Friday, September 18, 2009

Forum offers unexpected updates on current hot homeless issues

Forum Description: One Book Sacramento program: Homeless and Mental Panel Discussion. The Soloist tells the story of Nathaniel Ayers and puts a face and a name on homelessness and mental illness. His story gives insight that humanizes homelessness and de-stigmatizes mental illness. Local experts will discuss the connection between homelessness and mental illness. The program will be moderated by Ben Adler of Captial Public Radio. Experts participating in the discussion:
·Tim Brown, Sacramento Ending Chronic Homelessness Initiative director;
·Joan Burke, Loaves & Fishes director of advocacy
·Dr. Cameron Carter, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology - UC Davis
·Sean McGlyn, fomerly homeless mental health consumer

Last night, I attend what was billed as a Forum on Homelessness and Mental Illness at the Central branch of the Sacramento Public Library.

A few things of interest regarding homelessness as it is today came up in the presentations given by several of the speakers.

The forum fully diverged from what I expected and hoped it would be – about mentally ill homeless people, their experience and how they should be treated and aided – to somewhat-self-promoting talks about what the speakers knew about current homeless issues in Sacramento. A prime topic was Safe Ground in two of its meanings, (1) the non-legal camp of about 40 homeless people on a small parcel of land, owed by Mark Merin, on C Street near 13th; and (2) the effort and hope to have one or more legal homeless encampments in the future. Mental health was a side matter that was not explored in any depth.

Tim Brown told us that at this time there was no money for shelter space for the homeless this coming winter. But he was hopeful that something could be "patched together in the next week or so." He also took note of stimulus money that can be utilized beginning in October, but must be narrowly targetted to benefit newly homeless or Sacramentans at risk of becoming homeless.

Joan Burke told us right now in Sacramento things are not right. "We know that housing is the answer to everything," she said.

From my observation, Loaves & Fishes, this year, has gone through quick cycles of endorsing and praising Mayor Johnson and, then, attacking him. Last night, Joan Burke praised the mayor for being the first to try to address homelessness seriously.

[From what I glean from local news, the mayor and homeless agencies, led by Loaves & Fishes, are now hotly negotiating an end to legal matters, involving Lehr v Sac'to and the C St. encampment. I fear and expect that the agencies are, mostly, angling for their piece of the pie, using homeless people as pawns in this political showdown that can only hurt the mayor's standing and ambitions.]

Burke also praised the C St. encampment for making sure that no drugs, no alcohol and no violence was central to the homeless organizers' rules of conduct. In this, Burke is partially incorrect. People in the Safe Ground camps -- on C Street and north of Loaves & Fishes -- sign agreements not to use substances near the encampment, not that they are not to be high while in camp. [Update 9/19: According to a Sacramento Press report, Merin requires campers to be drug and alcohol free on and off his property. One camper was caught not living up to that standard and was evicted from the C St. parcel.] Burke also said that when a true Safe Ground [i.e., legal campground] is established a "non-profit must be involved." That surely is Burke's veiled way of revealing that Loaves & Fishes will be have a city/county contract to manage things if negotiations with the mayor are to get anywhere. It should be noted that Dignity Village in Portland, a successful homeless encampment many point to, does not have a non-profit overseer.

In a tip of the hat to the some-25 Safe Ground encamped homeless in attendance, Burke said that their role was like that of Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights heroine. Of course, when Ms. Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, it was an act of courage that set forward a chain of events ending segregation in the South. Ms. Parks' act happened in realtime and wasn't staged. The municipal bus Rosa Parks was on wasn't owned by her attorney to falsely create a confrontation.

Joan Burke went on to say that her goal, or that of the Safe Ground Movement, was for "Everyone to have a simple home or apartment of their own." The implication, from further discussion, was that rent for the residences would be gifted to each homeless person from the government. This sentiment was hardily approved by homeless people in attendance to the event.

Sean McGlyn told us about his twelve years of homelessness in Sacramento. His statements demonstrated his full awareness of what life is like for a rather-typical [if anyone can be typical] longterm alcoholic in Homeless World Sacramento.

"What's sad about it is you get used to it," he said. What happened was that he "kind of gave up [on getting out] after two years" because the undercaste circumstance had become his life. "You get to a point where you can't get back to [situation normal]".

Finally he got his life back together, succeeding in a nine-month program to gain and hold sobriety, after failing at that in similar programs previously. He said, "I don't think I could have done it by myself." Finally, in a combination of will power and just the right help in the right way, everything clicked.

[You can't get the sense of it from what I've written about what McGlyn said, but McGlyn told his story vividly and affectively and it had a profound effect on listeners – me, certainly.]

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