explains.
The van rolls down Summer Street to a brick facade with an arched opening. The door is four or five feet back, leaving a covered, nearly enclosed space that almost hides a man. Downie approaches.
“You don’t have to come in all night,” she says with quiet pleading. “You could just come in for a few hours and get out of the cold.”
“I don’t mind,” says the man named Stephen.
“I’m cool, or actually I’m pretty warm, I should say,” he laughs. “I like my privacy. That’s all.”
Stephen chooses solitude over the warmth of a crowded shelter, where men are packed tight on a lobby floor this particular night because all the beds are full. Stephen forces himself to get up and move on every morning around 4 a.m. He doesn’t want to get caught sleeping here, to risk losing this space.
“I just don’t want to be in the way, you know what I mean, to be an eyesore for everybody,” Stephen says.
The temperature has dropped to 13 degrees and there’s a biting wind.
A man carrying one sheet of cardboard approaches the van, asking for a coat. There aren’t any. He settles, gratefully, for chicken noodle soup. “Aw you guys are great, thanks,” says the man, also named James.
This James is a gambler, who says he’s just back from Foxwoods where he stayed in one of the big hotels and feasted on lobster and steak.
“I’m bankin’ three grand,” James whispers to Bennett. “I caught on to how to beat the casino at their own game, $400-500 a week, guaranteed. It’s a no-lose game. Where I’m headed now is paradise,” James says as he wanders off.
It’s these guys who Downie worries about the most, the ones who aren’t speaking rationally, aren’t dressed for the cold, who aren’t suicidal but show signs of mental illness.
“He lives in what I call no man’s land,” Downie says, “because if you’re a danger to yourself there’s a possibility of some kind of commitment or guardianship, but if you’re not, your options are pretty limited. In some ways the disease stops you from getting treatment so it’s an odd paradox for people.”
The van has 30 to 35 regular stops, places where the crew expects to find people sleeping outside. The stops change with construction, or as businesses crack down on overnight street occupants.
Street regulars, as some of the homeless folks call themselves, know where to find the van. Subhash is waiting as Bennett hops out on a corner near the Theater District.
“How you doing, boss? You going in tonight?” Bennett asks. And finally, Bennett gets the answer he’s been hoping for, a yes.
Subhash says he had a strategy he hoped would get him through the night.
“I was planning to just walk around,” Subhash explains. “Sleeping can get a little tough in the cold. So probably like 30 minute lie down, then you have to start walking again.”
Except Subhash is now losing feeling in his legs. Still, deciding to go in, where he’ll be on a floor, with someone’s feet in his face, is not the obvious choice for Subhash.
“If you’re homeless, sometimes you just want to lose the crowd,” Subhash says, “to feel a little more reassured about who I am and what not. But a lot of times it doesn’t really do justice to the body. You have to compromise one way or another.”
As the van nears Chinatown, it’s swarmed by almost a dozen men and women in their late teens or 20s.
“I need gloves and socks, for me and my girl,” one man calls out.
“Yeah,” says another, “we need gloves over here.”
The crew runs out of gloves and blankets and heads back to Pine Street Inn to restock.
“Normally we don’t get flooded like that where there’s all those people,” says Jill Fortuna, a full-time outreach counselor on the van. Fortuna says many of these young people aren’t regulars and may just be passing through Boston.
“It’s worrisome to see kids that young out there,” Downie says.
Back at Pine Street, Fortuna unlocks the door to a metal storage container and squints into the dark. Bennett points a flashlight at the labels on a stack of boxes.
“Psyched,” Downie yells after a few seconds. Bennett grins, “gloves, gloves, yes, yes.”
Bennett rips open the box to reveal dozens of flat packages, wrapped by volunteers from Natixis, in red snowflake and green snowman paper.
Downie bursts into laughter. It’s Christmas all over again, here at 1 a.m. in the dead of a cold winter night. But could the box be mislabeled?
“Let’s hope there’s gloves in here,” Downie says.
She and Bennett rip open the packages with the fury of any 8 year old.
“Yep, bingo,” Bennett says.
Downie is relieved.
“We’ve been going through gloves like crazy cause it’s been so cold,” she says.
The restocked van heads toward North Station. It’s closed, but four teenagers huddle near the entrance. Fortuna recognizes them.
“They’re a bunch of young kids that just recently showed up,” she says. “They’ll make a big huge bed near Haymarket. There’s four or five of them who sleep there.”
One by one, the teenagers come to the passenger window of the van. Ben Williams, the driver, writes down their name, date of birth, the last four digits of the Social Security number and the ZIP code of their last residence, information for Pine Street’s client database. One young woman, Marie, asks for soup and blankets, but says she’d rather sleep outside than go in.
“I’ve been doing it for a few years. It doesn’t really bother me,” Marie says in a sing-song voice. “You just bundle up and all that jazz.”
Marie shrugs and walks away as a man named Michael steps forward, saying he can’t take it any more. “The temperature, the wind, there’s no public restrooms,” he explains.
Michael just got out of prison on a cocaine conviction.
“Come to find out,” Michael says, “the lady who tested my drugs said the drugs were real. Annie Dookhan, yeah. Now I come home and there’s no housing.”
Michael says he doesn’t like shelters because the rules seems to change depending on who’s in charge.
“I really think about going back to jail, cause it’s like I know what to expect,” he says. “I expect to be in a cell, with a bed, a toilet, two inmates, breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s simple.”
As the van drops Michael at Pine Street, Downie imagines a night when there won’t be anyone sleeping on the streets and shelters won’t be crowded. She says it would take about 2,000 new rooms.
Research shows that the units would pay for themselves over time, Downie adds, “because the expensive emergency service numbers go down and that offsets any new housing dollars. So doing nothing for chronically homeless people costs more money than putting them in supportive housing.”
The Patrick administration seems to agree. It expects to release details of a multimillion-dollar social investment project this spring aimed at reducing the number people like Cindy, James, Subhash and Michael who spend nights on the street, even in the dead of winter.
What Happens To The Body Of A Person Who Sleeps Outside In Extreme Cold?
Dr. Jim O’Connell, with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, explains:
When a person gets cold, their body shuts down blood going to the skin to preserve warmth near the heart. When hands and feet don’t have enough blood they may develop frostbite.
With frostbite, hands, feet, ears and noses can swell and blister. The skin turns black and necrotic. In cases of severe frostbite, dead tissue will fall off or autoamputate. Some patients are left with a disfigured toe or finger, some lose the tip or whole digit.
In the last two weeks in Boston, a homeless man who sleeps on the street lost one leg below the knee as well as part of the other foot to frostbite. Another man will need to have one of his legs amputated below the knee.
O’Connell explains the body’s reaction to cold in depth here.
Monday, August 26, 2013
Wise Words From Someone Who Knows…
“You can’t preach [the Gospel] to someone who is starving.
You can’t entertain people who are dying.”
~~ Pastor Karen Dudley, Founder and Senior Pastor, Dallas International Street Church
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Should We House Homeless Alcoholics or Make Them Get Sober First?
People will doubtless have strong — and differing — opinions about this, but I’ll offer this observation: the traditional approach of making homeless alcoholics and drug addicts get clean and sober before they qualify for housing has left a large percentage of them still on the street. The Housing First approach described in this article has some very favorable statistics in its favor.
Is it better, if someone is going to die of their addiction, for them to die cold and alone outdoors? Maybe if they don’t have the ‘moral courage’ to get clean, this is what they deserve. This Associated Press article considers some differing perspectives. What do you think? KS
Sunday, November 6, 2011
Piggybacking, with permission from Larry James, on his blog, here is a fascinating look at what one doctor in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania — Dr. Jim Withers — and his team are doing to heal a city by ministering on the streets to the city’s homeless population. Dr. Withers has been practicing ‘street medicine’ since 1992. There are always people living on the street who are unable to access medical care because of their inability to move through even the most streamlined red tape. That is why, for me, this type of medicine is particularly compelling and seems so very important. The post on Larry’s blog is on Monday, October 31, 2011. KS
Here’s the link to Operations Safety Net, founded by Dr. Withers to house his homeless patients in Pittsburgh.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Medicine That Matters
by Karen Shafer
“The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s mission is to provide or assure access to the highest quality health care for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area.”
Jean Yawkey Place
In the summer of 2011, while touring the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, I stepped off the third-floor elevator into Barbara McInnis House, looked around, and began to cry, (and I’m pretty sure it was what Oprah refers to as “the ugly cry”.) Those accompanying me — my daughter, two of my grandchildren, and our tour guide, Manager of Volunteer Services Carrie Eldridge-Dickson — at first looked at me in surprise. After all, we were viewing a beautiful, pristine environment decorated in pastels — a state-of-the-art facility which provides “medical respite care”, short-term medical and recuperative services, for homeless men and women in Boston, Massachusetts. I felt as if I’d stepped into an ideal world.
My companions’ surprise turned quickly to understanding. They shared the comprehension that my tears were in part joyful at what has been accomplished there, but that they also conveyed frustration at how few of our homeless brothers and sisters will ever experience the level of loving and dignified care expressed in the atmosphere surrounding us at that moment.
The 104-bed Barbara McInnis House is a medical respite care facility spread throughout three floors of Jean Yawkey Place, Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s central facility which opened in May of 2008. The building also houses a primary care walk-in clinic with ten exam rooms and four meeting rooms for mental health care, a dental clinic with five operatories, a pharmacy, office space for “street” and “family” outreach teams, and the organization’s administrative offices.
Barbara McInnis House provides 24-hour care for homeless men and women who are too sick for life on the streets or in shelters but not sick enough to occupy acute care rooms in area hospitals. It has a dining room that serves patients three nutritious meals a day, and a large common area and outdoor patio — all under one roof.
The cellar-to-roof renovation of this former city morgue and forensic research facility now addresses the unique medical needs of the city’s homeless men and women. It was made possible through the combined generosity of private, foundation and corporate donors. BHCHP raised $42,000,000 in the organization’s only capital campaign in its 26-year history.
Model of Care
Jean Yawkey Place sets the stage for the model of ‘integrated care’ practiced at BHCHP. The organization’s web site, www.BHCHP.org, describes the complex challenge of tackling health care among the vulnerable homeless population.
“Many homeless patients struggle with at least one substance abuse problem, at least one chronic physical condition and a psychiatric illness. Each condition is often preventable and manageable… on its own. But, in combination and left untreated, such health problems become compounded and all too often fatal. Medicine, in general, and homeless medicine, in particular, have long grappled with addressing these interconnected aspects of a patient’s healthcare in a coordinated way. In the traditional care model, behavioral health care and medical care operate independently.
The integrated care model at BHCHP unites physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, case managers and behavioral health professionals in a close collaboration. They follow patients together and separately in a variety of settings: on the street, at Barbara McInnis House, in outpatient clinics and, as needed, in shelter or housing.
A patient can move from street to clinic to hospital to respite care to shelter to housing, having easy and regular contact with at least one member of the medical team so that serious medical and behavioral diagnoses receive integrated attention.”
No homeless person is refused treatment at BHCHP. The professional staff provides medical treatment to homeless men, women and children at eighty locations across the city — in adult and family shelters; in two hospital-based clinics; in emergency, transitional and permanent-supportive housing; and through home visits to formerly long-term homeless patients who are now housed through the Housing First initiatives in Boston. They also provide care on the street, in alleyways and under bridges to those “rough sleepers” who avoid shelters.
How does such an impressive result come to be? An article from the American Journal of Public Health entitled “The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program: A Public Health Framework” talks about its beginnings. (O’Connell, Oppenheimer, Judge, Taube, Blanchfield, Swain, Koh: August, 2010)
In 1984, a community coalition consisting of eighty people representing shelters, homeless service providers, community health centers, nursing and medical schools, state and city governments, homeless persons, and advocacy groups was convened by Boston mayor Raymond Flynn and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. An extensive community needs assessment to identify gaps in existing health care services was then conducted.
Initial funding for the program came through a pilot grant of $300,000 annually for four years from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, subsequently matched by an additional $250,000 annually from the state of Massachusetts.
City wide cooperation and ‘buy in’ strikes me right away as a predictor of the program’s probable success, and, in particular, the inclusion of homeless people and their advocates in the planning. All too often, critical issues of how service is to be conceived and delivered to the homeless community is decided by committees comprised of those who have never experienced homelessness, without ‘grass roots’ input. Such a comprehensive network early on hopefully precludes the ‘fiefdom’ approach of non profit organizations that can occur in cities, resulting in duplication of services and competition for funding.
The Mission of BHCHP
“To provide or assure access to the highest quality health care for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area.”
When the program began offering clinical services in 1985 with a staff of seven, these things stand out in terms of its mission:
“The coalition insisted that health care be embraced as a matter of social justice rather than charity, and they defined the program’s mission to ensure that the highest-quality health care would be available to all homeless men, women, and children in Boston.” (O’Connell, et al)
It also viewed itself as a viable professional career for health professionals rather than as a volunteer opportunity and hoped to ensure thereby continuity of top-tier, accessible health care for homeless men, women and children. This seems a radically positive, innovative notion, and would seem to insure that, by having physicians and other health care providers as salaried employees of BHCHP, not only would availability of health care be assured, but vital relationships of trust could be built between provider and patient, leading to ‘continuity of care.’
What is meant by ‘continuity of care’?
1. Continuity of care from street and shelter to hospital requires an enduring and trusting relationship between the doctor or clinician and patient.
2. Multidisciplinary teams should deliver care.
3. BHCHP should act as a catalyst within the mainstream health care system to ensure that the special needs of homeless persons are addressed.
4. BHCHP should serve as the “glue” linking hospitals and health centers with the community of shelters and homeless service providers.
5. BHCHP should strive to bridge medicine and public health.
6. BHCHP should create and implement ‘respite care.’ [now existing as Barbara McInnis House] (O’Connell, et al)
It is also significant that BHCHP is located near two teaching hospitals, Massachusetts General and Boston Medical Center. BHCHP has walk-in clinics on the campuses of both facilities. Colleges and universities are now educating healthcare providers in increased sensitivity to the particular needs of various ethnic and social groups. This is especially important as the homeless population is one which requires special care in building trust and relationships, both because of possible health issues such as mental illness or addiction, and because attitudes toward homeless people in society as a whole tend at times to be negative, and opportunities for rejection abound.
Who Deserves Compassionate Care?
One only has to read the comments section of newspaper articles on homelessness — where homeless people are frequently referred to as ‘bums’ or in other derogatory language — to understand the negativity which can be directed at people living on the street. This attitude in the public at large may be a more powerful determinant of the quality and scope of the health care offered to the homeless population than one thinks. For example, some nonprofit organizations seeking to provide health care to those living in poverty may be hesitant to include homeless individuals within their scope — even when they believe they are deserving and needful of help — because they may feel that the ‘homeless’ label will impede funding efforts.
So, at the heart of the mission of any program offering health care to those living in poverty must be the consideration of this question: Are people experiencing homelessness deserving of compassionate care? Whether or not to include homeless healthcare in programs may in part be a matter of conscience, where non profit leaders either bend to public pressure and opinion, or stand firm in the moral commitment to treat all human beings as equally deserving of inclusion in a community of care.
The decision at the outset by the founders of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program to emphatically declare that individuals who are homeless are entitled to and would be provided with top tier, continuous and compassionate health care, provided in an integrated model by on-staff medical and clinical professionals, and with the assumption of the inherent worthiness of each patient to receive such care, regardless of circumstance, represents a rare commitment, but one that seems to have been met there in an extraordinarily successful manner.
Toward the end of our tour of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, my family and I were fortunate to have a chance meeting with Dr. James O’Connell, a founding physician of the program and currently its president. When we told him how moved we were by the beauty of the facility and the range and depth of its proffered services, he said, “Remember, it hasn’t always been like this! It took us a while to get here.”
The success of the program says a great deal about an inspired vision; about the wisdom of its founders and their careful planning; about a limitless amount of dedicated work and commitment; and also, not to be underestimated, about the political and moral will of a public which supports and undergirds the idea that those who at this moment live in society’s shadows are nonetheless deserving of its best.
~~ BHCHP has operated in the black for all of its 26 years and has brought medicine that matters to tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children.
~~ BHCHP employs close to 300 doctors, dentists, physician assistants, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health case workers, chefs, building and maintenance staff, substance abuse counselors, case managers and dental assistants.
~~ BHCHP delivers health care to over 11,000 patients each year.
~~ BHCHP manages the medical care throughout greater Boston’s adult and family shelter system, in two hospital based clinics and at over 80 sites throughout greater Boston.
~~ Over its 26 year history BHCHP has developed a care model that makes it a leader in urban medicine throughout the world…compassionate, professional care from a full-time staff…immeasurable savings in both dignity and dollars.
Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program: www.BHCHP.org
Special thanks to Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, in particular Tom McCormack andVicki Ritterband for editing, and Carrie Eldridge-Dickson; and to Nancy Johnson, Master’s of Science Candidate with a focus on Community Health, for access to journal articles and for thoughtful discussions of and insights into public health policy.
This article appears in the October, 2011 issue of Street Zine, which is available from licensed street vendors across Dallas.
Monday, August 29, 2011
“Abandon yourself entirely to God’s guidance. Do not hesitate or be frightened.”
~~ Mother Teresa
Friends who read this blog have told me that the posts they like best are those that tell about the lives of people living on the street. In that spirit, here’s an entry from my journal from 2009. Prior to this encounter, Max was in recovery from an addiction, had a sponsor and was attending Twelve-Step meetings.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
Off the Wagon: Max Revisited
Sitting on my patio this afternoon drinking a cup of tea in this beautiful weather, I thought about my friend, Max, and tears stung my eyes. Everywhere I looked around the garden I saw his smiling face and bright blue eyes: in the fresh, green Vinca springing up by the gravel path, in the last of the rusty leaves still clinging to the Red Oak tree by the fence.
It’s funny: you may not think about a person every day, but there’s a notch somewhere in your gut that fits neatly into place when you know they’re doing well, and that comes unhinged when they’re not.
There are joys without number in knowing and loving people who live on the street, but this is one of the costs. Once you know, you can’t ‘not know’, and their troubles visit you even in the most peaceful moments. On the other hand, the depth of their suffering, and sharing it with them, carves out a place in yourself where their loving spirits reside, and that is a gift beyond measure that also stays with you.
One day this week, I was crossing a downtown street with a friend and heard a voice calling out, “Hey, Mama!” in my direction. It was Max, who grabbed me in a bear hug as I stepped up onto the curb and planted his characteristic kiss on my cheek, complete with the “Mmmm,MMM!” sound that people make when we kiss someone we haven’t seen in a while. I hadn’t seen Max in about a month, and I almost didn’t recognize him from our most recent encounter. This day, he was unshaven and disheveled, a different Max than I’d last seen, ‘spit-shined and polished’, as they say, with a new buzzed haircut of which he was proud.
“How’re you doing?” I asked him. “Well, not so good,” he confessed, “I’ve slipped a little bit. I’m having some trouble.” I knew what he meant. He’d been struggling with and — when last I saw him — succeeding in kicking his addition to crack cocaine. At that time, he’d been more than three months ‘clean’ — not an easy thing when you’re on the street, because those who are willing to facilitate your return to your old life greet you out there at every turn, when you don’t have a door you can close to get away from them, clear your head and make a ‘right’ choice for yourself.
What I said to him was, “I’m so, so sorry about this.” There is absolutely no point in a ‘tsk, tsk.’ For starters, like every other human being, I make bad decisions on a daily basis. However, gratefully, I have the peace and quiet of a home within which to consider my options.
Also, I know well that the person who will be hardest on Max in this case is certain to be himself. I have rarely met a person living on the street who falls back into an addiction and does anything other than take responsibility for it and heap blame and guilt on their own shoulders. “I’m working to get back on track,” he told me. “Max, I know you can do it, and I’ll be praying that you do.” “Love you, Mama.” “Love you, Max.” We parted.
Max had been sleeping in The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center courtyard before it closed for sleeping December 1, 2008, and was one of the lucky ones who got into a shelter. As long as he’s been sober, he’s been talking about securing a place in a drug rehabilitation program in Houston.
The sheer guts that it takes for a former addict to stay clean and sober for four months while spending his or her days on the streets of a big city is a lot more guts than most of us have. Shelters put people outside around 6 A.M. and reopen for business around four in the afternoon, and this man works past the afternoon cut off.
Yet Max did it. And I pray he can do it again.
Saturday, April 16, 2010
Mayoral Forum Held at The Stewpot This Week
The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church, Dallas, held a mayoral forum Thursday, April 14, 2011 to give Dallas Mayoral candidates an opportunity to address questions regarding the concerns and well-being of Dallas homeless citizens. Present at the event were vendors of the homeless newspaper Street Zine (published by The Stewpot), Stewpot and Crossroads Community Services staff, Bridge Homeless Assistance Center staff and homeless advocates. The forum was organized by Street Zine Editor, Pat Spradley and other Stewpot staffers, and the candidates were invited to the event by homeless advocate Clare Nilson.
Panelists were former Dallas Police Chief, David Kunkle, and former Homeless Czar, Mike Rawlings. Candidates Ron Natinsky and Edward Okpa were invited but unable to attend.
The questions ranged from their support of sales of the homeless newspaper published by The Stewpot, Street Zine and the needs of homeless citizens generally, to questions about the Bridge Homeless Assistance Center, and specifics regarding the candidates’ opinions of so-called Quality of Life ordinances, passed by Dallas and other cities to limit the presence and movements of homeless citizens in public places. Those attending learned about the opinions of the men regarding homelessness and a little of their personalities as well.
Everyone involved in the event is appreciative that the two candidates took time to attend and offer their perspectives on the important issues facing those experiencing homelessness in our city. Much gratitude as well goes to Ms. Spradley, Ms. Nilson and the Rev. Dr. Bruce Buchanan, Executive Director of The Stewpot, as well as Stewpot staff, for hosting this event.
Check the Street Zine Facebook page next week for an update on this important and informational event and see some pictures as well at :
‘Generic Ministry’ cares for Boston homeless in all weather
by Karen Shafer, February 10, 2011
“The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” -Hubert Humphrey, 1977
The Boston area has been slammed by an unusually large amount of snow this winter, even by New England standards — six snowstorms in a month — but that does not stop John Mark, Judi, Mick, Robert, Scott and the dedicated volunteers of Generic Ministry in the small town Needham, Massachusetts from hitting the streets of downtown Boston every Tuesday and Wednesday night to care for those who are homeless. During a visit to my family in January, 2011, it was my privilege to ride along with this dedicated group for two nights in the midst of the some of Boston’s most extreme weather in years, and to learn a little bit about the situation for our homeless brothers and sisters in the Boston area. Although Boston provides an adequate number of shelter beds for its homeless population, there are always people in any city who are ‘shelter resistant’ — unable or unwilling to cope with going into shelters, often due to mental illness and its ramifications.
The Generic Ministry van is equipped with shelves of warm clothing organized by size and type, with hanging racks of winter-worthy coats, with bins of socks, underwear and hygiene products, and with military surplus blankets, all of which are stocked and sorted twice weekly by a ‘behind-the-scenes crew’ made up of Robert (who also coordinates all contacts), Rick, and Scott, and by Martha, who finds online deals for the toiletries. Sandwiches made by school children in Needham and adjacent towns are available, as are bottled water, juice, chips and desserts.
Street feeding is not prohibited in Boston as it currently is in Dallas, and requires no registration or permit, but I was still surprised the first night when we pulled up right on the busy street next to the sidewalk across from Boston Common and opened up the van for the distribution of food and clothing. The food giveaway is run by volunteers who themselves are formerly homeless, and they were waiting for us in front of a popular hamburger restaurant when we arrived. Immediately about thirty people came out of nowhere and formed a line behind the truck to request warm clothing, while traffic on the busy street patiently drove around us. Generic Ministry volunteer Mick filled orders for specific clothing items and sizes from inside the van. Short a worker for manning the food line, Anthony and James, who head up the formerly-homeless volunteers, put me to work distributing food from a table on the sidewalk, although we had to search for a path through the snow bank, which was about waist high. (By the time I left the area a week later, the snow banks were higher than your head!)
After everyone had been served, the remaining sandwiches, chips, desserts and bottled water were given to the formerly-homeless volunteers to distribute among people who sleep in train stations, doorways, alleyways, and on church steps throughout the city. At this point there was ample time for visiting and street counseling. The Generic Ministry volunteers have warm and mutually-respectful relationships with their street friends and seem to know them well. They hand out cards printed with information about shelters, emergency services, medical care and rehabilitation, but their service goes way beyond this. If someone is in need of transportation to a shelter or the emergency room (there are three major hospitals in the area), they will transport them in their van — or call 911 if appropriate, and they keep track of the situations and challenges of individuals from week to week.
One of the people I’ll always remember from that first night is Harry. He had brought with him a beautiful spiral bound notebook tied with ribbons, and I saw him ask John Mark for his signature. It turns out he was collecting autographs in celebration of the life of Sargent Shriver and his advocacy for those living in poverty and with disabilities. Then he pulled a twenty dollar bill from his pocket and gave it to John Mark as a donation for the ministry.
The next night, as we made the ministry’s usual stops around downtown Boston, Harry met us again at one of the locations to help out. I was sitting in the front seat of the van with the door open, and he came up to say ‘hi’. He was so cold that his teeth were chattering and he was shivering, as the temperature edged in the direction of zero for the second night in a row, but his dedication is such that he had gotten a ride from the halfway house where he lives in a small town outside of Boston to come and aid the ministry. I offered him a blanket to wrap around himself, but he laughed as he declined it — “Oh, I’m not homeless!” he said. John Mark later told me that Harry had collected clothing for his homeless brothers and sisters in the past and gotten a ride for the half-hour trip to the ministry headquarters to deliver it in person.
A highlight of the Wednesday night outing was a visit to the Pilgrim Church Homeless Shelter in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston, where Generic Ministry delivers desserts weekly. The shelter operates without guards, metal detectors or policing of any kind, except for the self-policing done by those who stay there, despite the fact that Pilgrim Center takes in men who have been banned from other area shelters. Out of respect for those who were already bedded down for the night and those who were waiting in line to get in, I walked through quickly, but the order and calm of the shelter space — a church sanctuary with the pews removed — made a deep impression on me.
Later, outside on the snow-covered parking lot, I was introduced to the church’s pastor, The Rev. Mr. John Odams, and I asked him how the shelter works so well without guards. “We used to have a policeman on duty, but he didn’t have anything to do,” he told me. “I’m not sure why it works. Maybe it’s because it’s more an atmosphere of a home than a shelter.” A large number of those who stay at Pilgrim Shelter have aged out of foster care, not having been adopted by the age of eighteen, so the shelter is run under the direction of the United Homes Adult Services division of Children’s Services of Roxbury.
Keeping an eye on the weather, we left Dorchester and drove into downtown Boston. An emergency weather declaration had been issued for Boston that night — with the expectation of a winter gale predicted for 9 P.M. and slated to bring at least an additional eight inches of snow on top of the approximately four feet that had already fallen this winter — which means any car blocking roads or impeding snowplows can be towed by the city at the owner’s expense. As we drove around downtown, emergency vehicles were busy removing cars that had been left parked in order to make way for snow plows and sanding trucks. Despite the amount of snow that had fallen in the last several weeks, the streets of downtown were clear of snow, having been plowed and sanded aggressively in preparation for the next round that night.
The ministry know the whereabouts of a number of individuals and groups who ‘sleep rough’ in the downtown area and makes about a dozen stops on its Wednesday night rounds. In front of a downtown Seven-Eleven, we saw one of their ‘regulars’ — Sammy — sitting hunched over on a low windowsill. Judi got out to check on him, while we pulled over by a snow bank and parked the van next to the sidewalk in the valet area of an elegant-looking restaurant. I was surprised that no one asked us to move, though there were a number police cars cruising the area, as the streets were still actively being cleared of parked cars. Judi came back to the van with the message that Sammy had a leg injury and wanted to go inside somewhere for the night, so together she and John Mark helped him into the van. It had seemed at first that Sammy was willing to go into Pine Street Inn, a major Boston shelter, or to the hospital, but en route to the shelter he made the decision to go back to his camp in the back of a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority train station, so we took him there, and Judi and John Mark helped him limp inside.
Sammy had left Barbara McInnis House (which provides respite medical care for homeless men and women) against medical advice that same week, and, on our way to his camp, he and Judi discussed his plan for re-admittance. I was struck again by the nonjudgmental and respectful-yet-realistic approach that Judi took with him, acknowledging his rights as an individual to make choices — good or bad — yet encouraging in a calm and supportive way the healthy choice of rehabilitation and medical care. It is because of this non-patronizing approach that Generic Ministry — called ‘earth people’ by their homeless friends — has the trust and confidence of this extremely wary, at-risk population.
At one point we parked in a cab stand, and the cabbies waited patiently in line behind us as a small group of people lined up for clothing, blankets and sandwiches and we visited with them. A prosperous-looking man walked by and stopped to watch what we were doing. He looked at the ‘Generic Ministry’ name on the side of the van and nodded: “I like it,” he said.
As we continued our rounds, including a visit to another MBTA station encampment, I expressed my surprise that people are allowed to seek out and create their own shelter in the downtown Boston area, considering the restrictions on homeless people in Dallas and other cities and the amount of resources that many cities spend on policing to keep them off the street. Here is a conversation from a Boston Herald article which seems to sum up the city’s approach towards it homeless citizens. The article covers a high-profile homeless woman who refused to go indoors for this cold snap, saying she could handle this level of cold.
Homeless woman shuns shelter as temps turn deadly
By Christine McConville / The Pulse / Tuesday, January 25, 2011
“I’m not that cold,” she said, as she showcased her seven layers of clothing. “I can handle it.”Not possible, Boston police Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey told the Pulse. While police can’t force people off the streets, he said, he doubts the wisdom of testing the elements. “This cold is a different type of cold. It’s lethal. You can have negative effects just being exposed to the elements for a few minutes,” Linskey said.
This weekend, the city ordered evening shelters to remain open during the day and relaxed requirements for other, sober-only facilities. There’s the obvious threat of frostbite and hypothermia, said Dr. James O’Connell, who provides medical care for Boston’s many homeless. And in extreme weather conditions, chronic medical conditions can really tax the body, he said. “There’s nothing good about staying outside in this,” he said.
Each year in Boston, one or two people die from the extreme cold, he said, numbers kept down by active campaigns to get people into shelters….
No one can force [the woman] indoors. “It’s a tricky situation,” O’Connell said. “People have the right to live their life the way they want.”
Linskey agreed. “If someone can show us their sleeping bag and a heat source, and they are lucid and have the method and manner to survive the cold weather, we would allow them that option, if what they are doing is legal,” Linskey said. “If they’re drunk or in harm, we can put them in protective custody, but mainly, we’re just looking for them to go to the shelter.”
Yesterday, the city’s push appeared to be largely working. The Pine Street Inn was setting up extra cots to accommodate the overflow crowd, shelter spokesman Barbara Trevisan said.
O’Connell said he’s seeing some patients indoors for the first time. “There’s an elderly man in his mid 70s, and this weekend was the first time in 26 years I’ve seen him sleep in a bed, rather than a sidewalk,” he said. “With the bitter cold and all the snow, even though he struggles to be around other people, he realized it’s better to be inside.”
This article seems to represent a fundamentally different view of homeless issues and civil rights than what we are accustomed to seeing in many cities, and certainly in Dallas. Perhaps it can be classified as ‘non-criminalization’. One often hears about the ‘rights of individuals’, but this so often means that the rights of those who have financial means supersedes the rights of those who do not: property owners, business owners and organizations of those who are housed are more likely to be heard than those who are disenfranchised and have nothing.
At our last stop, a small tent camp on Boston Harbor that had been in the news because of the city’s efforts to persuade people living there to come inside during the extreme cold, Judi and John Mark delivered some supplies to the campers on foot. Then, as we began the drive home, we looked up at the Boston skyline, which was just beginning to be shrouded in a mist of snow. “It’s here,” said John Mark, of the impending snowstorm. It was making its appearance just over an hour past its predicted start time and had thankfully given us a grace period to complete our rounds. By the time we reached my family’s house about twenty minutes away, the footprints that we’d left on the driveway just a few hours earlier were completely obscured by the steadily falling snow.
Generic Ministry, Needham, Massachusetts
Pilgrim Church Homeless Shelter, Dorchester, Massachusetts
Pine Street Inn, Boston, Massachusetts
Barbara McInnis House, Boston, Massachusetts
This article appeared in the March, 2011 issue of Street Zine. http://www.thestewpot.org/sz.asp
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Conversations In Brief
I have a friend who is unhoused, and I fear he always will be. He’s been given a ‘diagnosis’ — a label for a mental disorder — but he doesn’t necessarily know this, or prefers not to acknowledge it. To get housing, he’d have to sign away his sanity in order to qualify for disability payments, and this is something he’s either unable or unwilling to do.
When I read comments on blogs about ‘the homeless,’ and hear them described bitterly — ‘bums, no-goods, get-a-job’ — I think how my friend would be someone the commenters would be referring to if they just saw him on the sidewalk. Except he worked all his life. He also attended two elite universities, excelling in physics and chemistry, and served in the military. But somewhere along the line his mother died, and things in his mind and emotions began to unravel. His last job, which he did faithfully, was drinks manager at a drive-in restaurant.
The fog deepened. Before long, he was on the street.
I think about him often, worry about him, too. When the homeless-haters talk about the drunks and addicts on the street, I think of how my friend is clean and sober. When they talk about the thugs that are the homeless, I recall his gentleness and nonviolence.
I brought him a new coat during the cold winter weather last year, and as he was transferring his belongings from his filthy torn jacket to the new one, I saw that he had one possession — a tattered pocket-sized New Testament.
How does he survive out there in the hellish land of street life? It’s hard to imagine and painful to ponder. I question him about it, but his answers, as always, reveal little. They, and he, are enigmatic to a point. I asked him recently if he felt safe. ”Not really,” he said. Not too long ago, he had a bad wound on his forearm, and I wanted to know what happened. ”I don’t remember,” he replied. But I can’t push for more. He can’t tolerate a lot of conversation. This summer I asked, “How are you in this heat?” ”Hot,” he said. Last winter I wanted to know, “How were you during the snow last week?” ”Well, cold,” was his reply — two words rather than one! That’s an improvement. I’ve known him about four years, and it’s taken our conversation that long to progress to this level.
Today I sat beside him in a meeting where our county’s public hospital was being discussed. ”Do you use Parkland Hospital?” I leaned over and whispered to him. He must not have heard me right, because he turned and looked me full in the eye [he usually communicates only sideways and in murmurs] and replied, emphatically and perhaps a little testily, “PARKLAND. MEMORIAL. HOSPITAL.” He apparently thought that either it was a vacuous question or that I was hard of hearing. I didn’t give up, though: ”I know, but do you use it?” (One has to hold one’s own.) He went into a brief and mumbled explanation — something to do with ‘phases’ — but the words trailed off and I couldn’t hear them.
His fingernails today were long but very clean (a first), but his t-shirt was quite grubby. I’d luckily brought along a new t-shirt for him from Target in a dark gray, because it will probably need to go at least a month without washing.
“Where do you eat?” I asked him recently. ”Nowhere.” ”Well, how do you get by?” ”Oh, Pepsodent helps.” [Three words!] I burst out laughing, and he did, too. Eating toothpaste? A little street and gallows humor. So once in a while I bring along a sack of fruit cups and those little tins of tuna salad with crackers. Today I had some fresh organic bananas, which he pulled out and ate on the spot. One day, I stuck in a couple of croissants. ”Oh, croissants!” he said, delighted. Two words again.
I feel very powerless about my friend sometimes, because I am powerless. I often fall back into the old trap of wanting to ‘fix it.’ I can’t, though. On a good day, I can take that step beyond fixing it and fall headlong into Grace — landing on banks of beautiful, towering, white, fluffy cumulus clouds, like the ones on greeting cards that talk about Heaven — and I can genuinely trust that everything will be fine.
Other days, I repeat to myself (not necessarily believing it and certainly not being able to live by it), ‘If you pray, don’t worry. If you worry, don’t pray,’ a misquote, I believe, of Martin Luther.
On yet other days, I realize that to be near my friend — in his presence — is to know God directly. I don’t have to do anything — just show up and realize that Love has shown up, too.
The hard part of being his friend is accepting that I can do nothing — letting go of expectations, forgetting that he’s a genius with unfulfilled ‘potential’, not expecting ‘progress’ on some sort of pie-in-the-sky bar chart. ’Progress’ may come, or it may not. However, it is not up to me. But our culture doesn’t really allow for the possibility of not ‘moving up,’ does it? Not ‘taking the pills’ in order to ‘get well’ or at least ‘function at an acceptable level’ in order to ‘fit in’? Most of the time, neither do my own built-in biases. This friendship constantly challenges me to see life… not in gradesABCDF… or dollars1to7figures… or positionsdirectorofsomething… or contributionsinkindfinancialgivingofyourtalentsandabilities — but as something that can just be still, and be more than OK — be holy and sacred.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
To Be A Great City, Must We All Look Alike?
Recently I received an e-mail from a Dallas church leader whom I greatly respect, and it contained this statement regarding people who are homeless in Dallas: “We don’t want them on our streets. We don’t want them in our neighborhoods. We can’t have it both ways.”
The debate on how and where homeless citizens will be housed has long been debated nationally, and the fight of neighborhoods to exclude homeless housing even has its own acronym: NIMBY — Not In My Backyard. This conversation in Dallas has recently become more open and heated because of a dispute between the agencies representing homeless citizens — in particular, the Dallas Housing Authority and The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center — and homeowner / business associations in North Oak Cliff, over the city’s plan to house up to one hundred homeless individuals in Cliff Manor. WhiIe painful, the discussion is also desirable, because it is leading to a higher-profile airing of the many sides of the Permanent Supportive Housing issue.
For me, it brings to mind a question that is not always asked: why do we object so vehemently to seeing poor people on our streets and in our neighborhoods, and is this objection reasonable? Is having our streets free of ‘the poor’ a desirable goal?
I am reminded of several visits I made to Paris, France, several years ago when one of my daughters studied and worked there. I found it to be the most exhilarating and beautiful place I’d ever been — architecturally stunning, and fascinating in its diversity. The thrilling, dizzying mix of all sorts of people — on the streets, in the crowded cafes, rushing into the Metro; reading, sitting, lying on the grass; running, walking, cycling; old men and kids bowling in the parks — these things make it a vigorous, animated city, and I fell for it the first time I was driven through its environs by my future son-in-law.
I especially liked walking in the evening to the Champ de Mars, the park in front of the Eiffel Tower. There I saw families picnicking, dogs chasing Frisbees, and people of every description playing games or music — even juggling fire! Those gathered at day’s end in the large open grassy space are poor and rich, dressed up and dressed simply.
When I compare life in Paris with my experiences working with homeless people in Dallas for the last six and a half years, one particular difference leaps to mind. Cities across America, including Dallas, continue to develop and implement strategies to get people who are homeless out of sight. These include passing special laws that target homeless individuals — ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘criminal trespass,’ ‘blocking the sidewalk,’ — so-called ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances for which a person in business clothing would not be ticketed but which allow police to pinpoint those who ‘look homeless’ and try to hustle them from view.
We all know how the Quality-of-Life-Ordinance story concludes: tickets that cannot be paid by homeless individuals, warrants for their arrest, jail terms which make their complicated life situation even more challenging, the filling of jails with people who are in fact generally not a social threat. This much-written-about practice of shifting the homeless from emergency services to prison to back on the street is not only the costliest way of doing business, it’s utterly inhumane, because so many of the homeless are mentally ill and do not belong in jail. So the people authorities want to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere, only now they have more obstacles to overcome in order to get their lives together. It makes no sense at all.
While we strive here to keep our homeless citizens out of public view by enforcing these laws, in Paris no one was being ticketed for lying on the grass of the park or sitting on its benches, because everybody does these things — talking, laughing, singing, sleeping. Yet, somehow that city has a spectacular ‘quality of life’ because its public life is vibrant and diverse.
I have come to realize that by trying to control the access of our least fortunate citizens to places and aspects of our common city life, we are attempting to create an environment that is homogeneous and sterile rather than one that is vital and alive. Could this be a reason why revitalization in downtown Dallas continues to lag? Is it really interesting to interact with and observe only people who are polished and look as though they just breezed in from ritzy a suburban mall?
The homeless are with us. When we don’t see them, it is only because they have been forced into hiding. We are creating a deceptive level of comfort for ourselves by forcing from view people who make us uncomfortable in their poverty.
The desire for homogeneity in communities used to manifest itself primarily in terms of skin color: Jim Crow laws, segregation. While racism is still a significant problem in our country, now it seems that we at least pay lip service to the desirability of racial diversity, and civil rights laws are in place to enforce equal rights and give access to the judicial system when they are violated. Whether you believe that racism has gone underground or has actually decreased, it’s still apparently acceptable to shun people because of their economic situation, especially when it comes to individuals who ‘look homeless.’ What is wrong with having people on the streets of our cities who may be dressed in clothing and groomed in a manner that is not ‘up to’ our middle class standards? It seems to me that successful cities are not merely hothouses designed only for the rich and well-heeled. A great city is a place where all kinds of people can live, as well as simply ‘be’ — not only people who look or dress a certain way.
Perhaps it would be a good thing if the current discussion, which began by a debate over the location of Permanent Supportive Housing for people experiencing homelessness, precipitated an identity crisis for us as a city and led us to look at ourselves both deeply and objectively. Is it possible for us to step back and re-invision the Dallas of tomorrow from a different perspective? Does our vision for ourselves really need to include having our streets free of everyone who doesn’t ‘look like us’?
Recently at Dallas City Council, two homeless women in attendance at the public meeting were asked by an advocate to stand. Outraged, a city leader said he felt ‘ambushed.’ One puzzles as to what could possibly motivate such a statement. Perhaps seeing people who are poor being called attention to in a meeting (a meeting that is in fact open to everyone) is offensive to some because it puts a human face on homelessness. When we see and come to know people who are ‘poor’ as fellow human beings, it’s no longer quite as easy to marginalize them. Once we see their humanity and recognize it as identical to our own, we may realize: it’s not ‘us and them’. These could be our neighbors and our friends.
What is the cost to us as a city when we pursue policies that exclude a certain group of people from public life? Besides the vibrancy which comes from diversity, at risk is also the greater good of the city — its moral fiber, its wholeness, its ability to address and solve hard problems such as homelessness.
I’ll bring up a point that I’ve not heard mentioned as we’re swept along in the tide of this essential and critically important battle to provide housing for 700 to 1000 long-term, street-dwelling homeless people in Dallas: there will be a few people — a few — who will not want to go into housing, even though the vast majority want very much to be housed. Therein lies a hidden danger in having as our goal city streets that are pristine in the sense of being homeless-and-beggar-free. It is important that our success in housing people does not become a further excuse to persecute those who are unable or unwilling to be housed. It is not a ‘blight’ to see people on the streets of our town who ‘look homeless’ — ie, poor — but it is truly tragic when people desperately want housing and are unable get it.
We have to be wary of having as our goal a city which is visibly free of ‘poor’ people if the impetus for that goal is the desire within ourselves to live insulated lives, free of the necessity to view the suffering of others.
As the Dallas public becomes increasingly educated through informed public dialogue about the benefits of Permanent Supportive Housing, perhaps holding in our hearts an honor for our differences can help us understand that those who have had a very different life path from our own can still be excellent neighbors.
It is not easy or simple to walk the path of reaching out to those who are down on their luck by including rather than excluding them from public life, because when we do this, we share in their pain, and we may become temporarily uncomfortable. But the upside is that our lives will be richer and more meaningful by far when we embrace our differences and realize that we are all — rich, poor, and in between — much greater and finer than we ever dreamed when we are able to work and live together.
This article appears in the July, 2010 edition of Street Zine. http://www.thestewpot.org/
Friday, June 25, 2010
The Medium Is the Message
“McLuhan understood “medium” in a broad sense. He identified the light bulb as a clear demonstration of the concept of “the medium is the message”. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” ~~ Wikipedia
Marshall McLuhan is right. And that is primarily what I took away from the Town Hall Meeting at Methodist Hospital this past Monday night over the city’s plan to house up to 100 homeless individuals in Oak Cliff Manor. The [forgive the hyperbole] rabid [forgive the hyperbole again] mob mentality became the message — and the incivility [ understatement] of many in the group was, tragically, mostly what many of us gleaned from the interchange. Whatever valid points were made by ‘the O.C.’ and its more rational, civil residents were lost in the cat calls and shouting down of speakers by the more outspoken [understatement also] representatives of the neighborhood. I would have been deeply embarrassed to have them represent me, and I think many of the reasonable Oak Cliff residents may have felt the same.
You can keep up with the unfolding drama here:
Meanwhile, a message from the thesaurus:
Uncivil: ‘Lacking in social refinement’
Synonyms: rude, discourteous, disgracious, disrespectful, ill, ill-bred, ill-mannered, impertinent, impolite, incivil, incondite, inurbane, mannerless, uncalled-for, uncourteous, uncouth, ungracious, unhandsome, unmannered, unmannerly, unpolished, brusque, crusty, curt, gruff, harsh, intrusive, meddlesome, crabbed, surly, boorish, churlish, clownish, loutish
That doesn’t say it all, but it’s a start.
Friday, May 28, 2010
What Makes a City Great?
~~ a description of street life in 1788 Paris, France ~~
“Summer arrived, and in Paris the life of the boulevards went on as pleasantly as ever. Pleasure seekers gathered in the warm evenings to stroll along the broad walks under the huge trees, the roads were filled with carriages, the tables crowded at the outdoor cafes and gardens, where musicians played and people paused to rest and refresh themselves. A visitor from England admired the ‘cheerfulness and whimsical variety of the spectacle, the confusion of riches and poverty, hotels and hovels, pure air and stinks, people of all sorts and conditions, from the Prince of the blood to the porter.’ Ordinary Parisians put on their best silk breeches and ruffled shirts and came in groups to stroll or dine, dandies paraded on horseback, fashionably dressed women sat at the little tables surrounded by their admirers. Footmen, enjoying an evening’s liberty, sat and drank beer, old soldiers lounged and smoked, and talked of long-ago campaigns, shopwomen in their chintz gowns flirted with hairdresser’s assistants who courted them, hat in hand.”
“The buildings are very good,” the English traveler went on, “the walks delightful…” There were amusements in abundance, from plays and acrobats… magicians and rope-dancers… There were puppet shows and concerts… and dancing dogs. And there were many things to buy, cakes and fruit and flowers, prints and fans and lapdogs. Peddlers ran along the roads… jumping up on the steps of the fine painted carriages to offer their wares to the elegant ladies and gentlemen inside…. There was much political talk, and the street orators held forth on the evils of the tax burden… but for the most part the worries of the day were forgotten.”
~~ To the Scaffold, The Life of Marie Antoinette, by Carolly Erickson, p. 198
The description of 1788 Paris above reminds me very much of Paris today in terms of its lively culture, and of why I love it. It’s exhilarating and beautiful — architecturally stunning, but fascinating in its diversity as well. The thrilling, dizzying mix of all sorts of people — on the streets, in the crowded cafes, rushing into the Metro, old men and kids bowling in the parks, people reading, walking, cycling — make it a vigorous, animated city, and I fell for it the first time I was driven through it’s environs by my future son-in-law about a decade ago.
When I’ve been fortunate enough to go there, I like most to walk in the evening to the Champ de Mars, the park in front of the Eiffel Tower, in order to watch the activities there: families picnicking, dogs chasing Frisbees, people of every description playing games or music, or even juggling fire! It is LIFE — vibrant, diverse, thrilling. The people gathered at day’s end out in the large open space are poor, rich, dressed down, dressed up. And — imagine this — no one is arresting homeless folks for lying on the grass of the park because everybody lies or sits on the grass — talking, laughing, singing, sleeping. No ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances being enforced, yet, somehow — voila! — a spectacular quality of life!
One night at 1 A.M., the police blocked off the city streets to make way for over a thousand roller bladers who whizzed past the Eiffel Tower as those of us on the sidewalk whooped and yelled and clapped, cheering them on. It was a night I’ll remember always.
Begging (panhandling in our terms) is a way of life for some in Paris, and even a profession for a few. I remember my first ride on the Metro (subway). To my surprise, a father and son came through the train car asking for money. They were polite, low-key, almost matter-of-fact about begging. Many people ignored them, some people contributed, they moved on, and that was it. Not everyone likes begging, not everyone gives, but one can ignore it if one chooses.
What makes a city great?
These are the sorts of things which make a city fantastic and which draw people to it from around the world. Successful downtowns are not hothouses designed only for the rich and well-heeled. A great city is a place where all kinds of people can live, as well as just ‘be’, in open, green spaces — not just people who look or dress a certain way — EVERYONE.
The question of what makes a great city is a topic of heated debate in Dallas right now, particularly in terms of the question of where within the city to place affordable and permanent supportive housing. Generally, in downtown and in outlying neighborhoods, the attitude towards permanent supportive housing and formerly homeless individuals who might be housed there can be tagged by the acronym NIMBY (not in my backyard.)
Cities across American continue to develop and implement strategies to ‘get the homeless out of sight’, both on a daily basis and in particular for special tourist events like The Olympic Games [see a recent article on Vancouver in The Street Zine, May, 2010.] These include passing ‘special’ laws that target them — ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘criminal trespass,’ ‘blocking the sidewalk,’ as mentioned above — so-called ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances for which a person in business clothing would not be ticketed but which allow police to pinpoint those who ‘look homeless’ and try to hustle them from view.
We all know how the story concludes: tickets that cannot be paid by the homeless individual, warrants for their arrest, jail terms which make their complicated life situation even more challenging, the filling of jails with people who are in fact generally not a social threat. This much-written-about practice of shifting the homeless from emergency services to prison to back on the street is not only the costliest way of doing business, it’s utterly inhumane, because so many of the homeless are mentally ill and do not belong in jail. So the people authorities want to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere, only now they have more obstacles to overcome in order to get their lives together. It makes no sense at all.
Rethinking: Let’s Have A Productive ‘Identity Crisis’ in Dallas!
It would be wonderful if this discussion precipitated an identity crisis for us as a city and led us to look at ourselves both deeply and objectively [but I’m trying not to get my hopes up.] What if we took several steps back and reinvisioned the Dallas of tomorrow with new eyes? Does our vision really need to include having our streets free of everyone who doesn’t ‘look like us?’
The desire for homogeneity in communities used to manifest itself primarily in terms of skin color: Jim Crow laws, segregation. While racism is still a significant problem in our country, now it seems that we at least pay lip service to the desirability of racial diversity, and civil rights laws are in place to enforce equal rights and give access to the judicial system when they are violated. Whether you believe that racism has gone underground or has actually decreased to some extent (I think it’s both), it’s still apparently acceptable to shun people in terms of their economic situation, especially when it comes to individuals who ‘look homeless.’ What is wrong with having people on the streets of our cities who may be dressed in clothing and groomed in a manner that is not ‘up to’ our middle class standards?
Take a look at the debate over where the EVERgreen Residences, a beautifully-designed permanent supportive housing project put forward by First Presbyterian Church Dallas and The Stewpot, will/ will not be built and the at-times rabid opposition by the Expo Park / Deep Ellum business owners and residents. When providing people access to safe, clean, well-designed permanent supportive housing is supposed give way to the ‘artistic ecosystem’ that is said by residents to be developing in an area where bars and entertainment are a large part of the social scene, maybe it’s time to seriously reconsider our priorities and the power that affluent neighborhood associations have to scuttle much-needed projects in Dallas.
Small groups with large opinions should be a part of policy making, but they should not be allowed to dominate it. When they do, nobody wins — except the influential neighborhood groups in the short run, and perhaps the particular council person in the area in the next election. What is lost is the greater good of the city, its moral fiber, its wholeness, its ability to address and solve hard problems such as homelessness. So far in Dallas, in terms of housing, we have valiant efforts being undercut for the most part by powerful, affluent localized forces — a stalemate.
Where is bold, morally courageous, visionary leadership at the city government level? If it’s going to show up, this would be a good time. We have a lot of homeless and working people to house. And housing is the only way we’re ever really going to get them off the street.
A recommended read by Jim Schutze in The Dallas Observer: “City Hall’s Desire For A Fancy Downtown (Without Too Many Poor People) Costs Developers $30 Million”
This from the comments: * JimS 05/08/2010 9:53:44 AM • There is an important element in this story which I neglected to get into my column or the subsequent blog item. The decision by Lockey and Mackenzie to obey the HUD rules and provide the amount of affordable housing called for in HUD’s national guideline was in good part a market decision. They told me they looked at what had been built already downtown and saw way more high-end capacity than the market wanted to absorb. They were well aware of the weaknesses in several of the completed projects and could see, for example, that Prudential would foreclose on the Mosaic, as in fact it did this week. They said to me, Why provide more chocolate cake when the market already has more chocolate cake than it can eat? So they saw a project that was more than half affordable as a good market play – something that would rent up quickly instead of going belly up. I get the impression both of them also are people who think working people and young people are good for downtowns. And think about it. If you went to the quarter in New Orleans and all of a sudden it looked like Snyder Plaza in Highland Park, would you go back? Downtown Dallas is frozen and sterile because the people running it are afraid of anybody who isn’t rich. It would help if they were white, too. But that’s a suburb. Actually even our suburbs are more diverse than what has been created downtown. What we really see is an attempt at a replication of the Park Cities, where most of the decision-makers probably live. It’s their idea of cool. But they’re not cool. And they’re also not moving into it. To work for them, downtown Dallas would have to be Carmel. Which would suck. Anyway, I see a lot of comment here about listening to market forces. I think MacKenzie and Lockey would agree. They listened. The market forces said, More affordable. And City hall said, You’re toast.
Friday, May 14, 2010
It’s a Good Question, Isn’t It?
I first heard this song on a CD given to me by my friend, Sandy, and it’s one of my CD’s now: Give Us Your Poor: 17 New Recordings To Help End Homelessness (Appleseed Recordings). Have you ever asked yourself this question? We need to keep asking it. KS
Here and Now
by Mark Erelli
Ten below zero
Sleeping on the street
Someday we all will have a home
A place to come in from the cold
Somewhere so high above the clouds
Why not here
Why not now
Pastures of plenty
For the tired and poor
Still too many hands empty
Behind the golden door
Someday we all will have a home
A place to come in from the cold
Somewhere so high above the clouds
Why not here
Why not now
Someday we all will live the dream
There’ll be no cracks to fall between
Somewhere where everyone will have enough
But here and now
It’s up to us
Someday we all will be at peace
And all of our suffering will cease
There’s more than enough to go around
Why not here
Why not now
Why not here?
Why not now?
Friday, February 19, 2010
‘Tough’ Versus ‘Love’
On the day before the Big Snow of February, 2010, two weeks ago, a Crisis Intervention team from the City of Dallas — (now part of the Dallas Police Department) — raided the homeless camps under a bridge. All of the personal possessions of the camp inhabitants — clothing, blankets, coats, years’-worth of belongings — were shoveled up by two bulldozers, and four to five loads comprising the contents of the ‘cardboard community’ were dumped into city trucks and taken to the landfill.
Raids by the city of homeless camps are commonplace and routine in Dallas. I would suggest, however, that our city has reached a new ‘low’ in terms of human decency and compassion when a raid is conducted under these circumstances and in this weather. Where does one start to address such an occurrence?
By early the following week, people in the camp were still without adequate [cardboard] shelter, blankets, coats and clothing. Their non-replaceable personal possessions were permanently lost. Think of the time that intervened between the raid and the week that followed.
At our house, where family members who were without power stayed together, we built a snow igloo, drank coffee, changed wet clothing about ten times a day, scrounged firewood that was dry enough to make a fire in the fireplace, and watched movies together at night under piles of blankets. Even with the added warmth of the fireplace, the central heating rarely stopped. It was a great snow — a fun adventure.
Not so much fun, however, if you’d just lost your cardboard home and everything you own in a raid by a city that is supposed to have your best interest at heart.
Witnesses to the ‘sweep’ say that, just prior to the raid, no warning was given. The trucks arrived at 10 minutes to 2 P.M., and at 2 P.M., the dozers started scooping up the small cardboard community. It is my understanding that the city has agreed, after outrage by ‘housed’ citizens and advocates about these sweeps in the past, to give at least an hour’s notice to camp dwellers. Instead, in this case, the camp members were allowed a ‘one-time carry’: in other words, all that they could gather in their arms one time, they were permitted to keep. Of course, those who were at work at the time of the raid were out of luck.
If you were allowed a ‘one-time’ carry of your personal belongings, what would you choose?
Officials are also supposed to offer shelter at the time of the raid as an option. Witnesses say this procedure was not followed in this case.
Here is the city’s perspective: they want to force these homeless individuals into shelters. But the individuals involved don’t want to go.
The shelters provide an invaluable, lifesaving service with remarkable dedication. Yet there are good reasons why some people don’t want to go into them, feeling that they’re safer in a community on the street.
If the goal of these raids is to encourage homeless individuals to get permanently off the street, it seems counterproductive to seize their belongings, when these belongings often include personal papers such as birth certificates and other identification which are critical to seeking housing.
Could it be that, if we’ve spent $23 million on a homeless assistance center and still have people living on the street, their presence is simply an affront to the city’s stated goal of Ending Homelessness by 2014?
These sweeps by the city are obviously ineffective, inhumane, and have been rejected by many cities nationwide as unacceptable practice in dealing with street-dwelling homelessness. It is a mark against our city that they continue here with impunity.
Link: Pegasus News: “Dallas homeless sweeps are counterproductive”
Link: Dallas Homeless Network Blog:
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Cold Weather Policy and Our Homeless Neighbors
Driving around downtown in the cold weather in the days preceding the Big Snow in Dallas, I began pondering our city’s Cold Weather Policy for our neighbors who are living on the street. I had recently learned during the monthly Homeless Advocacy Meeting at The Stewpot that a January, 2010 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless points to 40 degrees F as the temperature recommended for activation of Cold Weather Policy nationwide.
The City of Dallas currently has a policy of 32 degrees — freezing — for such activation: putting shelters on overflow and opening enough emergency shelters to give everyone a bed.
I was happy to learn this week from Dennis Strickland, Lead Case Worker at The Bridge, that staff there has implemented a policy closer to the NCH recommendation: 37 degrees, or a wind chill of 37 degrees. They also now allow ‘self-referral’ of guests after 10 PM during cold weather. There was at least one night during the Big Snow that the gates of The Bridge were not closed for re-entry at 10 P.M., which means there was an open campus. Homeless guests are allowed to sit up in the Welcome Center all night, and, if necessary after referrals and pick up from other shelters, the dining room can be opened for sleeping after getting in extra staff.
These are important and significant improvements over last winter and show an ongoing commitment to accommodate our friends on the street and keep them safe from injury and hypothermia. The Bridge staff seem to be coping as best they can within the limits of their space availability.
I would love the see the city as a whole move toward adopting all of the recommendations in the NCH report. The entire report is worth a read. Here are some highlights that struck me as particularly pertinent. It is of particular concern that, although ours is far from the most harsh climate in the United States, it is in fact the most dangerous for people living outdoors.
the most dangerous cases of hypothermia do not occur when the ambient temperature is far below freezing. Instead, Dr. O’Connell says, the worst cases they see arise when the days are warm (between 40F and 50F) and the nighttime temperature drops to the mid-30’s.
Temperature cut-offs should be avoided, since the effectiveness of a shelter is decreased when the population it serves does not know, from night to night, whether the shelter will be open. If a temperature cut-off is necessary, due to financial or other reasons, the cut-off should be at least 40F in order to prevent the most dangerous cases of hypothermia, according to Dr. O’Connell.
An exemplary winter shelter would be open 24 hours each day between October 1 and April 30, regardless of temperature, as well as any other days during the year when the temperature falls below 40F. It would also admit all homeless people, regardless of sobriety status or past bans, unless they are violent or causing an extreme disturbance.
It is also important to note that a consistent, across-the-board policy throughout a set number of months and all shelters builds trust between the homeless population and the service providers attempting to help them and indeed to keep them alive.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Comfort and Community
There’s both a reality and a myth, it would seem, that some people experiencing homelessness would choose to stay on the street even if they were offered shelter. I’ve been one of those among many who has said in the past, ‘I don’t know anyone who would rather be on the street than indoors.’
Yet look at this video from Channel 11 during last week’s bitter cold snap:
When I saw in the Dallas Morning News on January 6 stating that city officials were launching Operation Code Blue to try to get people indoors for the bitterly cold weather that was upon us, I felt both hopeful and cynical: we’ve been through these ‘Operations’ more than once, and what that has sometimes meant for ‘homeless’ people walking around downtown has been offering them the limited options of shelter, mental health facilities or getting a citation. At the camps, it’s generally meant ticketing and as well as confiscating the temporary homes and belongings of those living there — even as recently as a few weeks ago.
I’ve often wondered, is the theory of the these city policies that if you take misery and add to it a greater portion of misery, the sum of the misery will encourage people to make a change? I’m not sure if that accurately elucidates the philosophy, but I know it doesn’t work, as has been proven time and again both in Dallas and across the world. People have to be ready to move out of their situation, and their options have to be manageable.
I won’t attempt to explain the complexities of why someone would turn down shelter on a night in Dallas when the temperatures sink into the teens, because I don’t fully understand them. For certain, in past winters, I’ve known many people experiencing homelessness who have sought refuge in Dallas shelters and the homeless assistance center and been turned away for lack of space — even when the shelters have expanded their hours (beyond a 4 P.M. cutoff to secure a space) and lifted their space limitations to accommodate more people for cold weather policies. Certainly a number of people living outdoors have increasingly lost faith in the system that provides shelter. Yet I got an additional insight into their perspective last Thursday afternoon when I drove to one of the camps with one of my adult daughters to see how people were faring in the bitter cold.
We pulled up in my car and spoke to one of the camp leaders, whom I know.*
I introduced him to my daughter and asked, ‘So the city’s been here trying to get you all to go into shelters? How did that go?’
‘Did you see us on television?’ he asked. ‘We didn’t want to go.’
I said I hadn’t seen the television coverage. ‘Is the city strong-arming you?’ I asked him, and, to my surprise and relief, he said, ‘No.’
Then he surveyed the immediate landscape of surprisingly tidy cardboard homes and belongings stored in plastic bags along the sidewalk under a freeway overpass, and he swept his hand in an arc over what was around us. And a look of tenderness that took me aback passed over the face of this tough man.
‘This is our safety,’ he told my daughter and me. ‘This is our shelter.’ There was pride in his voice.
And in that moment, I understood something that I haven’t quite fully gotten in my six years of visiting the camps from time to time. Whatever camp life looks like to the rest of us — and, in this weather, it looks pretty grim — it represents life, community, survival and independence to the people who live there. It may not seem like much compared to the comforts of a warm place to sleep, and yet…
After all, independence and self-sufficiency are two of the premier American — and democratic — values, are they not?
I believe that, until we understand this sense of and desire for community, operating alongside autonomy, which every human being needs and values above many other things (apparently including comfort and convenience), we will have great difficulty in resolving the issue of long-term street-dwelling homelessness.
*[Ironically, this is the same man whose Bible and birth certificate were confiscated by the city in a sweep which I wrote about in this blog post. This is a perfect example of the counterproductivity of the sweeps, as, at the time of this post, he was very motivated and going through the process of getting off the street, yet he’s still out there.]
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Written December 2, 2009
“Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”
~~ Matthew 5:42
My friend, Gabriela, who owns a lovely cafe in my neighborhood, has a streamlined method of communicating with me about clothing she collects for our neighbors experiencing homelessness downtown, because she’s done this kind deed so often. Her e-mail says simply: “Hey there, I have some male and female clothing items – shall i take them to your house? pls advise.” They appear at my house shortly, and I put them in the trunk of my car.
Shopping at Target tonight, I walk out into a cold rain, and an impulse tells me that this is the night. Moving the clothes — two large bags — from my trunk into my front seat, I head to a place where I know people are sleeping outdoors under cardboard.
On my way, I drive through downtown, and the streets are whistle-clean of humans. That means every single person without a home has a bed tonight, doesn’t it? All six (or is it ten?) thousand of them? Or have they somehow magically been swept away?
I say the streets are clear of human beings, but on a St. Paul Street corner, I pass woman with a small child knocking on the door at Family Gateway. Since it is cold, dark and almost bedtime, I stop my car beside them. ‘Do you have a place inside the Center already reserved?’ I ask the young mother. ‘Yes, I have a room. I go to school at night. We just can’t get anybody to come to the door. We’ve been here quite a while.’ ‘Let me call someone,’ I tell her. ‘If you can’t get in, I’ll take you somewhere.’ I call my friend, Clare — who knows everything about helping people — to get a phone number for Crisis Intervention, realize I already have one, and just then, inside the glass door of the Center, a woman holding an infant opens the door for the mother and her little boy. Thank God for the place. Thank God when things work.
I drive to the encampment — a small gathering of cardboard-box houses — pull up and stop the car. I haven’t been here for a while — the camp looks very sparse: streamlined, as though it’s been cut down to its barest bare essentials. It’s quite dark — not a spark of a campfire on this cold wet night. I roll down my passenger window and ask the first woman who approaches if H. is there, a man whom I know I can trust. She says, ‘I’m Samarah. First I want to pray with you.’
I start to get out, but she says, ‘Just stay in the car,’ and takes my hand through the window, across the seat. She talks for a while, then asks for prayers about her alcoholism. I offer her some clothes. ‘Na, I’m all right,’ she says.
A second woman says, ‘I’m ___’s wife — I just got out of TDC.’ (Texas Department of Corrections) She shows me her nametag, as though I won’t believe her, and says ‘I don’t have anything. Do you have hygiene stuff or underwear?’ Yes, in one of the bags, I say, and wonder, not for the first time: what can be gained by releasing women from prison with absolutely nothing? Maybe we feel their lives need to be as streamlined as possible when they’re starting over.
H. walks up. He looks thinner, is in his sock feet. I greet him, embrace him, and hand him the bags of clothes. ‘You’ll share them out, right?’ I say to him, but he’s already ducking back inside their cardboard house with them in tow.
The wife looks into my car and asks, ‘What else do you have?’ I hand her some whole wheat bagels from my Target shopping. H. comes back out and I give him a bag of Christmas M&M Peanuts I got at Target. Now, THIS ONE THING feels sacrificial! Everything else is easy, but giving away my Christmas M&M Peanuts, a generous handful of which I was planning to eat in the car… that’s the TRUE measure of my love! Ah, well, maybe without them I’ll be more… streamlined.
Samarah introduces me to her boyfriend. In a streamlined repetition of a conversation we’ve had a number of times over years, I ask H.: ‘Has the City been here?’ ‘A few days ago,’ he replies briefly, ‘Wiped us out.’
I. Somehow. Don’t. Feel. That. Much. Because. Things. Don’t. Change. Do. They. Just. Numb. Can. I. Not. Work. Up. Any. Outrage?
My emotions seem to have become streamlined, too.
Then, later, reading at bedtime, I am visited by an at-first-unnamed sadness. Reflexively I think, ‘What’s wrong with me? Everything’s fine.’ But soon I realize the sorrow is a familiar one and has been there all night — it was just hiding, tucked down inside me, the same way I’m tucked into my cozy bed with my book, down comforter and quilt. I know then that I’m being visited there in my room by that ragged and rugged band of individuals who cling to a cold, hard, windswept stretch of sidewalk somewhere in Dallas, squeezed down to the barest minimum of space between a chain-link fence and a gutter — and who struggle to hold on to the LIFE and to the COMMUNITY they’ve created there.
We may not like their lives, the way they look, or how they conduct themselves. But.
IF we are going to raid and raid and raid and raid and attempt to shut down the camps, THEN we need to be able to offer Housing First in a form that their inhabitants can deal with.
I. Guess. I’ll. Just. Keep. Saying. It.
View Kim Horner’s latest Dallas Morning News article on housing for homeless individuals (one in an occasional series) here:
Friday, December 4, 2009
Dallas International Street Church Celebrates It’s Twelfth Anniversary
Last evening, the Dallas International Street Church and Ministries celebrated it’s Twelfth Anniversary, and the event at the church at 2706 Second Avenue was great fun, quite moving and extremely inspiring. Founder and Senior Pastor Karen Dudley got the ‘call’ twelve years ago to minister to her sisters and brothers who are living on the street — truly out of options — and she has, from then to now, answered that call with a love, persistence and dedication few could emulate.
The music, as always at the DISC, was of the ‘make-you-wanna-get-up,-dance-and-shout-hallelujah’ variety. You can’t not clap and sing along, and, if you’re not careful, you’ll soon find yourself on your feet, even if it is a formal do, like last night. My favorite entertainment was the Praise Dance, reminiscent of Martha Graham done with great reverence.
Needless to say, the most moving part of the night was the series of stories and testimonies from the church Discipleship relating how Pastor Karen’s love and faith have helped them to relinquish the darkness in which they were living and to begin walking a clean, clear path of faith and action in Christ. The stories are stunning. One of the women began her testimony with the words: “My background is in prostitution and crack addiction.” When she described how Pastor Karen once walked into a local drug house to get her and said, “You’re coming with me,” I doubt there was a dry eye in the room.
City Councilperson Carolyn Davis attended the party, and she seemed moved by what she learned of the Street Ministry. In her speech, she said, “When I’ve driven by this building in the past, I’ve had no idea of all that was going on here. I’m committed to helping you in any way I can. This is what church should be: helping the poor and needy among us.”
I don’t know how Pastor Karen does it, but she seems to go forward on the rocky and extremely challenging path she’s chosen with a humility and lack of ego that are rare in the nonprofit world. But, if you ask her, she’ll brush aside the question with the quick answer, “It’s not me doing it.”
The event was organized by Pastor Karen, the church Discipleship, and church Business Manager Judith Sturrock, and they all did a superb job. We had delicious barbecue dinner and a wonderful time, and, as always when I show up at the DISC, I took away with me a peace and a joy which pass all understanding.
To read about a recent experience Dr. Janet Morrison (Central Dallas Ministries Director of Education) had at the Dallas International Street Church, click here:
Saturday, November 14, 2009
With winter upon us, it’s a good time to reflect upon the extremes of need that will exist this year for those who are not yet housed and are living on the street. I found this entry in my journal from the end of last summer, when I still volunteered at the Second Chance Cafe, run by The Stewpot at the Bridge, and thought I would share it. KS
Journal Archives, Friday, August 16, 2008
Sometimes the amount of need among people who are experiencing homeless in Dallas — even with the welcome advent of the Bridge, our new homeless assistance center — seems overwhelming. This was one of those nights. The enormity of the problems of the people involved, the monumental scope of the pain in their lives, the scarcity of readily available solutions, such as adequate housing: these things were at the forefront of my mind tonight as I left the Second Chance Cafe at the Bridge after helping to serve dinner to somewhere between seven hundred and eight hundred people.
Of course, this evening’s bright spot was, as it always is, looking into the eyes of people as they came through the food line. Always, but even more so tonight, the eyes of the guests meeting mine as they came through the line — almost without exception — were full of light, respect and dignity, longing for acceptance, willingness to respond with love to the smallest kindness — so much more so than I would ever be able to be in their circumstances. They almost always say ‘Very Blessed,’ or at the least ‘Can’t complain,’ when asked how they are doing. The other great blessings are the other volunteers, who show up every week, and the Stewpot staff, which shows up every day.
I find that if I just hand somebody a plate in the food line at the Bridge, they may be looking down, preoccupied or frowning, and go on their way with a ‘thank you,’ but without ever looking up. If I greet them or ask how they are doing, their whole face, their whole being changes — they become radiant. If I say their name, they become a friend. And that is no different than you or me. It’s just that the desperate nature of their circumstances keeps it real: they know how much it means to have a friend, and what it means not to have any.
Why is it that sometimes, like tonight, I look at homeless individuals and the scope of homelessness in Dallas and feel weighed down by the challenges? Is it seeing people as their ‘diagnosis’ or label rather than seeing them just as the people they are, in the here and now? Maybe.
I usually see the beauty when I go to the Bridge. Tonight I could only see how far there is to go. It was one of those rare times when I say to myself, “How do those who deal with this face to face every single day — for example, the Stewpot staff or the caseworkers and management at the Bridge — how do they do it all the time without losing hope or becoming jaded?” Granted, I think, write or talk about homelessness in Dallas every day, but I go to the Bridge only a couple of times a month.
Perhaps it’s a ‘fix-it’ mentality that one can get into, although trying to ‘fix it’ is a necessary component of approaching the problem as a whole. Sometimes, though, until we can figure out what we need to ‘do,’ maybe it has to be enough just to go to where the pain is and ‘be with’ it. It seems that there is tremendous grace in that. In face, maybe, while action is necessary, being present for someone is the most important part of taking action anyway.
Granted, it may not be enough to ‘hang out’ with people who are experiencing homelessness. But being with them, talking with them, sharing their concerns — one human to another — is one of the most essential parts of what we do, just as it is with our families.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
A Night to Remember: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
An Evening of Bluegrass and Banjo Benefitting Central Dallas Ministries
One of my daughters and I attended the above concert at the Meyerson Symphony Center last evening, and we had a great time. The hall was sold out, and the concert was not only fun, the music was terrific. Of course, Steve Martin told his share of funny jokes and played a masterful banjo, and the Steep Canyon Rangers are excellent musicians and vocalists. A fine concert supporting an extremely worthy organization.
After the concert, my daughter and I were talking to the fiddle player, and I was telling him that Bluegrass music is close to my heart, since I’m from Tennessee. “Eastern Tennessee?” he asked. “Oh, yeh!” I said. “Our band lives in Asheville,” he told us. We high-fived. “You know,” he said, “East Tennessee and Western North Carolina are a separate state unto themselves.” “Yes,” I said, “no more beautiful place on earth.” “Absolutely,” he replied, “a well-kept secret.” A band after my own heart.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
A friend of mine moved ‘off the street’ today and into housing, and it was big news. His was a high-profile ‘success’ story, because this particular friend has been living a life of street-dwelling homelessness for quite a long time — fifteen years — and he has often been in the news, being a person who doesn’t mind being interviewed and is frequently poetically eloquent.
However, as is often the case, there is more to the story than its public version. Isn’t there always? The ‘more’ in this instance is that a couple of people — well, actually a person and a dog — got left behind when my friend moved into his new home.
I got a phone call from my friend’s ‘street wife’ of twelve years yesterday afternoon, saying that her husband had been informed by his employer, who had arranged for the housing, that he was to move into his new home early the next morning — only sixteen hours notice. Initially, both husband and wife had expected that his housing would include a place for her, too. When they recently found out this was not the case, they thought they’d have a week or so to try and make arrangements for her safety and well-being. Additionally, his dog — his constant companion and best friend for eleven years — turned out to be over the weight limit for the housing and would need to stay behind. And, in his new home, my friend will not be allowed to have visitors.
When the wife called me yesterday, she was distraught. Media had been at their camp as well as at the new home. Yet, even though his wife was present during the media visits, no mention was made of the her in any news report, nor of the fact that the dog (who did make it into the story!) and she are to remain behind in the ‘cardboard condo’ under the bridge.
The wife is frightened to stay out in the open camp without her husband and protector, with good reason. So some of her ‘housed’ friends banded together today and came up with the money to pay for a two-weeks’ stay in a motel for her and the dog — a temporary fix, but better than sleeping alone under the bridge.
On the phone yesterday, she said she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t go with him — had the rules at the housing unit been made purposefully to exclude her? I reassured her that no, I didn’t think that was the case. Rather it was more likely to be an issue of funding-raising on the part of the charity providing the housing. Generally, at least in this part of the world, any sort of housing subsidy for homeless couples requires that they be legally married, which these two people are not. They would like to be, but there are intransigent problems with his obtaining a divorce from a wife he’s been apart from for decades.
I’ll refrain from discussing how her husband made the decision to go ahead with his move, but I spent the afternoon today with my friend, the wife. As we ran errands in my car, we cried together, laughed together, and visited two of my close friends who have been consistent and steady friends to people who are homeless — both very kind, wise, forthright and resourceful women. Each of them gave the wife good counsel and support.
I believe that, God willing, she will be all right, and, hopefully, more than all right. She has skills and resources way beyond what most of us possess after living on the street for over a decade, and there are a number of people who are willing to help make accessible to her tools that will help her move out of her current plight. But her situation raises a number of hard questions, because there are many long-term, stable couples on the street in the same situation — unable to marry for one reason or another; unwilling to separate in order to get into housing.
Is there a way to make peace between our religious beliefs and morals, and the urgent need to help people — especially women as the most vulnerable parties — move from street-dwelling homelessness to a more stable life of being housed? What is our priority?
How do those of us who are advocates and service providers share the story of someone experiencing homelessness or poverty with the public in a way that still presents him or her as a person with dignity? How do we raise funds and practice public relations in ways that will help people move out of homelessness and poverty, without inadvertently falling into the inglorious category of helpers referred to as ‘poverty pimps’?
How do we hold people up as examples of our hopes, dreams and plans for our own organizations without exploiting them?
Where does the line get drawn between the landscape of our plans for them and that of their plans for themselves, and how do we gracefully and honorably navigate the overlapping territory? How do we do things that we believe to be truly valuable in helping other human beings without falling into the trap of believing we are their saviors?
Whose highest good is being served in this situation, when the cost of housing a husband is that his street wife and dog are left living under a bridge?
Link: See Dallas Morning News Photographer Courtney Perry’s blog entry, “Complexities,” in response to this post at http://courtneyperry.com/pblog/index.php
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Available On a Street Corner Near You!
Today the October, 2009, issue of StreetZine was put into the hands of licensed street vendors downtown and around the city. As usual, StreetZine is chock-full of fascinating articles and tidbits, and this month you will also find an important article by Pat Spradley, Editor, on the pending court case against the City of Dallas, defending the rights of groups who wish to feed people on the streets of downtown who are hungry and homeless. [http://thestewpot.org/streetzine.asp]
There is also a recent interview I did with The Gardeners from the Dallas International Street Church ministry’s The Garden: South Dallas, Texas. In it, you will get to know some of them personally and see what gardening organically has come to mean to their lives. Included are lovely pictures by Mandy Mulliez of a few of The Gardeners and of the Fall Garden at the DISC.
Special kudos and big appreciation to Pastor Karen Dudley, Founder and Senior Pastor of the DISC, not only for her soon-to-be twelve years of dedication and commitment to helping people salvage their lives from the ravages of street living, but also for continuing to pay the water bill on The Garden throughout this long hot summer, when it appeared as if the total yield was going to be somewhere around a single cherry tomato and ten green beans! [www.kdministries.org]
Here are some quotes from the interview:
ks: Noting that many of the people in the Dallas International Street Church have experienced homelessness in the past, do you think that having a Garden has any special meaning for people that have been or are homeless? Does having experienced homelessness give people a special appreciation for having a place to grow their own food?
Luis: Yes. Do you remember the first time we planted and we used those community service men and women from the City of Dallas community court program? You know, last week, two of the guys who did community service came back just to see the beds they had helped build!
ks: How did that happen?
Luis: They just came! I was out at The Garden in the morning, and I saw them, and one of them said, “I just came to see my garden bed,” and I said, “Cool! Come on!” He was surprised, he said “Wow! This is OURS?” I said, ‘Yea, look!’ It was great.
He was telling me about when he was in jail and stuff like that and when he got out, and The Stewpot brought them over here to do their community service. And he was really surprised at how The Garden grew. He said, “I didn’t think it was going to grow!” And I said, “Yea, but look at it now!” I mean, it’s our pride and joy.
ks: What keeps you motivated to continue working in The Garden?
Raymond: Getting the fruit from the plants! Getting the tomatoes…
Luis: Yea, that stuff. [Pause] The best and the most important thing is to be WANTED, to be needed by something that — it grows. Cause it’s not just the plants that are growing, but US, TOO.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the October StreetZine from a licensed street vendor (or at The Stewpot, 408 Park Avenue, Dallas, TX 75201) and see the beautiful garden pictures, as well as the expanded interview. Selling StreetZine provides a sustainable living for many of these men and women and is helping them get off the street and regain their independence.
For Mandy Mulliez’ slideshow of The Garden, see:
For background on The Garden: South Dallas, see:
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Guess What’s Illegal!
You’ll never guess what’s illegal in Dallas these days…
I went to see my friends Mary and Samuel at the home they call their ‘cardboard condo’ under a freeway overpass yesterday. When I pulled up at the bottom of the hill near their camp, driving a car that is not my own, Mary didn’t know who was there. Later she told me: “Samuel asked me who was in that car, and I said ‘I don’t know — some white woman,’ until I could see it was you.” Since Mary’s a ‘white woman’, too, we had a giggle about it, as we do about many things.
“You’re never going to believe what happened today!” she said as she climbed into the car’s passenger seat and began to soak up the solace of the air conditioning. “We got a ticket — they’d been leaving us alone for a couple of weeks, so this was the first time lately — and guess what they wrote on the citation.”
“Littering? Sleeping in Public? Obstructing the Place-Where-Nobody-Comes-Anyway?”
“No, get ready. The ticket reads ‘old furniture, blankets, clothing and cups’.”
For some reason, this cracked both of us up. Gallows humor? Might as well laugh so ya’ don’t cry? “Oh, man, seriously?” I asked, pulling out pad and pen, “I gotta’ write this down.”
“I know,” Mary said, “Can you believe it? And there was only one cup — the one in my hand that I was drinking out of.” We just sat there shaking our heads in amazement and looking at each other.
“Samuel said he’d just go ahead and serve a day in jail for it to get ‘time served,’ except then he’d have to miss work,” she said.
“Who issued the ticket?” I asked. “The Marshalls? The Dallas Police? Were they polite?”
“DPD — the same two guys who always come, usually twice a week. Yes, they’re polite. No conversation, but nice. I started to tell them, ‘Hey, you missed a couple of cans. Shouldn’t you put ‘cans’ on there, too? But I thought I’d better not say anything.”
“So ‘Old furniture, blankets, clothing and cup[s] are against the law now?” I asked her.
“I guess so. First thing I said to Samuel, ‘I gotta’ tell Karen. She’s never going to believe this one.’”
Monday, August 24, 2009
Solutions: ‘The Soloist’ and Housing First
Please take a moment to read these critically important quotes regarding the Housing First concept as a solution to long-term homelessness, from Casey Horan, Executive Director — LAMP (Los Angeles Men’s Project), in an interview from the movie, The Soloist:
“LAMP is a non profit, and we’re based in Los Angeles, and we exclusively serve men and women who are long-term homeless — often they’ve been living on the streets for three, five, ten, even twenty years — and also have a severe mental illness.
What we do is we quite literally just move people immediately from streets to real homes — an apartment of their own — and we do that with no strings or no barriers or no intermediary steps. And then what follows is what keeps people housed and healthy. So we then provide them with customized services right there where they live and in the community. And that might mean helping them set up the apartment and get a phone connected and reconnect with family; mental and physical healthcare; drug recovery services; job placement services; and on and on.”
“It costs just $16,000 a person a year to provide an apartment and social and clinical services. It costs much more — about $100,000 a year — if we leave people on the streets as they cycle through the public health system and jail. And, unfortunately, as they cycle through, they always land back on the sidewalk, and there’s been no resolution to their long-term homelessness and no improvement to their health.
We can end street-dwelling homelessness in about two years with the right investment, and, in the short run, it will actually save taxpayer money.”
“When we hand over that set of keys [to an apartment], you know, I wish that others could see… what happens. It’s close to a miracle…. people that haven’t had housing in their entire adult life… and they are off the streets, and they have a bathroom and a telephone and a studio apartment, and it really is the first step for them to transforming their lives.”
~~ Casey Horan, Executive Director — LAMP (Los Angeles Men’s Project)
From the DVD of The Soloist: Special Features, “One Size Does Not Fit All: Addressing Homelessness in Los Angeles”
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Saving Other People
Someone said to me a while back that they’d ‘saved’ a person who was homeless by giving them a job. I was surprised by this assertion and said so. Do we really save other people? In a war zone at the point of a gun, perhaps yes. But when a person is given an opportunity, it is the person herself or himself who shows up every day and turns the opportunity into success. “It seems to me that, depending on one’s perspective, either God saves people, they save themselves, or both,” I said at the time.
The person with whom I was speaking dismissed my objection, telling me it was just a manner of speaking, and that I had missed the statement’s greater intent. But I think the distinction is important, because if we claim to ‘save’ someone else, either we are fairly arrogant in believing our own line of chat, or we are disingenuous and condescending in thinking others will or should buy into this concept.
Those who have tried and succeeded or tried and failed to help people get off the street know only too well: there are many factors that play into the outcome of such attempts, one of the most significant being the person’s readiness to make the gargantuan shift away from street life and into housing and employment. Timing is a critical element.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a man who had been living on the street for many years and battling homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and cancer all at once. He had been placed in housing by a nonprofit agency, but partly because there were not adequate support services attached to the housing, and partly because — by his own report — of his own state of mind, he ended up giving up the apartment and going back into a shelter. It was too much responsibility and too little structure battling all his challenges at the same time, and, he said, he was lonely, missing the street community of which he had so long been a part. He then succeeded, within the shelter he had chosen to reenter, in getting his mental illness and addiction under control, got treatment for his cancer and went into remission, and was then ready to once more move into a permanent supportive housing situation.
Recently I asked a good friend, Pastor Karen Dudley of the Dallas International Street Church, how her program had gone about facilitating the rehabilitation of those people within her discipleship, many of whom I know to have tried many other approaches before coming to the DISC. I was expecting a lengthy exposition on philosophy and practice and was quite surprised by the simplicity of Pastor Karen’s response, which is probably why I remember it. She spoke first of the primary importance of the constant and ongoing spiritual and religious aspects of life at the DISC, and then said:
“but the reconstruction of themselves is up to them.”
That simple phrase has continued to ring truer to me than almost anything I’ve heard about helping people get off the street.
I know that I am prickly on this subject of ‘saving’ people, especially friends who are homeless, because I find this sort of rhetoric to be exploitive and demeaning, as though the person being offered assistance were a project or a specimen rather than a capable human being, full of dignity. Granted, those experiencing homelessness often have extraordinary challenges to overcome, as would anyone in their place. But I think we have to be oh-so-very careful where we draw the line in our attempts to communicate with one another about their struggles and the ways that we hope to partcipate in the solutions to their dilemmas. In reality, how we couch our efforts in our language, as well as in our own minds, says a great deal about us. The metaphor of reaching out to someone is a lot different from the image of reaching down to them.
Dallas International Street Church: http://www.kdministries.org/
Monday, July 20, 2009
There are occasionally people who impact one’s life significantly, even if you rarely see them. For me, Tommy is one of those.
Tommy lives on the street and is always alone. It is said of him that he won’t talk, but sometimes there are exceptions. One of the people he’s always trusted is our mutual friend, Trey. Trey is one of those earth angels to our homeless friends who does a very great deal to help them — and has for years — but does it all quietly and behind the scenes, with no fanfare. He’s an important part of Tommy’s safety net, often buying him clothes and checking on him, and Trey will be moving out of town soon with his wife and young children. So Tommy is strongly on my mind these days, knowing that an important link in his support network will soon be missing.
I saw Tommy this week at a monthly meeting that we both attend. I usually sit at the same table with him at the meeting, but this week our tables were adjacent. During a speech by someone that got a little lengthy, I looked over at him and he was looking my way. He made the motion of casting a fishing line off into the distance and reeling it in, then cut a look back at me and flashed a rare, enigmatic smile. I laughed. “Somebody needs to reel in this speaker,” he was telling me.
I’ve known Tommy for a number of years, back from the time of the Day Resource Center when I used to volunteer there on Friday evenings, tagging along with Our Calling Ministries because they’d let me give away clothing I’d collected for our homeless friends after the ministry had served a hot, home-cooked meal to several hundred street people on the DRC parking lot. Although his is a sizable physical presence, Tommy is so quiet and still that it is somehow possible to be almost unaware that he’s around. I remember going away from a freezing cold evening on that urine-soaked parking lot and thinking, “Wait a minute? Who was that person in a large army-green trench coat standing stock still most of the night, all on his own in the shadows?” I had the feeling it had been an apparition. Then I had the strangest thought — that it was Christ Himself among us. I still think that thought was right.
Soon Trey introduced me to him, and from that time on I made a point of saying, “Hi, Tommy,” whether or not he responded, but often he did. Then one night in prayer circle, he was suddenly standing next to me and even held my hand. From then on, I would often look up to find him standing nearby when I was handing out clothing, and sometimes we would have a brief conversation.
I wonder if Tommy mostly refuses to speak with people because sometimes his words don’t come out as he wants them to. After this week’s meeting, I asked him if he needed some new clothes, as he tends to wear what he has down to the bitter end of its usefulness (and way past its cleanliness), and he replied, in his soft drawl, “Wellll… I could use some shoes, or whatever you can get.” I looked at his shoes, which have become well-vented over the summer through coming apart at the seams. He told me his shoe size, and then, as has often happened when I talk to him, he began to speak further, but his words came out in a jumble. (The words themselves are sometimes of the so-big-that-average-people-have-to-consult-a-dictionary variety.) I saw him wince almost imperceptibly, as though he himself was surprised by it, and I tried not to register discomfiture but rather to go on with the conversation as though I understood. This somehow seems to reassure him. Although we both knew I didn’t get it all, it was OK, because we had made a connection.
One night on the DRC parking lot a few years back, I asked him if he wanted me to help him look for housing through a new program that Central Dallas Ministries was starting called Destination Home. “No,” he said, “you see, I’m mentally ill…” and then his words continued in a stream but went off in an obtuse direction and were spoken so softly that I couldn’t understand them. “OK,” I said when he was finished.
Somehow all of the highly-publicized help we are giving people who are experiencing homelessness in Dallas through our city services — and our arresting, ticketing, jailing and trying to force them into mental health care for which there’s inadequate funding to keep them there — as well as our efforts to transition them into housing that’s woefully insufficient because nobody wants ‘the homeless’ in their ‘hood — somehow all of this costly and much-touted assistance is passing Tommy by. The only place I’ve seen him safe and cared for is The Stewpot. But he still lives on the street and sleeps in the open. I continually ask myself how he survives.
When we can find a place for Tommy (and the many others like him) in ‘our world’… a place that is safe, that he can trust, where he can be cared for and be able to care for himself, a place that is clean and out of harm’s way… on that day, I’ll be willing to concede: we will have made a good start on solving the problem of homelessness in Dallas. But not until then.
The Garden Is Growing!
Update on The Garden: South Dallas, Texas
The Garden: South Dallas, Texas — a community garden for, by and with people who are homeless or formerly homeless in Dallas — is thriving under the leadership of the Discipleship of the Dallas International Street Church at 2706 Second Avenue near Fair Park. Team Leaders from the DISC took charge and led a work force of forty people from The Stewpot’s Community Court Project in a successful and fun Garden-Raising Day on Saturday, May 2, 2009. On April 2 we had a lovely but trash-littered field behind the church; by day’s end of the Garden-Raising, we had seven fully-planted organic raised garden beds!
All of us involved that day were tremendously joyful and proud of our accomplishment. Not only did these energetic and hardworking crews clean up the field and dig the turf out of the seven 4’ X 12’ garden beds, they hauled and laid concrete block borders, carried organic soil by wheelbarrow from the soil pile to fill the beds, trimmed trees, dug a flower bed, built garden benches and tables, and — the best part — at day’s end, everyone celebrated their labor by planting all seven beds with vegetables, herbs and flowers.
To view a slideshow by Mandy Mulliez of the the garden site, planning meetings,
and the Garden-Raising Day’s events, look here:
For a video clip of The Garden Team Leaders speaking on television about their experiences, look here: http://dallashomelessnetwork.blogspot.com/2009/05/garden-south-dallas-video.html
For many of us, the best thing about the day was the way that teams of homeless and formerly homeless individuals from the two programs, the Dallas International Street Church and the Stewpot Community Court Project, pitched in and worked together in a spirit which was more than harmonious — it was truly joyous! So many of us came away from the day elated with not only the significant physical accomplishments of the six crews, but the spirit of love, unity and camaraderie that we discovered working together.
More than once during the day, people came up to me and spoke of how hard it can be for people who live or have lived on the street to work together because of the challenges that each faces in his or her life. They expressed happiness both in their creation of The Garden and in the way they were able to cooperate in order to create it. Barry, one of the Stewpot supervisors, shared an observation of how people talked about their lives and their challenges with each other as they dug weeds, shoveled soil and planted seeds and plants.
Since the Garden-Raising, I’m proud to report that the six Team Leaders and their teams at the Dallas International Street Church have taken full responsibility for the care and nurture of their garden beds, watering them diligently, adding new plants, and reporting excitedly at our Garden meetings about which seedlings are emerging, what plants are producing, a couple of plants that are having problems and possible organic solutions. We already have a burgeoning crop of green beans! I quickly learned at our first full-church Garden meeting that we had many very knowledgeable and skilled gardeners in the congregation, and that knowledge grows and is spread around as people work side by side and share their expertise day by day. A Friend of the Garden has even donated a hammock where the hardworking gardeners can rest from their labors!
Here are some of the things we are growing this season: bush beans, Swiss chard, collards, Japanese eggplant, cucumbers, yellow crookneck squash, lettuce, onions, sugar-pod peas, carrots, okra, tomatoes, several varieties of peppers, strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, Italian-leaf parsley, cilantro, citronella, roses, marigolds, dianthus, zinnias, nasturtiums and about five other types of flowers — many of them tucked decoratively into the spaces in the concrete blocks. One of our gardeners is creating a special butterfly and bee garden bed. The gardeners have not only worked hard, they’ve been very creative in their garden design.
Something exciting and completely unexpected happened a week ago: just as we had exhausted our initial Seed Money Fund, an Anonymous Angel left an envelope at my house. On one side was written: “DON’T ASK WHO… PLEASE. IT IS A GIFT. KEEP UP WITH YOUR WORK.” On the other side, it said: “FENCE FUND. GOOD FENCES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS.” Inside was… $500! We are very grateful for such kindness, and this Saturday, May 17, the Stewpot DART Community Court Project is sending us another work crew, and we will install our new fencing!
If you are currently or formerly homeless, this is your garden, and you may become a gardener now or at any time by joining one of the teams at the DISC. (The church office telephone is 214-928-9595.)
Although we are going to wait until fall growing season to invite groups of volunteers to come in from outside the community and work with us, everyone is ALWAYS welcome to visit us — just knock on the Dallas International Street Church door and ask someone to show you the path. The Garden: South Dallas is a magical and serene place and one where we already love to sit with friends or alone, to talk or simply and quietly ‘find our peace.’
Special Thanks to:
Bruce Buchanan and the staff of The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church, Dallas
The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, especially Martha Lang, Outreach Director
The Garden Advisory Committee
Friends of The Garden for financial support and in-kind donations
Mandy Mulliez for photography
The Dallas Morning News and Michael Ainsworth for a photo spread of The Garden in the Metro Section on Sunday, May 3
Nancy Baker of White Rock Coffee for great coffee
Aaron Hardwick and Mindy of Breadwinners Restaurants and Catering for breakfast pastries for 100
Sandra Davis of SoupMobile for providing lunch for 100
Soil Building Systems for special pricing on Organic Growers Mix
Lowe’s at Northwest Highway & Jupiter for materials at cost
Louis, Cora and Anna for inspiration
and, OF COURSE, Pastor Karen Dudley for her great leadership, compassion and kindness to us all!
a bird bath
a bat house
concrete blocks for additional beds
cash for additional organic soil purchase
any and all healthy plants
any and all seed, especially heirloom varieties
gardening tools and gloves
limb loppers and pruners
a pole tree trimmer
a subscription to Organic Gardening Magazine [http://www.organicgardening.com/]
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Some Things Don’t Change
If you haven’t yet read Part 2 in Kim Horner’s series in the Dallas Morning News and seen Courtney Perry’s moving photographs about chronic homelessness in Dallas, you’ve missed something vital to understanding the complicated picture of this challenging problem. Kim’s latest piece blends heart and head in the way in which she excels. When I finished reading it, I felt both sad and relieved, because it gives context to what I’ve experienced for years but have not fully understood: the human cost of gaps and inadequate services for our people without homes in Dallas.
As mental health support wanes, many doomed to homelessness
I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Kim a little bit in the past few months, and I’ve found her to be a kind and trustworthy individual who tells it like it is, ‘gets it’ at many levels, and is able to synthesize complicated information successfully: facts, analysis, compassion without sensation. She knows one doesn’t have to engage in hyperbole in reporting on her ‘beat’, because the situation on the streets of Dallas is heartbreaking enough without it.
Another person who ‘got it’ — and frequently expressed ‘it’ in scathing terms — was William Makepeace Thackeray, when he was writing the novel Vanity Fair (1847-48). This literary masterpiece, which has been called by some ‘the greatest novel in English,’ is gaining ground in my affections, alongside Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, as one of my favorite stories of all time. I first read it in high school and didn’t appreciate it — or understand it — at all. Reading it now, I can only absorb a page or two at a sitting because I find it so dense in meaning and altogether pertinent to modern-day society, and to homelessness in particular.
These passages from Vanity Fair speak for themselves:
“‘There must be classes — there must be rich and poor,’ Dives says, smacking his claret… Very true; but think how mysterious and often unaccountable it is — that lottery of life which gives to this man the purple and fine linen, and sends to the other rags for garments and dogs for comforters….
The hidden and awful Wisdom which apportions the destinies of mankind is pleased so to humiliate and cast down the tender, good, and wise; and to set up the selfish, the foolish, or the wicked. Oh, be humble, my brother, in your prosperity! Be gentle with those who are less lucky, if not more deserving. Think, what right have you to be scornful, whose virtue is a deficiency of temptation, whose success may be a chance, whose rank may be an ancestor’s accident, whose prosperity is very likely a satire?”
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Hot Off the Presses!
Kim Horner and Courtney Perry of the Dallas Morning News
on Homelessness in Dallas
A friend just brought me the early edition of the Dallas Morning News for Sunday, March 28, 2009, which he knew I’d want right away. Front and center on page 1A is the first in a series of articles by Kim Horner, with photographs by Courtney Perry, on homelessness in Dallas, with an emphasis on the ‘chronically homeless.’
In reading the article, I was impressed by Kim’s sensitive and comprehensive grasp of this very complicated and heart-rending issue. I learned a great deal that I didn’t know about aspects of the problem that I never see. I think this first installment is excellent and goes beyond anything I’ve previously read on the subject here in Dallas. As usual, Kim is balanced and non-polemical while, I believe, laying out the complex challenges involved in addressing the problems covered.
Courtney’s photographs are excellent and show us that she’s been places in the city that few of us will ever go, not surprising for this intrepid photographer.
Kim and Courtney have really done their homework for this series of articles. I look forward to future installments. I’m thinking ‘Pulitzer.’ What do you think?
By the way, SoupMobile gets a mention in the section, ‘Reaching out to the homeless: Other social services’. Well deserved!
Friday, March 13, 2009
The Bible and the Birth Certificate
c Karen Shafer
Friday, March 13, 2009
a night this week,
rain pours down from the freeway overpass above,
onto cardboard-box houses that are almost empty.
as the water splashes onto my head,
i think vaguely that it has been under car tires
and must be very dirty.
a man from India,
whose face shines near me in the dark
as he stands inside his empty box-house, says to me,
“what you all are doing makes all the difference.”
i battle back the tears
so as not to embarrass him
i will choke on those tears for days,
as the sorrow i see and feel this night makes me ill,
sending me to bed with bronchitis.
it is the sorrow that does it,
not the cold.
i’ve seen this place for years,
this camp outside dallas
erected in desperation by people who have no place else to go –
seen it in various states and stages –
with occupants numbering a hundred,
and with a population of five.
maybe this time is harder
because it is so tragically
just exactly the same.
somewhere downtown in a brightly-lit building,
someone pulls a lever,
and the gears begin to turn.
wheels roll through the streets of dallas,
devouring all in their wake,
and move on down into the trenches,
where people wait, huddled under cardboard.
how many times have the dozers and dump trucks
come to this little community?
almost six years i’ve been seeing the aftermath,
yet i’m just a newcomer.
is this truly the best we can do?
this week, this night,
four friends of the camp’s people
stand helplessly on the sidewalk,
trying to know how to tell the story,
and trying to keep the people alive –
in body and in spirit –
in bitter rain,
and wind which cuts with a vicious bite
through the space
under the freeway overpass.
i walk back and forth
in front of the remaining cardboard houses,
up and down the sidewalk in the blackness,
one new pair of socks left in my pocket.
these few box-houses,
back from the dead of last friday’s raid,
won’t last long
against the dump trucks and dozers
which are sure to come again soon.
a woman comes towards me in the dark,her face hidden in a hood. “he’d just gotten a copy of his birth certificate,” she tells me of her husband. “it was in his Bible. last friday, the city came while he was downtown, clearing out his warrants [from being arrested for being homeless]. i tried to get them to let me back into our [cardboard] house to get his papers before they tore it down and took it away, but they said no.”
her husband was taking the steps he had to take to get off the street.
back to zero.
“wait, wait,” i tell her, and i put my arm around her and walk her back down the sidewalk toward the friends who’ve come with me, wanting her to tell another witness, wanting the words to be hers, not mine. words coming out of a sad face, a cold face, a numb face — a face that can barely hold any more sorrow, but that endures, and one that seems to be past anger, because it has no recourse. as we walk, she asks me, ‘do you have any clothes? they took everything.’ ‘i’ll bring you some,’ i promise.
a bureaucrat gives an order,
and the trucks roar to life.
workers wield their rakes,
clearing the residue of human lives.
‘you can take your id’s — nothing else,’
they tell these people regarding their own possessions –
clothing, bedding, everything is gone.
so the man from India
stands inside his empty cardboard house
on this near-freezing night
with two thin blankets
and says to me, without anger or self-pity,
‘feel these blankets. they are wet.’
he is well-spoken, clearly educated.
i touch the blankets.
‘they are wet,’ i agree. ‘i’m so sorry.’
we have no more blankets with us to give him —
we’ve made the rounds of other camps already —
but what matters to him is that someone sees,
that someone cares.
we all need a witness.
if there is love and caring,
the wet and wind can be more easily endured.
it feels so bitterly cold under that bridge,
though, near the people, it is warm.
trying to rise from the muck,
the woman frantically grasps at the costly sheet of paper,
tucked there within the Good Book,
but both are sucked up into Heaven,
just out of reach of her hands.
the machinery of bureaucracy
is grinding up and spitting out human beings,
along with their hopes, dreams and belongings.
a group of theorists finds the people, counts them, takes in money on their behalf, and spends it as they see fit. a group of bureaucrats collects sizable pay checks in the name of aiding the people, returning to elegant houses at day’s end, yet the people themselves are forbidden their cardboard-box homes, though they have nowhere else to go.
then, somewhere in the past, present and future, a tall, robust man stands at a podium looking radiant and nods graciously to thunderous applause from like-minded supporters. crystal sparkles. luscious food has been presented, nibbled at, pushed away, and removed. by candlelight, wine is sniffed, sipped, and perhaps sloshed onto starched white tablecloths.
the remnants of the food find their way to the landfill,
and mingle there with a Bible and a birth certificate.
“i’m happy to report that we’ve solved the problem of homelessness in dallas!” the man says, smiling an appealing and congenial smile. and, once again, the audience roars to life.
as if the magic of machinery can make human beings disappear.
Janet Morrison’s Community Dialogue:
Dallas Homeless Network Blog:
Conscience & Clarity Blog:
Monday, March 9, 2009
When we have solved the problem of homelessness in Dallas, we will know it. We will not need to ticket, arrest and harass homeless people for being on the streets of our town in order to get them out of sight. They won’t need to be on the street, because they will have access to housing, social programs, and jobs which pay a living wage.
Our programs serving the homeless will not be averse to criticism, because they will be good, fair, evenhanded and effective. They will work, and, if they do not work, we will listen to those who ‘know how to,’ and we will change them. Therefore, they will be funded.
Take the example of the Stewpot. When the Stewpot puts out an appeal, people generously respond. Why? Because this is an organization which has credibility, viability, integrity and staying power. Rules are rules, and the homeless clients they serve know this; the rules are for everyone, and they don’t change every day. A client may or may not believe that a rule is fair; nonetheless, trust is built with the organization because those living in the perilous and shifting sands that street life offers know what to expect at the Stewpot, day in and day out. Donors have the confidence that their donations, in-kind and monetary, will be directed efficiently to the targeted population. There is a strong, trusted, and experienced leader at the Stewpot [Rev. Bruce Buchanan], and there is accountability among the staff to him.
Clarity. Consistency. Transparency.
Here is a conversation I had with an intelligent and well-educated ‘chronically homeless’ individual recently in response to my question, “Do you use the [homeless assistance center and shelter system]?”
“I tried it for a while, but I gave up. If I want craziness, I can get it out here [on the street]. I don’t have to go there to get it. They want me to give up whatever drugs I might want to use, but then they want to put me on their [prescription] drugs in order to sedate me into being a person who can fit into their way of doing things and be compliant.”
I am not an advocate of ‘recreational’ drugs — don’t use them or champion their legalization. I think they are almost wholly destructive. But this point of view makes sense from a certain perspective.
What is the element that is missing between this homeless individual and the organizations built to facilitate her or his getting off the street? Trust. I’m not sure I would trust the system much either if I were in his or her position, and I understand the viewpoint even from the privileged perspective of being a property owner and a taxpayer [although, as we are seeing, even these privileges are quite tenuous in uncertain times.]
But when one is utterly powerless and living on the street, it is not likely that one will give up the little power and comfort one has in order to put oneself in the hands of authorities which are perceived to be unreliable, unpredictable and whimsical in their exercise of power, at best. Not one of us would choose that, would we? Is it a character flaw to choose independent living, rough as it is, over the perception of a dangerous surrender? We have squandered an opportunity to win the trust of some chronically homeless individuals in recent months, and I hope it can be rebuilt.
“If I want craziness, I can get it out here. I don’t have to go there to get it.” A concise and eloquent statement.
When we have solved the problem of homelessness in Dallas, we will know it. There won’t be hundreds to thousands of homeless individuals living in the woods, hiding from Dallas authorities. We won’t have to dissemble, harass, prosecute, and hound people into shelters and treatment. Our programs will be open to constructive criticism, and our responses to the same will be forthcoming, measured and rational.
As my friend, David Timothy, says of his organization, the SoupMobile: “I don’t want us to just look good. I want us to be good.”
That is a goal worth striving for, and it is the only one that will succeed.
Link on Pegasus News:
Link on Dallas Homeless Network:
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
I just got back a couple of hours ago from going with my friend, Soupman (David Timothy), to visit our good friend, Samuel, who lives in a cardboard house. Tonight, Samuel seemed discouraged. The police come by every Thursday or Friday and ticket him for ‘sleeping in public’ or ‘littering’, even though there’s no trash around his house whatsoever — he takes pride in keeping it tidy. He can work the tickets off in community service, go to Community Court, but the bigger question here is “What is the point of the ticketing?” Samuel and those in his situation have nowhere to go.
People are trying to survive, to work, to live, to get themselves out of the hole they’re in. Is there any possible way in which constantly being ticketed and warranted and sometimes arrested furthers their efforts to lift themselves up?
We are a long, long way from having affordable housing for the 6000 + homeless people in Dallas (a conservative estimate — many think it’s almost double that number.) We’re also a long way from having enough shelter beds for everyone, or from fulfilling the promise publically made when the Bridge was in the planning stages that it would accommodate the ‘shelter-resistant’ homeless by providing a safe place for them to camp within the homeless assistance center campus.
After visiting Samuel, we moved on to visit some other friends who live outdoors. “How many people are hiding out around here?” I asked James. “Around 2000,” he responded. “What??” I said, incredulous. “That’s a conservative estimate,” he replied, and his neighbors around us agreed. James is extremely intelligent: college educated, ex-military, well-spoken. I love talking to him. He’s also reliable in the street sense, and I trust the information he gives me.
Earlier, I had sat on the bumper of the truck near Samuel’s house, and he’d knelt by my knee. We talked for a long time while David did all the heavy lifting of giving out coats and blankets to people who showed up. “I know I’ve been saying this for a long time,” he told me, “but I’m sick of this. I want to get out of here. One of these days you’re going to come down here to get me and say to me, ‘Samuel, let’s go,’ and I’ll just leave.’” We looked at each other steadily through the darkness, as I scanned my mind for ‘housing first’ initiatives for which he would qualify and came up short. “Where would we be going?” I asked him. I was really hoping he had an answer, because I don’t. We just kept looking at each other for a long time, saying nothing.
Both Samuel and James would be good candidates for ‘housing first,’ as both are independent and have a strong work ethic but have lost faith with the current system in place to help them.
Samuel, David and I put our arms around each other before we left, and I felt honored to be chosen to say a prayer. As David and I climbed aboard the van, Samuel said something about heaven, and then he said something I’ll always remember: “We’re not homeless; we’re homeward bound.”