Exploring the quandary of homelessness

I am starting this website because of an itch.  A concern, a disturbance.  I have a house, and I am warm and comfortable in my house.  I have my things safely secured in my home.  I can retreat here and find privacy, solitude, quiet — and my house protects my mental and emotional well-being,  as well as my physical health.

homeless-travelerBut, there are others who dont’ have these things.  I drive by them, for instance the one I often see sheltering behind a trap stretched from the end of a discarded mattress to a shopping cart in a bush by the freeway on-ramp.   My feelings about the homeless, or their camps, are varied.  I may be sad, I might be curious,  I am sometimes fearful, I may feel repulsed, I can get angry.  I can feel all these things, and I think many of us do.  One of the main reasons for starting this website, is to make room for people to  have all their feelings about what they see, and not feel pressured to feel only the “nice” or “politically correct” things like empathy or pity.  In fact, I believe that a major reason for the seeming intractability of the homeless problem, is homeless advocates’ contempt for and dismissal of the many natural and very common negative responses that residents/neighbors have, both to some of the homeless themselves, as well as to the squalid encampments.  I believe it’s possible to both feel compassion for the homeless individuals, as well as feel disturbed by the situations in which they often live.  I want to explore this paradox.

On one day, there is a young woman — attractive, and articulate– sitting downtown on the sidewalk, with a dog and a sign.  Another day, I see the bedraggled young man down the street, who appears to be on drugs, who is living in a small tent on the sidewalk, surrounded by trash.  I have walked by that area and found human feces on the sidewalk nearby.  There is a woman at the street intersection with a sign, and when I stop and hand her money, tears run down her face and she says “Bless You.”  There is a man in my neighborhood to whom I once gave $5, and now, every time he sees me, he waves, and I slow down my car.  I wince and feel regret that I ever gave him anything at all, as he approaches me with a new con story about how he only needs X amount of money in order to buy a truck so he can do recycling scavenging more easily, or so he can get a place to stay for the night.

homeless-mentally-ill

I feel saddened and disturbed when I drive downtown, pass by a highway overpass and in the dirt below, see a middle aged man talking to himself, someone who is clearly out of his mind, wandering, ragged, near a large cardboard box draped with a tarp. I feel angry that whereas we once provided clean and safe places for the seriously mentally ill in the US, through institutionalization of these individuals which admittedly had its problems as well — now our policy is that  leaving the seriously mentally ill to live on the sidewalks is giving them “freedom.”  Recently, Karen,  a homeless woman with schizophrenia in Portland died in a parking garage after being evicted for late rent and signs of decompensation.  I feel angered that we are talking the lie that such “freedom” to wander the streets is better than “committing people to institutions” where people like Karen would be warm, dry and cared for.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Calico at the Gilman Street Underpass Camp, Jan 2017

I meet individual homeless individuals and find them creative, artistic, whimsical and funny, but am at the same time disturbed, appalled and sometimes angered by some huge homeless encampments in cities, where, neighbors say, and sometimes police confirm, there have been “chop shops” for stolen bicycles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Bay Trail bike path near Gilman Homeless Encampment — strewn with trash

A news story states that police found a hoard of illegal drugs at another camp, and in yet another, two people were murdered.

 

Opening the local newspaper, I read of  San Francisco’s effort to come up with solutions for homelessness.  I read that the city has been trying to find solutions for this thorny issue for many years, and that more than one prominent political leader has concluded that “homelessness cannot be solved.”

As I read about homeless service agencies and what they do, I see that many caring people offer services, food, shelter, programs and sometimes housing to the homeless, and that many times they do help people, but often they do not.  I read about huge amounts of money being spent, and in the end, after all that expense, seeing that not much has changed — there are few results.  The number of homeless is about the same.  Some cities do more, some cities do less for the homeless — but the approach seems to be very much city by city, without any overarching federal program or plan.

entitlement-spendingMany are adamant that the homeless should be given whatever help they need, or should be allowed to camp wherever they choose. Yet, such demands generally dont’ fly with neighborhoods, residents of which understandably perceive homeless camps as trashy places full of blight or crime, even as open-air insane asylums.  As well, a large number of Americans who feel that US entitlement programs are too large, that we are giving out too many handouts to people who don’t deserve them or who refuse to take steps to help themselves.

So this website is a place to do more in-depth exploration, as well as discussion, of these quandaries and conundrums, and see what results.  I want to really take a “big picture” view of the issue of homelessness, looking at it from all angles — thus, exploring it more in a journalistic manner, like an investigative reporter, rather than in the manner of a homeless advocate with a particular and fixed opinion.  I want to view homelessness not only as it’s viewed from the outside, typically as a problem to be solved or as a group of needy to be donated to, but also from the inside –what can I discover about the “culture” or cultures of the homeless or non-housed people,  the values and beliefs, if any, associated with it?  Not all of the homeless view themselves as “victims” of their situation — some in fact have chosen it.   A couple books have been written by those who renounced money — one about “The Man Who Quit Money”,  Daniel Suelo , and another about “The Moneyless Man”, Mark Boyle .

In addition, I am curious about the symbolic and psycho-social meaning of homelessness — for if we are honest, and whether we are “open-hearted” people or not, I think most of us will admit that the issue of homelessness effects us as it creates a category of people who are “other” to us in a quite dramatic way.  We might have survival fears ourselves, and worry that we too could become homeless.  Or we could be triggered in some profound psychological way by the sight of someone living out in the open without any protection. In several ways, this issue is one that digs deep down into our collective psyche, and puts a thorn there.

Ideally I would like to find solutions for homelessness. Yet,  I also have observed the intractability of the problem in the US, given government policy, bloated entitlement spending, and American resistance (particularly as seen in the new federal administration and among the electorate who put Trump in office) to yet more forms of welfare and government aid.  So I want to put together many reflections from different angles and present this subject as one worthy of our thought and contempation, but often elusive of workable solutions.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Exploring the quandary of homelessness”

  1. Dear Author,

    Would it be of interest to you, for your next investigation, to attempt to find even one open shelter bed, any one night, in all of northern Alameda County?

    Then, when you have genuine and verifiable proof of whether or not that one such bed has existed (unused), you can come back and legitimately state that the area’s houseless individuals “refuse services/shelter/housing”…

    I have been houseless in Alameda County for nearly 20 years and through 2 pregnancies (both of which I spent almost the entirety of, trying to get anywhere, even a shelter bed for the night, that I could sleep indoors at night, to no avail). There is nowhere else for people to go other than where they are.

    If you don’t believe me, why don’t you Google the recent CBS two-hour special on homelessness in the Bay Area.

    You will see and hear, from the standpoints of our highest city officials, the actual problem and it’s cause as well as what solutions they are trying in each of their own cities.

    I feel that you have created this blog and are expressing your personal opinions on the topic of homelessness because (as you have stated) the mere sight of people who are houseless makes you feel uneasy.

    I suggest that you take some time and advocate for cities and counties to take a “housing first” approach, for developers to build projects with that in mind and for less NIMBYism, so as these projects can be built and so people can finally get off of the streets and into somewhere where they can get the services that so many of them so desperately need.

    Like

  2. Thank you for your contribution phlamber.
    I could spend a lot more time researching issues pertaining to homelessness, if I did not have to work for a living and pay for my own housing. I have a limited amount of time and tend to use it to investigate those areas which most interest me. I hope eventually to look into more of the dimensions of the homeless dilemma, including those areas you mention, so that I can be a better advocate for approaches which I think make the most sense.

    I certainly agree that it would be ideal if everyone who was houseless could be given housing. I think the point that many are making, that housing is a human right, is well made. I just don’t believe it is realistic to expect everyone who needs housing to be freely given it, particularly in a region where housing is so expensive as in the Bay Area, and where even so many people who are employed with decent incomes are struggling to pay for housing, and where the wait for subsidized housing is years long. The demand and the need far outstrip the available supply and the finances available to create more supply — particularly in the Bay Area. I think the recent statement — https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Berkeley-homeless-plan.pdf
    presented by the City of Berkeley to Judge Alsup about its own limitations speaks to this.

    Like

  3. Here’s everything you need to know about “phlamber” aka Amber Whitson.

    1) Amber is voluntarily homeless. She did have a long-term place to live but resented having to spend $500 a month on rent so she left that home to return to the streets. She prefers to spend her SSI money on drugs.

    2) Amber refers to housing as a “lock box on the grid” and has publicly proclaimed numerous times that she will never succumb to such a lifestyle. Her posts and comments on the subject can be found here:
    https://patch.com/users/amber-whitson

    3) Amber is currently under investigation by the Albany Police for Grand Larceny after stealing over $15,000 worth of property from the elderly woman who offered her the place to live mentioned above. The elderly woman had to file for an Elder Abuse Restraining Order against Amber because two years after she stopped paying rent and move out, Amber continued to use her old key to enter the apartment in order to use the shower, smoke meth and generally terrorize the elderly woman who lived upstairs by banging on walls and ceilings and behaving like a narcissistic, grifting drug addict who has no concern for others.

    The fact that she abandoned two children in order to live on the streets and continue to do drugs should tell you everything else you need to know about her.

    The elderly woman was awarded a 5 year restraining order after only asking for a 3 year restraining order.

    Here’s a link to Amber’s Twitter account where she uses “phlamber” along with her given name: https://twitter.com/phlamber

    Like

  4. Thorn you bring up some important topics which would be worthy of more study. I dont’ know what’s true or not about Amber — but if she makes reasonable comments those are welcome here. At the same time, it’s important to know the context/history from which people are speaking. So, if for instance Amber is arguing that she’s on the street because there are no shelter beds, but in fact would not stay in a shelter (or a house) if there were beds there, then this makes that argument rather dishonest.

    At the same time, if someone honestly just comes out and says, “I want to live on the street because I don’t like standard housing, and like the street community” or “I want to spend my money on drugs, not housing” then there is definitely value in making those honest statements. I believe we can all figure out the homeless issue better when people are honest. For instance, I think you’d see different statistics in terms of who would be willing to pay to help the homeless, if they heard a number of homeless saying, “I want to live on the street, not in housing, because it’s easier to get drugs there and it allows me to spend my money on drugs.”

    Not that there isn’t necessarily some value in potentially having a place in the world where people who want to do drugs, can exist and do drugs. Maybe there should be a place for that and a place for those folks to live. But if so, I think we should be collectively deciding this, rather than having this decided for us by those using drugs, — eg having them decide that they want to show up on our street corner or next to our public park, or live in an RV next to a daycare center or elementary school. . Also seems important to not have this issue of a culture of drug use completely conflated with “homelessness.”

    The percentage of homeless with substance abuse and/or serious mental illness is quite high — a study that Berkeley did indicated 40% of all homeless self-reported as substance abusers or with serious mental illness — see pg 3 here:

    https://www.cityofberkeley.info/uploadedFiles/Council_4/Homeless%20Task%20Force%20Presentation.pdf

    The number of homeless who have criminal records should also be studied.

    On the topic of people who actually have or are offered housing, but reject it, or who definitely prefer to be “homeless”, eg to live on the streets, or in cars, or in tent camps. I began to delve into this subject in this blog: https://homelessquandary.wordpress.com/2017/02/12/homeless-or-alternativelyillegally-housed/

    Often those who reject services and/or housing are described as “service resistant homeless.” I think that’s a problematic description because, as I see it, there are many people who are actually better described as advocating for an entirely different way of life than most of us live and which our cities are designed for. They stand for different values. Both on Berkeleyside and in other places, I’ve read comments by homeless people which essentially indicate that they do not like and are not willing to live as “housed” people, and insist on living on the streets or on public lands. Then the question for all of us is to what extent if any such a way of life and such values can be accomodated in our society. As well, this issue introduces other questions — if people are permitted to live in a tent on the sidewalk, or a car in the public street, then why can’t Joe or Jane live in a car in his backyard? Or rent out a car or plywood box in his backyard as a dwelling to someone?

    Like

  5. I would hardly say that I am unwilling to live indoors.

    I have simply found my niche in life/society.

    Until there is some solution to the current housing crisis, there WILL be people who live in vehicles.

    Having gone to school to work on cars, I know FOR A FACT that auto mechanics are TRAINED and ENCOURAGED to overcharge people whose vehicles they work on.

    I find that to be morally reprehensible.

    So, I am Berkeley’s nearly-free RV mechanic.
    I work on other types of vehicles, as well. I also have been known to work on vehicles which belong to traditionally housed people.

    If the only place that you have to lay your head at night is inside of your vehicle, it is essential that you have a running vehicle that can also pass SMOG.

    Granted, I am not as reliable schedule-wise as a professional/brick-and-mortar mechanic… If I was able to be all that then I wouldn’t have to rely on disability to survive. However, those who I help appreciate my help and I appreciate them for being good people. They pay me when/what they can. And that’s plenty good enough for me. I know that I am helping good people (I flat out refuse to help bad/dishonest/shady people! I don’t need that stain on my karma!) and they know that I will do the very best that I can for them. They kinda become like family to me and I to them.

    Since that is not a full-time job and my disability pays me just enough to barely survive on, I supplement that with scavenging (dumpster diving). I don’t have much room in my truck (since I appreciate floor space) and I am not partial to having stuff dangling from the outside of it like debris dreadlocks, I am very selective about what I bring home to sell. I have met some wonderful people via Craigslist. And, I have supplied many of my friends’ coffee habits for years.

    The amount of perfectly usable items/food that this country throws in the trash is deplorable. This city and area are no different.

    I exist on the margins of society. BMH, BPD, and the generally scrutinizing public has left me feeling comfortable below the radar. However, I do read something other than service manuals (sometimes). And, I have the unique ability to eloquently advocate for those in similar situations to my own. This is how I end up commenting in places like this.

    I very much appreciate a good discourse. And (Thorns attempts at slander aside) I am grateful for the open-minded direction of the present conversation.

    Like

    1. Thank you Amber for sharing some of your story, and telling us about your work and about your community. I think it’s important to hear the stories of the homeless and the vehicularly housed in our area. These stories can give more insight into the overall situation, and perhaps eventually help find ways to discover solutions to the “homeless quandary.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Amber, slander is a falsehood spread as a truth. Everything I shared is the truth. The things you did not comment on are more revealing than those you did choose to address.

    Here is some more truth:

    Amber does not report her earnings (mechanic work, sales of “found” items, Ebay sales, etc) to the IRS. This means she is stealing from those who do report and pay taxes. She doesn’t report because she knows her SSI would be in jeopardy.

    Amber claims she can “barely survive” on her disability income yet she recently spent $400 on a ticket to a convention of fans of a certain television show. That is equivalent to almost 1/2 of her monthly disability.

    Amber’s “disabilities” are all manufactured and the ridiculous list includes toenail fungus. She claims she is too ill to work full time yet while living on the Bulb she put in more than 40 hours a week digging for scrap metal which she then sold. None of this metal actually belonged to Amber, it was all City of Albany property, but her sense of entitlement overrides reality.

    Amber’s “disabilities” are exacerbated by daily drug use which she claims is self-medication. She is under the care of several competent Lifelong physicians so there is no need to self-medicate other than a desire to get high.

    Amber’s boyfriend Chris is quite open and honest about Amber’s lies. All you have to do is catch him alone and ask him one question and out comes the truth.

    Like

  7. Thanks Thorn.
    In different situations/contexts, different sets of facts may have more or less relevance.
    When exploring ideas about how to address homelessness, the fact that someone might possibly be a liar, a drug user, a criminal, engage in disability fraud, may cheat the government, may be less relevant to that discussion, than the ideas that they present. (Obviously the issue of disability fraud is very relevant to those dispensing disability payments — but I’m not a representative of that or any other government agency)

    In other words, there’s room in several places here to view and consider a person’s ideas completely apart from their character, except in those instances where the ideas they are presenting are hypocritical or dishonest, based on facts about their character. Here as in many other places online, people can choose to comment and participate anonymously or pseudonymously. If Amber had chosen to disguise her identity in comments here, these would be less vulnerable to character-based critique, so I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to attempt to view her comments or arguments in their own right.

    As well, I think the “ad hominem” approach to commenters not only has the drawback that we can miss the forest for the trees, and throw out the baby with the bathwater, but the fact is that a huge number of homeless persons are either persons with serious mental illness or substance abuse issues. This article
    http://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/10/us/survey-of-homeless-mental-ills-and-addiction.html
    indicates that in a study of homeless in Baltimore, 80% were mentally ill and most of them had problems with drug or alcohol abuse. I would venture there are many criminals among them too (I dont’ know if this has been studied). If we take the approach that we are free to dismiss comments/ideas from those who have these character issues, we risk silencing all the homeless and merely having conversations about homelessness among the housed and those who are not fortunate not to have to cope with these issues.

    I’m not saying that character traits and someone’s history are irrelevant in discussions about homelessness. Depending on the context and the particular discussion, they may be quite relevant. In other discussions, perhaps less so.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s