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Homeless articles without homeless people's input are hopelessly inept

Entrance to Cal Expo Winter Shelter in 2008.
The Bee in its Editorial Board piece on the Sunday ten days ago, “Homeless need all help they can get,” and Sacramento News & Review in publisher Jeff vonKaenel’s Greenlight column the prior Thursday, “The right thing: Sacramento must do even more to help homeless people,” make the case that more should be done for the homeless during the cold season we have entered.

The Bee piece and vonKaenel’s Greenlight are both written with a deficit of information of what the obstacles truly are when you are homeless and the night is stormy and chilly. Both pieces are inadequately researched. Homeless Industry muck-a-mucks who sit in windowless offices are consulted; not homeless folk who experience whatever “program” the mucks fashion for them.

There are thousands of homeless people in Sacramento County, most of whom have a window into the obstacles and what good news there is 'out on the streets.' While it is true that -- just like the general public -- not every gal or guy is going to want to help news writers (or bloggers) know what is happening in Homeless World, there are many, many smart homeless people who could have saved the grossly errant articles that get published continually in the Bee and SN&R about homeless matters.

And these smart homeless folk could save inept reporters from gross errors in the future. The Bee piece I mentioned opens with a depiction of how terrible it must be for folks subject to the bad weather. It says that “not much has been done [to provide adequate aid] … since the recession ... when the county stopped funding its massive winter shelter at Cal Expo.” Late in the piece, Cal Expo garnered praise again: “To correct [against a need to] turn dozens, if not hundreds, of [homeless] people away daily [who seek shelter] … the county may want to reconsider the shelter at Cal Expo.”

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Alrighty. It’s old news, but let us go back in time and look at Cal Expo. Here is what homeless folk experienced at Cal Expo during its final two years in operation in the winters of 2008-09 and 2009-10. I was there as were homeless guys I'm still in contact with.

People had to gather at the Delany Center parking lot at Loaves & Fishes at about 3:30pm to claim beds and get beds and wait for a bus to pick them up and take them to Cal Expo. The operation was managed by VOA with a man who was a total psychopath in charge – I’ll call him Nesto -- who was also known for his heroin addiction. The one thing that Nesto did at the pick-up area was drive around in his PT Cruiser picking up empty water bottles before speeding off.

Map shows route to-and-from Delany Center at Loaves & Fishes and Cal Expo: A trip of 3.8 miles that takes 10 minutes.

Many of his assistants apparently had outstanding warrants because when the police passed by, they dashed to a place where they were out of sight.

There seemed to be just one guy – Kenny, I think his name was – who knew the process for getting open beds filled and getting folks on the bus. A problem relating to Kenny was that he would ask people to get in a line somewhere and then twenty minutes later he would dismiss the line of people and re-create the line somewhere else. Procedures were always a mess and took a long, long time. Then, it took two or three bus trips to get about 120 people, [It was NOT a "massive" shelter!], over to Cal Expo.

Once these people were all at the shelter, we were fed a quite small evening meal that consisted of two items – one of which was always discolored broccoli. I always ate my broccoli, and was grateful for it, but it was an odd mottled yellow and green color.

The beds at Cal Expo were tremendous. For the men, at least, the beds were one above another – like bunk beds – only the beds were full sized, seemed pretty new, and had a very thick mattress AND box spring. [As a mission bunk bed guy during most of my bout with homeless life, I was dazzled.]

You would get bedding from Nesto. If the laundry didn’t get done and he couldn’t give you bedding, you’d be in for a cold night. Nesto’s words of sympathy was always this phrase: “It’s better than a stick in the eye.” He loved that phrase.

In the evening, a movie was played on a big TV screen. I remember seeing “Wall-E” and “Snakes on a Plane” at Cal Expo. A problem with the movies was that the way for men to get to the bathroom – which was outside and thirty yards away – was to walk in front of the TV. Also, management would often shut down the movie when the evening meal was being served.

During the late night, it wasn’t quiet. People who managed the operation would be up talking and listening to music while sitting on the food-preparation tables. Sometimes, they were absurdly noisy.

After the night’s sleep, you couldn’t just walk outside and leave, even though a Light Rail station was very close; the rule was you had to be transported back to the Delany Center parking lot no matter that you were an adult and needed to go in the opposite direction to get to where you needed to be that morning.

The process returning people to the parking lot would take hours with one bus going back and forth three times. Thus the whole process to get a night’s sleep at Cal Expo took 15+ hours. Once you were returned to the parking lot, if you left your things stored in a locked cargo container, you needed to get them. Sometimes the guy who had the keys to the container would show up quite late.

Sleeping at the Cal Expo Winter Shelter had its good aspects, but it was a ridiculous expenditure of time. It was like being in jail and watching your life slip away. Also, it should be noted that the city council tossed a bonus million dollars at Cal Expo in its final year. NOT to help the homeless, but to APPEAR to be helping the homeless at a time when Sacramento was international news as the forerunner of the Second Great Depression that would soon engulf the world, supposedly.

Whatever happened to the million, nobody knows. Some of the money was used to park trailers in back of where the shelter was to be used for the night for couples who wanted a private room. A "couple" could consist of any two people who wanted to be together -- for sex, companionship or to play canasta.

The Cal Expo Winter Shelter wasn't any sort of a success. It was mayhem in its operation. I cannot imagine who might suggest that Cal Expo be revived. It is *the* example of what *not* to do in operating a homeless shelter -- especially so in the winter.

Even if you could pull together a crack team of capable people to run a shelter at Cal Expo, it would likely cost much too much to make any sense. And please. Please, please, please. Ask some homeless people other than me what staying at Cal Expo was like. There are hundreds of people around who have memories of the place and can tell you what it was like for them. I'm sure many people liked it better than I did. I'm sure some people were quite happy with the shelter because they could jabber with people or read a book to take up time before or after they slept.

I have to tell you, I think it is the oddest thing in the world that the Bee writes story after story, opinion piece after opinion piece, about Homeless World Sacramento without getting input from homeless people WHO WERE THERE. It would be like filming the movie "Twelve Years a Slave" and not casting any black people.

Cynthia Hubert's brilliant article about Genny Lucchesi and Ryan Lillis's excellent piece about a homeless guy in Oak Park was just the exception to the rule, I guess, And now it's back to enforced ignorance as the Bee returns to its role of printing a slew of untruth about Homeless World Sacramento.

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