By Scott Wagner, Project Manager, Sonoma Applied Village Services (SAVS), February/March, 2020.
In this bald-faced example of a wealthy county that doesn’t provide their destitute anywhere near adequate shelter, we have several handholds that would help easily.
First, the public desperately needs education by their officials that providing basic life services to those experiencing homelessness – a toilet, a trash service, and a lockable place to sleep and store possessions – would save many millions of dollars in medical, policing, and jail costs.
Secondly, officials, activists and churches need to do a much better job of reaching out to our citizenry to volunteer and contribute and simply see and experience our friends on the streets, so their fate isn’t left to unseen, unaccountable police and administrators.
A third solution to inequality in shelter is to push for the many high-volume permanent and temporary housing solutions that sit between an illegal tent in a park and apartments that cost a half-million dollars. The only high-volume solutions of the kind supported by government are “rapid rehousing,” which provides initial payments for people who have income to get into a place, or warehouse-type shelter.
Rapid rehousing is very helpful for people in a sudden crisis, but it can’t help the vast majority of homeless people and none of the poorest. Warehouse shelters are life-saving solutions, but only for less than half of our citizens experiencing homelessness, because most can’t use them due to time limits, handicaps, and the risks, behaviors, lack of privacy and debilitating indignity of a prison-like facility.
What does that leave as real cost-effective solutions for the thousands on the street in Sonoma County? The only other answer is obvious: organized communities that have permission to be on public and private land, using whatever housing and amenities that residents, government, and donors can afford. Government has taken to calling these solutions “sanctioned encampments.”
That phrase is broad and flexible as the notion of community itself. Let’s look at the bare-bones version. We are so desperate to stop the endless abuse by police and weather that we would be thrilled to have any place at all to send people that would be sanctioned. A remote parking lot, a good tarp, a decent tent, a portable toilet and trash service – most people cannot imagine how heavenly that sounds to almost all the people out there.
Government worries about the impact on neighbors and about ending up with “slums.” These are legitimate issues. But such concerns need to be seen in light of the current depravity being inflicted on my friends. Misery, disease, broken minds and families, and death are happening now. Too many concerns too soon about potential neighbor complaints and future “maybe issues” have become a way to viciously discriminate, to deprive people of human rights.
Of course, there is also much we can do to improve the life quality of such communities and eliminate concerns. Residents can help manage the community or get professional management. Neighborhood relationship committees can be formed, like those operating for decades in Seattle. Upgrades to their homes can be made, from tents all the way through homes with showers and toilets. Specialized communities (women, vets, the elderly) can be formed that address common challenges.
So why aren’t any of these versions of solutions happening in Sonoma County? It’s not the expense. They are very inexpensive. The answer is our officials’ broad-brush, uninformed prejudice against people experiencing homelessness. That prejudice hides best behind recent statements by Supervisors and City Council people that sanctioned encampments “have been shown to be a failure.” Two recent examples are questions asked by officials of staff, one of which was, “[your solutions] aren’t going to be sanctioned encampments, are they?” followed by quick staff assurances, “no, no, not at all…” They may as well try to say that all attempts at communities have been shown to be a failure.
Our officials are dead wrong. We know through solid research that peer support and community approaches work – not for all and not all the time, but in remarkable ways that any experienced activists can tell of. Our friends and loved ones have been transformed by the kindness and attention of their community of friends. And if communities do occasionally fail or disappoint, we must remember that rapes, health disaster, and property destruction by police in creek beds and parks are the government’s only other offer.
Scott Wagner walks with Homeless Action! And advocates for people without a roof.
Reprinted with permission from the Sonoma County Peace Press, Feb/Mar 2020, Peace & Justice Center of Sonoma County