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The News & Review stumbles into Homeless World and Falls on its Face

SNR cover for 8/29/13.
It has been about a year since I wrote SN&R's editor Nick Miller and Bites columnist Cosmo Garvin about a malicious attack that the Bee's Marcos Breton made against American River Parkway campers. Miller and Garvin then each used some of their allotted space in the next weekly issue of the News & Review to come to the defense of the campers. It was a fine and glorious thing. [Others may have written SN&R, too, of course, but I felt like the Canadian Mounties had ridden in, all at my behest, to deliver some salvific kind sentiment.]

Garvin topped his Oct. 4, 2012, column with three beautiful defense-of-the-homeless paragraphs. Here's the one in the middle:
The homeless and their advocates (apologists, he might say) have been sitting ducks in Breton's unforgiving sights for years. And lately, he's been shooting them in the face. Metaphorically. There was a nasty little flourish at the end of one recent column, where he wrote that "it's only a matter of time" before some homeless camper abducts a child. Pow!
And Nick Miller took up homelessness as a topic in his Editor's Note for a second week in a row. Here, choice good words:
I'm sure it's awful searching for work these days — but imagine trying to lock down a roof.

Yet this is the expectation — and it's a huge reason why Sacto faces a world-class homelessness crisis.

It was nearly 100 degrees this past Monday, but the fall and winter shelter season is upon us. And available beds … reveal a grim scenario: Most emergency and single-family shelters allow stays of just 30, sometimes 60 days, and there are obstacles: sobriety, referrals — and months of waiting.
A little later that October, Breton masterminded a raid on the Parkway campers, and things looked bleak for the cause of returning homeless folk to a better, more-normal life.

But while you can't always get what you want — and what I want are good, true words from the press followed by homeless people finding meaning and purpose in a life where basic needs are met — it's a hopeless cause unless The Truth Gets Out There to an unknowing public. And what is this exalted "The Truth"? Well, it's complicated.

Homeless persons are individuals — stark in their differences, one from another. There is no compact, explains-it-all Homeless Culture that an uninitiated conventional citizen can hope to quickly read about to grasp the homeless circumstance. There is nothing that is pithy and spritely that can capture any significant portion of the homeless population in Sacramento County. We are varied; and we are each multitudes (as Walt Whitman said of his own contrarian, contradictory self).

And as WW wrote in "Song of My Self," it holds, too, for homeless folk:
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn'd and unlearn'd feel that it is so.
But without missing a beat, Whitman contradicts himself, creating an image — arty and profane — to fill the heart and eye and provide some sort of image or idea. As humans, we need that. Something. Even as the mystery remains.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well
entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
There has to be an effort to understand a class of people that is the most misunderstood — and the most disparaged. And the drudgery of a walk-in-circles life bled of meaning. I remain hopeful that somewhere beyond the committed ignoramuses — the Bee's Marcos Breton and Ginger Rutland, notably — something that does not romanticize nor demonize homeless folk can stir its way into print, that presents a fair picture and provides a right-enough useful sense of it all.

There is a Buddhist sensibility that I am attached to that I offer to others, including writers in our fair metropolis: "Everybody suffers." Do homeless people suffer yet more than others? I don't know. Probably. Certainly, maybe. But people acclimate to a circumstance and then, if they're not careful, become habituated. Then the years go by and you barely perceive how much your face has become weathered and sad and how much different you are at your core than how and who you were.

A recent cover article in the News & Review, "My days living homeless in Sacramento," was supposed to take us into Homeless World - which would have been a first from a Sacramento scribe since Dale Maharidge tried that, successfully and repeatedly, decades ago for the Bee. But I think Dave Kempa's recent effort, repeatedly, took a single strong stride and then stumbled, bad. Kempa writes of his effort in the first section "I'm still a tourist, of course; it's all manufactured. I can end this game at any moment, go back to my apartment and job." I think the writer grasped too tightly to that sensibility, never finding empathy nor trying to understand why things are the way they are. Also, I think he forgot he was doing his freaking job. Wearing out a little shoe leather is what reporters are supposed to do.

You can see the "stumble -> fall" thing at the beginning of the second section. Kempa joins a group camping on the river and then is told how "families" come into being such that small groups can protect and care for each other. But rather than accept this, Kempa turns to Steve Watters, Safe Ground's Executive Director, for some sort of authentication. It's like Kempa held up a finger and said, "Excuse me, homeless person, let me bring an adult in to make sure you're not lying." Watters then is quoted saying essentially what Kempa was already told.  And, there is no real reason to suppose Watters knows much. He's a college professor, not someone who's been homeless.

Later in the section, Kempa turns to a board member of the Sacramento Housing Alliance for another adds-nothing verification of what a homeless person says.

The third section of Kempa's article is the most galling and is flat weird. He makes it pretty clear that he has brought knives with him and is trying to gut the Union Gospel Mission, while making no try to understand its purpose or unique vital place in the network of shelters in Sacramento.

Kempa's first paragraph is this load of garbage:
The Union Gospel Mission is a squat, forgettable, 84-bed men's shelter (60 for the homeless, 24 for the 90-day drug-and-alcohol program) located just north of downtown. It is surrounded by a 7-foot fence, topped with barbed wire down the sides of the compound. In many respects, including the strict demands of protocol, the place feels like prison.
If fine architecture is what Kempa is hunting for, perhaps he should look at the millions of dollars Loaves & Fishes spent on a state-of-the-art dust-averse warehouse to keep food and provide office-space splendor to L&F admnistrators. The mission should be congratulated for making good use of its limited dollars, not slammed for not being fancy-schmancy enough to dazzle Kempa.

Two fences, together. The mission fence, in front, has nothing on top of it. The neighboring property's fence is topped with barbed wire. [Click to enlarge.]
As for the barbed-wire fence, it surrounds a water-treatment plant that is being extended and a new road to that plant that is just to the south of the mission. Kempo must only have one operating eyeball since he has to have walked back-and-forth along the fence to take two pictures that he has [ (1) & (2) ] and I think it is impossible with 3D vision to mistake that there are two abutting fences along that walk. One fence, the mission's no-barbed-wire fence, is footed in concrete; whereas a temporary fence, for the construction, is behind the mission fence and is topped with barbed wire.

As I hope you can see from MY two pictures, at right, there are two fences. As I say, it is VERY evident in real life, in three dimensions, that the fence in front, the mission's fence, is solid and permanent and without barbed-wire. The fence behind the mission fence is in sections, held together by couplings and, in the second picture, you can read where it says "We Rent Fences." You can also see the temporary barbed fencing fifteen yards beyond (on the other side of the road that is under construction).

Note that the construction site fence, behind the mission fence, reads "We Rent Fences." [Click to enlarge.]
Other fencing the mission uses is a black wrought-iron fence along the street front. The wrough-iron fencing has a flat top; there is nothing to harm a person climbing over it; though it is tall to deter people from coming onto the property at night. There is, I think, other wire fencing around a dirt-lot area where a few cars may be parked overnight. If there is any barbed-wire over that fence — and I think there is not — it is probably not to keep the cars from jumping the fence in an escape attempt.

Kempa says the mission "feels like a prison." I don't know from what basis he makes that supposition, but having heard fellows' testimonies about prison and being very familiar with what the mission is like, I can say — on good authority — that there is no connection. Here from Sam Harris, the famous atheist, no less, a good depiction of what I have heard prison is like: "The Power of Bad Incentives."

Kempa next writes, "The consensus in the homeless community is that 'the Mission' is a place for men who have run out of options." I doubt that Kempa has any basis whatsoever in writing that statement. The consensus? Really? How many fellows have you spoken to?

In fact, the mission has a following and, in the last couple years, has been packed for its sermons, meals and beds nearly every night if not on every night. It used to be, when I stayed there regularly in 2008-2010, that only early in a warm-weather month, would there be unsubscribed beds.

It is certainly true that there are many homeless people who don't like the Christianity or can't do without cigarettes for a long spell or just want the fully unencumbered freedom from sleeping outside. When John Kraintz was first introduced to the public he said he wouldn't stay in any shelter because he must have freedom. Some guys gather a bunch of belongings, find a perfect quiet outside spot and do well out-of-doors. Fine for them! And the riverside campers become part of families and a community of campers. That's fine, too. As is well known, there is not enough shelter space for everyone; it is good that many are happy to sleep outside. I wish them safety and happiness -- and I think they've got it so long as the coppers and rangers stay away. Though, it must be said, there are dangers for solo sleepers -- especially women -- sleeping outside. Many of us homeless cannot forget Beatrice and Sofia each of whom was alone at night, killed by a crazy man.

But as for the mission, men become comfortable with the routine of getting a bed and look forward to the preaching and singing. Much of the preaching is tremendous! And the music is professional-quality much of the time. People sing along and have a great time. There are songs in the hymnal that have unique-to-the-mission variations. And as I've written in this blog many times, the food is healthier than what Loaves & Fishes provides.

Because space is at a premium throughout the building, homeless regulars understand the need for and are fine with the structured evening routine. It's not like prison. The guys in The Program are mostly the ones in charge; many if not most of them come from the homeless community; they are fellows we know. It's all friendly and sensible.

As for the showers that Kempa found to be so insufferable: The worst smell I remember, in the literally one-thousand-plus times I've taken a shower at the mission, was a Monday morning after a blistering hot week, when guys from the hills came down for their rare once-a-week/month shower. The shower room smelled good like pine trees and bad like guys in great need of getting cleaned up. The worse the shower area smells, the more great good is getting done from getting guys washed and made ready to face the world. That is how the matter of smell should be considered. And, truly, Kempa's rotten-corpse-smell nonsense is pure fiction. Maybe Kempa is drafting a novel and some of that wild exaggerated nonsense got dropped into his SNR work by mistake. Besides if the smell in the dressing area isn't all dainty and sweet enough for someone like Kempa, the guy can move quickly into the gang shower where the steam makes all smells other than soap disappear.

Plus, to the Union Gospel Mission's great good credit, sometimes guys come to the mission who have soiled themselves. They are led to the shower room and given clean clothes. Hooray for clean men! Let us hear a hardy cheer.

It is greatly unfortunate that Kempa went to the mission to appraise it in comparison to the Ritz-Carlton, or somesuch, and that he chose to be finicky and delicate instead of finding empathy for the guys and Mission operation.

But finally: I have to say this. Kempa's article makes it sound like there is a bitter controversy among the homeless about shelters. This is not so; it is Kempa's invention or him pretending to be learn'ed. Guys weigh their options; try to get in a shelter if that's what they want; sleep outside otherwise. There is not so much gnashing of teeth as Kempa's article makes it seem. Kempa writes of the mission, "Few men enjoy staying here." I aver he is absolutely, ridiculously, absurdly wrong about that and he doesn't have one one-hundredth the knowledge base to be able to say anything. The editors at SN&R must have been in a coma to have let the article be published with all the otiose nonsense that was in it. Shame on you, Sacramento News & Review. And as for Kempa, he should be awarded an anti-Pulitzer Prize for the incredible, outlandish error of surrounding the wrong property with a barbed-wire fence.


Cali Curmudgeon said…
This is typical for the Soviet News and Review. Any Christian organization will be bashed, no matter how transparently dishonest.
SNR ain't communist. What's wrong, imho, is that they aren't venturesome. They buy into conventional liberal dogma, unblinkingly.

The renowned role of the Fourth Estate is to find out new things and report on what's surprising. SNR -- often, not always -- writes its articles first, and then, maybe, makes calls and goes out into the streets to try to justify what is already in the hopper.
Alexis Moore said…
Reaching out to the homeless is a very joyful and fulfilling experience. We indeed find our purpose when we serve/help people and see smiles upon their faces.

Sheltered by Grace
Homeless Australia

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