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Good News in Sacramento: HUD joins Obama in support of homeless folk

Cover of the 10/29/15 issue
A piece in the Sacramento News & Review this week is about homelessness. The article provides some very, very interesting information [Hooya!], but it also has a few problems – which is not atypical for SNR pieces about homelessness. There is the usual problem [sigh]: No homeless people provide input in the text of the piece, though a couple homeless people are pictured.

In hardcopy, the piece was given the unhelpful title “Going in Circles.” Online, it is titled “New federal homelessness policies could mean less funds for Sacramento.” Jason Smith is credited as the writer, but is nowhere to be found in the issue’s masthead – even though the masthead includes everyone else at SNR including twenty distribution drivers, freelancers, the janitor and the publication’s pet hamster, Lucy.

A breakout quote in the piece, from Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District Chief Mark A. Wells – “[T]here is no evidence … to suggest a correlation between illegal encampments and fire incidents.” – caused me to rise up out of my chair. Whoa! Those words undermine pieces by notorious Bee columnist Marcos Breton and reporting by Erika D. Smith – though to be fair to Ms. Smith, her reporting re the fires along the American River Parkway came at a time when causes of fires in that region were still being investigated and there was reason to suppose that homeless campers were just firebrands, not fire-starters. I would like to know, though, what words the ellipsis represents in the Wells quote, and, for that matter, what the whole of Wells’s letter says.

The matter of fire reported in the piece is this:
Last month, the county board of supervisors expanded restrictions on homeless activities, by adding a third illegal-camping unit to patrol the American River Parkway and approving an emergency ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to grill food in most areas of the parkway. Supervisors argued the anti-cooking measure was necessary due to the fire hazard posed by homeless campers cooking outdoors.

Contradicting that assertion was the county’s own fire chief. In response to a request from the board, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District Chief Mark A. Wells wrote in a letter that parkway fires had actually declined for the third year straight, and wrote that “[t]here is no evidence … to suggest a correlation between illegal encampments and fire incidents.”
Allow me a moment to apologize to the ARP campers. I, Tom Armstrong, was wrong to have accepted the gist of Bee reporting that homeless folk were starting fires along the Parkway. I hope I will be fully unapt to jump to conclusions in the future. Homeless folk, overwhelmingly, are good people! You rock, homeless campers!

The other BIG BIG news in the Jason Smith piece is that HUD [the Federal department of Housing and Urban Development] has joined forces with the Obama Administration in going after cities and counties that discriminate against homeless people. HUD will reduce funding for those cities that outlaw camping by homeless people when shelter space is inadequate. Hooray, this … BUT, if Sacramento funding is actually reduced next year THAT will impact homeless people very directly and very negatively. Bummer.

Most of the rest of the article – which I certainly recommend that everyone read – is about the illogical circumstances such that more money is now being spent to roust and punish homeless folk than it would cost to just, simply reintegrate them into society. I confess that I would contend that this matter is more complex than how it is presented in the Smith article. It is not necessarily the case that when all homeless people in Sacramento County are housed that they then, instantly, become perfect citizens. Likely, some problems will continue to present themselves and have costs that the city and county will have to pay. Nonetheless, the article is a bonanza of Good News – seeming to surely set matters on a course of Housing First where homeless people get a solid opportunity to find their way to happy, meaningful lives.

Finally. Though it is relatively trivial compared to the Good, Good News in the Smith piece, I had problems with the article.

One that is puny is that in the first paragraph there is the term "homelessness activists." There is no such animal. No one I know of is advocating for homelessness. The term Smith wanted is surely "homeless advocates," which he uses thereafter, which roughly means 'people who push for better lives for the homeless.' Me, I am sometimes called a 'homeless advocate', though I snarl at the term. I never call homeless people simply 'the homeless.' It seems to me that it is a pejoritive; a lot like calling Native Americans 'red skins.' Homeless' is an adjective that has to be used to describe a condition that PEOPLE experience. Thus, I never write or say "the homeless"; Instead I will write or say "homeless people" or "homeless folk," or somesuch.

The other problem I have is that Bob Erlenbusch and his organization SRCEH is mentioned repeatedly without Smith knowing that SRCEH has a staff of ONE, Bob. If SN&R or its reporters fact checked articles, they would have looked at Bob's website and nosed around.

I certainly believe that Erlenbusch has something to contribute to bettering the lives of homeless people in Sacramento County, but if every person creates their own one-man/woman charity it results in a situation where a LOT of charities are bloated charities that are all administrative expenses with less and less and less money spent on that which actually helps homeless folk.

My understanding is that Erlenbusch worked for something like 22 years at an important homeless-services charity in L.A. or Los Angeles County. He left L.A., for whatever reason; came to Sacramento; had some sort of connection to Steps Forwards for a spell; was director of Sacramento Housing Alliance for about a year; and then started SRCEH.

The organization name Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness is broad and big and sounds important. I would suggest that this grandiose name was formulated in part to hide the fact that it is a puny one-man charity. This is dishonest, in my opinion. There is no "coalition." It is a fog that misinforms potential donors.

Also, the idea of truly ending homelessness is a pipe dream. Circumstances will continue to arise when people have no money and lose their apartment or get booted out of what was their home.

As well, many formerly homeless people who now have housing -- usually as sole resident in an apartment somewhere in the county -- will lose their housing if they don't manage to find employment within a year. Others may lose their housing because they brought their substance-abuse habit with them to their new residence. And yet others may lose their housing because they maintained the same coterie of friends that they had when they were out on the streets. Some fun friends are a bad influence -- as I think we all know.


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