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August, 2011

Out in the Warm: Homelessness in San Diego, Part 1

 This is a small homeless encampment in the park next to the USS Midway, the massive aircraft carrier that anchors (so to speak) a tourist area south of downtown San Diego. Although it’s hard to see clearly, there are people sleeping on the grass or on blankets. Tourists on their way to the Midway Museum stay on the walking path and mostly look straight ahead.

I’ve been working on homeless issues for a long time. I’ve conducted a dozen focus groups with homeless people, supervised two citywide homeless surveys, and worked with the people who run Milwaukee’s shelter system for over ten years. So when I go to another city, I’m always on the lookout for homeless people.

What catches my eye as much as homeless people themselves is how other people react to homeless people. For most folks, the safest bet is to steer clear, give the strange-looking guy and his stuffed grocery cart a wide berth, maybe nod hello as if he was a nice office worker out for a stroll on his lunch break.

In San Diego, there are homeless folks in nearly every park, one or two walking bicycles with baskets full of belongings, small knots of people with their carts and gear, chatting at picnic tables or lying on the grass. Driving by the park next to the Midway and seeing the encampment, I mentioned to my husband how people in Milwaukee always talk about how much easier it is to be homeless in places where it’s warm, as if homelessness was an Olympic sport with degrees of difficulty attached to each location.

Long story short, I decided to ask whether it’s easier to be homeless in San Diego than in Milwaukee. And I did it for two reasons. First, I actually wanted an answer. And second, I wanted to force myself to talk to homeless people face to face without the protection of a focus group under the watchful eye of a shelter director.

I wanted to stop hiding behind my clipboard. I want to be a better advocate.

So I left my husband in the car, and set out to have a conversation.  Scanning the possible options, I aimed for the two women attached to the grocery cart in the picture.

I talked with a woman who described herself as a “true blue alcoholic,” a veteran of eight years on the street, who had quit on the idea of going to a shelter a long time ago because of shelter rules prohibiting drinking. She looked every inch the alcoholic although she seemed completely sober – reflective and detailed in describing her situation. She introduced me to her street daughter, a woman six months pregnant, lying on a blanket in the shade next to their shared grocery cart. Two other people, both men, rounded out the ‘family’. The woman I was talking to was mothering all of them.

In the space of ten minutes, she told me a lot — why she was there, what had happened in her life, how she managed day to day. And she said, in answer to my last question about whether it’s easier to be homeless in a place like San Diego, “Homeless is homeless no matter where you are.” She could not have been friendlier or more open. Once I introduced myself as working on homeless issues in Milwaukee, she talked without hesitation, with no suspicion apparent, a smile – although sometimes sardonic – always on her face. Her street daughter was the same, quieter but sweetly friendly. Our conversation ended when the older woman said she had to help one of her men friends to the bathroom.  She was so clearly the mom of the group, after all.

So for the past day or so, I’ve been thinking that to write about this woman in any detail would be exploitative – that she shared her story with me so freely and was so genuine, that it would be wrong to retell it here in this blog. So the things she told me about her life and how she’d ended up in this park on this day are maybe best summarized by her statement that she never thought she’d end up like this.

Homelessness in San Diego, especially unsheltered homelessness is a much bigger problem than in Milwaukee. A city twice the size of Milwaukee, San Diego has nearly 5,000 people living on the street – at the last homeless census, Milwaukee had fewer than 150. My ‘sample’ of two homeless people felt that being homeless in San Diego was plenty tough, the weather notwithstanding.  (Another blog will delve deeper into the comparisons between Milwaukee and San Diego.)

What I appreciate about my conversation with these two women was that, albeit unwittingly, they  helped me break past my devotion to surveys and focus groups and the safety of professional life to connect in a more real way. It was a little lesson in how to listen to the story without checking any boxes or rushing to the next question.  I hope my colleagues in the world of homeless policy do this now and then but I’m not sure.  Sometimes when I listen to policy discussions, it seems like we’re pretty far away from the day to day of homelessness.  I intend to get closer.  Yes, I do.  Because I need to get smarter and I think that’s the way to do it.

______________________

Here’s a link about San Diego’s 2011 Point in Time count of homeless people.  http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2011/feb/14/san-diego-countys-homless-numbers-rise/

Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News

I am speaking as someone who has made a career out of bad news.  Bad news has been good for business.  Rising poverty?  Good for business.  More juvenile delinquency? Line up the clients.  Chronic unemployment? Steer here.

I’m done with it.  Like Evilene in The Wiz….

Bring some message in your head

Or in something you can’t lose

But don’t you ever bring me no bad news

If you’re gonna bring me something

Bring me, something I can use

But don’t you bring me no bad news.

I’ve been a bad news monger so long I almost don’t know how to quit.  But I knew I needed to when I read that Wisconsin, with its 17% child poverty rate was below the national average of 20% and I was a little disappointed because having a higher than average poverty rate is so helpful with federal grantwriting.  And it was then that I realized that my view of the world had gotten completedly CRACKED.

(See “Decade saw leap in child poverty,” MJS, August 21m 2011, at http://www.jsonline.com/business/128130438.html)

My cousin, Joan, a mom of six kids, instituted a bunch of wacky food rules in order to stretch her budget.  One of my favorites was “No cheese without bread.” I’m starting that policy here — no problem without a solution.  Don’t fill me up with problems so I’m so overwhelmed and so immersed and so enamored with bad news that I can’t recognize or appreciate a solution when I see one.  You know what I’m talking about here — it’s so easy to be in love with social problems that we don’t even want to hear about solutions.  As if a problem having a solution means that it’s not a serious enough problem. 

How many times have you heard someone propose a solution only to hear, “It’s not that simple.”

I’m for simple.  I’m standing for simple.  I’m looking for simple solutions.

Bring me, something I can use.

And I’m going to do as I ask — find solutions, appreciate them and spread them around. 

You?

Effective Meetings, Part 2: Who’s There?

Fundamentally, the purpose of meetings is communication.  Whatever slick and quick social media exist, the face to face meeting has an essential, irreplaceable quality, otherwise, Hilary Clinton would text foreign leaders instead of going through all the headaches of traveling to meet them in person.

So a group face to face meeting serves an important function – primarily by providing a venue for interaction with people other people might not know they’re interested in interacting with.  (You know that makes sense.  You just have to read it slower.)

But a problem with regular meetings – say, regular meetings of a coalition or a group of funded agencies – is that the same people attend, month after month, year after year.  Often they say the same things at the same times in the meetings, reliably offering the same complaint or suggestion. Other than changing fashions or the weather outside the window, you wouldn’t know it was a different meeting and not just a twisted version of Groundhog Day.

So what changes it up?  New people change it up.  New people have new questions and new ideas.  Because they haven’t been through the drill for ten years, they don’t worry about who usually does what.  They bring new stuff — and it’s valuable.  Yes, it occasionally irks the elders and bends the agenda but eventually it gets the hamsters off the treadmill.

I go to a lot of meetings with directors of agencies – bless them, they’re brilliant and they work hard and they’ve done so much for the community.  But back in each agency, sitting at a desk or running around making home visits, is a staff person who is right in the middle of the issue.  That person is dealing with Mr. Jones’ food stamps getting cut off or Ms. Smith being reluctant to enter AODA treatment.  That person is dealing with the tangled up logistics of getting people benefits and the sweat and aching muscles of going door to door to organize a neighborhood clean-up.

We need those folks at meetings.  So I’m suggesting to you nonprofit and government agency directors our there — EACH ONE, BRING ONE.  You help your staff person get the bigger picture and  help your director colleagues keep their feet on the ground.  If nothing else, that young person brings a sense of urgency that we all need to have about the work of improving this community.

Try it.  Let’s change it up!