Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The elusive nature of Homeless World Sacramento [HWS]

In an Oct. 16 interview on Bill Moyers Journal, much-heralded war-zone reporter Mark Danner was talking about his new book, Stripping Bare the Body, when he was asked about Iraq. The elusive nature of understanding Iraq or, for Danner, other war-torn areas in his career, is similar with the elusiveness of understanding Homeless World Sacramento.
… as you get closer, as you set foot on the ground, as you talk to people, tens of people, you know, scores of people, as you travel around, as you see what's going on the ground, bit by bit, your certainty is stripped away, and you know less and less. Until you reach a moment, a couple weeks in, usually in my case, where you've been bombarded with sense impressions.

You've been bombarded with opinions. You've been bombarded with descriptions. And you suddenly think, I know nothing. I know nothing about this place. And that is a wonderful place to reach because you've achieved a kind of tabula rasa. You know, now I can try to understand it on my own terms. It's a wonderful thing about reporting, but unfortunately, it's not necessarily very good at understanding the ultimate ontological questions …
I bring all this up because I think after "being here," enmeshed in HWS for a good while, you can tell what people understand what it's like and you can tell when people are overdependent on the stereotypes of bums & hobos & homelessness in formulating their understanding. And you can recognize those that are blinded by their political or spiritual prejudices or just believe strongly in and trust the homeless-help industry.

Some columnists in our area choose to write about homelessness a lot. Whether the writer employs wisdom, or not; comes to great conclusions, or not -- it can be a separate issue whether they seem truly, intimately in touch with the subject.

I'm going to use as examples the most recent writings on homelessness by Bee columnists Georgia Rutland and Marcos Breton.

In her Oct 4 column in the Forum section, Rutland seemed correct to me in her conclusions regarding the idea of going forward with Safe Ground, but ignorant of the experience of being homeless and the feeling of being stuck in that Big Muddy Muddy.

It's a safe guess that her knowledge of Homeless World Sacramento comes largely from her conversations with the usual suspects from the homeless-help industry and not from intimate conversations with those trapped in the street & shelter life.

Rutland wrote "...some of the 'emergencies' that [result in people becoming homeless] are self-inflicted -- alcoholism, drug addiction and, yes, laziness and irresponsibility. Others such as mental illness, domestic violence and a collapsing economy are beyond the victim's control." It strikes me that this effort to separate the good homeless from the bad homeless is a fool's errand.

Whatever brings each person to the street or to a shelter is individualized. I am troubled that Rutland presumes to call addicts or those who appear to be unmotivated to improve their lot in life "self-inflicted," with the implication that they are in some way necessarily bad or less deserving of our help.

Recent science has shown addiction to be highly powerful. This so-called New Science of Addiction tells us that it is "a chronic disease" and not a selected lifestyle, and that addictions can easily sneak up on you. Drugs or drink will establish in the brain a reward pathway, "driving our feelings of motivation, reward and behavior" toward maintaining our addiction.

Genetics, too, is an important factor. And it's a sure guess that poor people are more likely than others to be carrying combinations of genes that make people susceptible to addictions.

And the biggest component of ongoing homeless addictions has to be that there is little in Homeless World to replace the pleasures derived from feeding one's addictions. The Rehab Program at Union Gospel Mission, the Clean and Sober program, N.A., and A.A have some success, of course, but theirs has to be a tougher slog in getting people off their chosen substance compared to middle- or upper-class neighborhoods.

Sure, there are lazy and irresponsible people in Homeless World Sacramento, but I don't think the culture is a hotbed of couch potatoes. For one thing, few homeless people have couches. And for most such people, just getting around during a minimum-accomplishment day is taxing and time-consuming. People out here walk (or bike) for miles and miles and miles, typically.

While we all are sympathetic with "victims"  - among the mentally ill, persons subjected to domestic violence and those undone by the economy  -  among these individuals there are greatly varying stories.

Mentally ill people truly deserve a better deal than being dumped onto the streets. And, they deserve much better attention and understanding from personnel in the homeless-help industry.

Regarding those homeless involved in domestic violence situations, studies show how we are prone to see these circumstances, sharply sorting out victims from victimizers, when, in reality, the actors in family (and other) disputes often share responsibility. Wrote John Haidt regarding Roy Baumeister's words in Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty:
Baumeister examined evil from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator. ... The disturbing part is that Baumeister shows us our own distortions as victims, and as righteous advocates of victims. Almost everywhere Baumeister looked in the research literature, he found that victims often shared some of the blame. Most murders result from an escalating cycle of provocation and retaliation; often, the corpse could just as easily have been the murderer. In half of all domestic disputes, both sides used violence.
Homeless World Sacramento, you see, is a very mixed culture and community, not easily boxed by false and easy stereotypes that persist from decades past.

If you want to know homelessness, there are writers who present it well. Stories in Homeless Tales are helpful. John Dolan's words about homelessness in Vancouver ring true. Also, Sean McGlynn of Sacramento speaks eloquently about being homelessness. [Sean knows homelessness!] [See the last four paragraphs of this post in SacHo.] And if you're a Sacramento reporter, c'mon down [to Loaves & Fishes; the mission; VOA] and let any false certainties get stripped away.

Re Marcos Breton, I don't know the politics of things, but otherwise I agree with the thrust of his most recent column, "In Sacramento homeless debate, reason is drowned out." My only complaint comes at the end where Breton endorses the mayor's call for "tough love" to fix matters homeless.

In the mayor's blog, called Kevin Johnson, our city's leader defines tough love as both "enforcement of the laws we have, but also an understanding of the difficulties [homeless Sacramentans] face" and as "both compassion and a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to public health and safety." Breton says tough love can take us to "where the goal is getting people into housing and back into productive lives."

There are a couple connotative problems with "tough love" that won't go away for me:

(1) The term is pretty much universally reserved for dealing with juveniles, while the folks under discussion here are Homeless World Sac's adults.

And (2), "tough love" instructs that people should be manipulated emotionally to extract some sort of behavior that is sought. This approach attempts to utilize love as if it were a crowbar.
My experiences tell amateur-psychologist me that many in the homeless community need to learn not to use emotions in any manipulative way (and, thus, manipulative emotions should not be used on them); rather they should hope to feel and properly deal with genuine emotions that arise.

Homeless people simply aren't spoiled brats who need to be taught respect via tough love.  A huge portion of us are figuratively beat up and staving off being further hurt.  We're striving to find a path out of homelessness in a period of recession in a world of many so-called homeless-help agencies that are disordered and gobble up our time making us wait in queues.

So, yes, something should be done about enabling-and-entrapping non-profits, like Loaves & Fishes, that allow/trap people in their circumstance of woe and self destruction. 

Perhaps, rather than imposing tough love on people, the approach should be one of incentivizing steps we homeless people can take that move us in the direction of more maturity, stability, wholesomeness and independence.

I'm a longtime fan of Chan Buddhism which promotes the idea that a person should feel an obligation to work in the world. We must work to compensate society for the bounty of others' efforts taken in bringing us the food we eat and creating the clothes we wear.

I think it would be a good idea if homeless people took on most of the roles of people who come to Loaves & Fishes as volunteers. It is quite odd, it seems to me, that homeless people, many of whom are looking for jobs, should be served by volunteers who drive to the L&F complex.

Work need not be narrowly defined as paying jobs. People can "work" by volunteering to help at charities and by taking practical, challenging classes. People can "work" by further developing their best skills and allowing them to be utilized in a helpful project.

Twenty or twenty-five hours of pleasant work of some sort, for those not having a job, would be healthy for us each.  But to achieve this, it ought to be possible for the Sacramento homeless-help industry to organize itself such that people can "get their day started," early and easily.  Most all L&F services should be frontloaded -- commencing at the start of the day, 7am -- such that people who need to can get out of L&F's Friendship Park to where they need to go, to accomplish something.

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