Thursday, April 30, 2009

Robert V. Tobin's assessments of Sac'to homelessness

"[T]hose who argued for or against the tent city relied on the sort of simplistic explanations and quick-fix remedies that trivialize the causes and minimize the consequences of homelessness." wrote Robert V. Tobin, the president and CEO of the transitional-housing organization Cottage Housing, in a opinion piece published two days ago in Inside Politics Daily. The title given the piece is "Sacramento's Homeless Camp: More Fiction Than Fact."

Fiction v. Fact counterpoints within his piece read thus:
FICTION: Sacramento's tent city emerged in recent months as the economy declined.
FACT: People have lived along the American River since the Gold Rush; homeless people have camped there for decades.

FICTION: Parents and kids were driven from their homes and into shanties.
FACT: There were no children living in the encampment.

FICTION: Tent residents were recession refugees new to the homeless scene.
FACT: The local homeless policy director said 90 percent of encampment residents were "chronically homeless­"-single individuals living on the streets for extended periods.

FICTION: Cities like Sacramento should create central city homeless encampments like Dignity Village, a successful project in Portland, Ore.
FACT: After a multitude of problems, Dignity Village was removed from downtown several years ago and is now located about as close to Portland's airport runways as you can get without a boarding pass.
Before getting to the important overall point that Tobin is trying to make, it must be pointed out that his "fact"s aren't all the bare truths he implies.

While there have sporatically been homeless campers in all parts of Sacramento, the emergence of a more-solid community of campers in what was later dubbed Tent City [but was known in Homeless World Sac as "the wasteland"] emerged east of Blue Diamond Almond only in late November. The emergence of this community came about because the police rousted minor encampments near Bannon and North B Sts and on so-called Crack Alley which ran north of North B near 7th St. Thus, the number of tents in "the wasteland," which wasn't rousted, very suddenly became significant and noticed.

Dignity Village was moved to a location in the shadow of Portland's airport in an agreement with the city to expand the village's acreage."
But, yes, the idea that there was suddenly a boom in homelessness in Sacramento due to the tumbling economy, as the Oprah Show and other media implied, was a herring colored red. And the idea that families were suddenly living on the streets in great numbers was false, too. [See the SacHo blogpost "The Sacramento Homeless emergency that Wasn't There."]

While Tobin is right that Dignity Village isn't a perfect template for Sacramento homeless advocates (such as this blog!) to use in envisioning a serene tent encampment in our metropolis, Tobin is wrong to say that any vision of a legal encampment is tied to the idea of it being in the cental part of the city. Sure, Sister Libby of Loaves & Fishes would like to see the encampment near her facilities in the center of the city, but something elsewhere will do. And, to the mind of many, a legal encampment apart from L&F domination would be preferable!

What needs to be done

Tobin's solution is, basically, for the American people to stop using situational/temporary means – shelters and the idea (if not the reality) of legal encampments – as a permanent way to address the entrenched problems of homelessness.

Tobin, then, wants to "change the rules" – but he doesn't show us how we escape having things continue as they are, with a thousand-plus people out there in the county with no means to sustain themselves. What he implies, without saying so overtly, is that Cottage Housing, and other transitional-housing-with-support-services businesses, should be funded to expand to take care of many many more who are without a roof. And that zoning and building rules should be changed to make for more apartments that poor people can afford.

Fine. I applaud his rules changes. But until pennies rain from heaven, we must have a legal encampment. Why so? Because shelters are inadequate in many respects. They gobble up too much of homeless people's time, preventing us from pursuing job opportunities or keeping jobs once we have them. If the shelters were restricted such that they could only lockdown those they give beds to for no more than ten hours, and that they would accommodate people with new night jobs, THAT might make it possible for the homeless not to need to camp out as a means to escape the trap of homelessness.

[BTW, the Union Gospel Mission which provides shelter for 60 men and up to 24 in its Rehab Program, tries to accommodate workers it shelters, allowing for some late check-ins and for early wake-ups. Hooray, UGM! Still, it does not accommodate night workers who would need to miss the shelter's nightly sermon.]

Tobin writes "It is senseless to sanction and fund tent cities that address only one symptom of homelessness – the lack of shelter – and none of its causes." But what he doesn't know, from not being in Homeless World Sacramento, is that there is a whole lot more that many people in HWS can do for themselves if they are not encumbered by the shackles of invasive shelter-with-aid "help" they are getting. Like a modern-day Sacramentan Oliver Twist, I would like to walk up the steps of City Hall with my bowl of gruel and say, "Less, please."

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Anonymous Danny Jensen said...

Thank you for your analysis of the situation. I mentioned your post in my blog:

Keep up the great work!

May 1, 2009 at 11:13 AM  

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