Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Homeless Problem

An excellent post from Survival Guide to Homelessness:

It has been said before, but it is worth repeating: the homeless problem is the problem the housed have with the homeless.

I was just reading a terrific little blog item about a kid in Washington that had managed to set himself up as a computer consultant using a Starbucks wifi network while homeless. When Starbucks was closed, he spent the night at Kinko's. He scrounged for food and computer equipment. He worked for tips. He kept himself very clean. He surfed the internet for girls. In short, he had created a lifestyle. The blogger who was writing about him gave him a substantial amount of money hoping he would change his life. Of course, he couldn't understand why the wifi kid spent it on computer equipment.

The blogger couldn't understand it because he refused to acknowledge that this man had a legitimate and sustainable lifestyle. When given money, he reinvested it in that lifestyle, as any responsible, reasonable person does. The blogger was angry at him. Why, oh why, didn't he struggle to get a home? The man was already home.

Homelessness changes you. So does having a house. Your priorities become the priorities of the extant lifestyle. What you do with money has much to do with how you are living. All lifestyles are investments, and we continue to add resources in an effort to improve their performance. Abandoning a lifestyle is something we never do without a serious push. Once a lifestyle is comfortable, why should it be abandoned?

This is another reason that charity is so unsavory. It comes from a position of superiority. The charitable feel they have a right to determine the goals, purposes, and uses of their charity. It lacks dignity. I don't mean for the recipient. I mean it is not dignified to try to direct the lives of others, to be so involved in the details of other lives. It's a failure to understand boundaries.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Now I Understand...

I had a mysterious conversation with the emergency services manager of Gresham and the fire marshal a couple weeks ago. I was talking to them about the need of people sleeping on the street and how much danger they are in, especially when it gets below freezing. I spoke of Fred, whose leg was cut off a couple months ago because he had slept outside in freezing conditions. I spoke of the sixteen year old girls who have been sleeping outside all winter. And about a father and his sixteen year old pregant daughter who found themselves desperate without shelter.

And the response I recieved from them is a lot of fire codes, and how we can't open because we don't have 200 square feet per person and how it is acceptable to have a standard of only opening churches when it gets below 22 degrees. And they told me, "This is not a social problem," and they said, "This is not an emergency," and they said, "You should just let other people deal with this." This was a foreign language to me, so I spoke of fire code with them, because it seemed to be the only language we could both understand.

Only this morning did it dawn on me what they were saying. They were saying that the fact that some people sleep out side and freeze to death is something they can live with. When they say, "This is not an emergency" it means that they don't consider it important that Fred lost his leg. It is unfortunate, I am sure they would agree, but it doesn't keep them up at night. They wouldn't want the sixteen year old girls, pregnant or otherwise, to sleep outside in the freezing cold, but it doesn't actually concern them, either. Because they have accepted that their city, their country, is a place where such things happen.

About seven years ago, I was going out to a homeless camp site to see Bill, just in case there was something I could do to help him. He had night blindness and was beginning to be mentally unstable, so I was going to take him to health professionals and see what could be done. When I found Bill, he was in a ditch, with no pulse. The paramedics told me he had died of hypothermia in the night.

To have leaders in our city help all of us, to treat us all as citizens, we need leaders who have compassion. I understand, it is difficult to have empathy. It is stressful and painful. Empathy can make you lose sleep when you realize that it is freezing outside and there are people suffering out in it. Compassion can make you wake up anxiously because you don't know if you've done enough to help those in need. But a deep care of others is the only thing that will stir us to make things better for everyone. And it may cost us, but it will make our city better, it will make our county livable, and it will make our nation human.

Please, as it freezes these next few nights, think of those who are sleeping in it, and consider what can be done for them. Not just tonight, but for years to come.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Some News

*A local Hispanic church, Vida Nueva, spoke with our Hispanic visitors on the street. After some deliberation, they decided to rent an apartment, set up some rules, have a couple church members live in the apartment and then invite as many of them are interested to live in the housing and the volunteers would find them paid work. This is the kind of community and church involvement we have been praying for! Another church is considering "adopting" a few of our members along the same lines!

*Zarephath Kitchen, a local soup kitchen, has new stipulations disallowing anyone to speak about God, Jesus or to pray with people in the soup kitchen. Because of this, two of the local churches have decided not to participate in the kitchen. They are looking for new facilities to meet in.

*The city of Gresham emergency services and the local fire marshal has agreed to give permission to a couple churches to open on snowing nights, even though it doesn't meet their criteria for opening. The criteria calls for a permitted opening if, when wet, the temperature is 25 degrees or lower, or dry if the temperature is 22 degrees or lower. Even though it is 30 degrees and wet (thus, snowing), the city agrees that it is permissible for the churches to open. This is a huge victory, as earlier in the season the city didn't give permission even though there was freezing rain and wind!

*Right now in Anawim's facility in Gresham (aka Sanctuary), people are getting warm and eating hot dogs; a class on Mennonite leadership is taking place; leaders are setting up overnight shelters to keep people safe in the freezing cold the next couple nights; and I am talking with another ministry leader who may be using our Red Barn to store food and supplies to pack backpacks for needy school kids. God's work is being done here in Gresham!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Update on Gresham Shelters

Many of you, including myself, have been concerned about the homeless over the last couple days in Gresham and Portland. There has been inadequate shelter for those in need, and the city has been active in preventing some of us in providing shelter for those in need. They have threatened us with citation and fines should we continue to provide shelter for those in the cold. This is a terrible situation and one that needs to change. The question is, how?

I have just met with some of the staff of the city of Gresham, including the head of Emergency Services, someone from the office of the Fire Marshal and a person in the city planning department. There are two levels of shelter, with different requirements for each level. (There are actually more, but we’re keeping it focused on our concerns, here).

a. Temporary Seasonal Residence—This permits a facility that is not intended for residential occupancy to house people overnight for up to 90 days a year. This facility could be open for any purposes, including freezing temperatures. This would be adequate for our needs, but the requirements for a facility to provide this is high. Some of the difficult policies are:
• A particular kind of fire alarm/sprinkler system
• An R-1 residential permit, which requires certain kind of plumbing, including adequate bathrooms and showers.
• An occupancy limit of 200 square feet per person.
There is no facility in East County that is currently permitted for this use.

b. Emergency Warming Shelter—This permits a facility to be approved for 15 days a year for emergency shelter only. This kind of facility may meet a more flexible occupancy limit and is not required to have a residential permit. However, it must still meet the rest of the fire code, which includes a sprinkler system/alarm.

Emergency Warming Shelters in Practice
There are two buildings in East County that are currently permitted for such use, First Baptist of Gresham and the gym of St. Henry’s. However, they are only permitted to use their facilities based on the standards of “emergency” weather as developed by the city. The Emergency Services of Gresham informs these churches that they are permitted to open a shelter and the churches then decide to follow through or not. The Emergency Services department says that an “emergency” is an unusual weather pattern, which cannot be prepared for, such as freezing rain or temperatures under 22 degrees (as well as other levels). Should there be “normal” weather patterns, even if it constitutes a danger to the homeless population, it is not an “emergency” and thus the city does not permit such requirements.

The Emergency Services’ Department also expressed a concern in another issue. They are only permitted to open an emergency weather shelter 15 days per facility a year. This means that they need to conserve their days to be ready for the worst weather of the year, especially since only two facilities are permitted to open. Thus, while some weather may be dangerous to the homeless population (such as 27 degree weather with a 10 mph wind from the Gorge), it is normal weather, and it strains the limits of the permits.

The Anawim Building
Sanctuary is the property of the Mennonite Conference in Gresham that Anawim has a major role in managing. This includes a church building that is on the ground level, has many exits and has been used as an overnight shelter this year many times (without city permission). Why does the city not permit the Sanctuary sanctuary to open? It may not be used as an Emergency Warming shelter because it does not have either a sprinkler system or an alarm, and thus does not pass the fire code.

Why St. Henry’s and 1st Baptist and not Sanctuary?
The gym at St. Henry’s is permitted by the Fire Marshal for, while it doesn’t have a sprinkler system, it does have a fire alarm. First Baptist has both a sprinkler system and an alarm and meets the fire code in every way for an emergency shelter.

Neither facility would be adequate as a Temporary Seasonal Lodging. St. Henry’s does not have a sprinkler system, nor adequate plumbing for a R-1 residency permit. The First Baptist shelter is not at “grade level” , nor does it have adequate plumbing.

On a personal level, it seems to me that the Fire Marshal, not the other parts of city government, are actually angry at Anawim. I assume this is because Anawim allowed shelter to exist before their department could come in and check. They are clearly more interesting in following the strict code without leniency to Anawim (such as they provided to the other facilities). In fact, it was recommended to me that Anawim just stay out of the sheltering business, and instead allow other churches to do this.

The Reality: The fact of the matter is, given the current fire code, building code, building requirements and definition of “emergency” in Gresham, there is a slim opportunity for any church with a good heart to open up their facility to those in need if the temperatures are above 22 degrees dry, 28 degrees.

Who Is Responsible?
I want to be perfectly clear about this: This situation is awful, but it is not the fault of the Gresham Emergency Services. Frankly, nor is it the fault of the Fire Marshal—they are not responsible to ignore fire codes that have been handed to them, but to enforce that code. The only thing the city of Gresham has done is to find out what the codes and state ordinances that pertain are. While some of the people involved I would personally consider somewhat callous to the homeless situation, the ordinances that created this situation did not come from the city of Gresham, but from the State of Oregon government. The 200 square feet per person ordinance, the sprinkler ordinance, the residential requirements—these are all state regulations. Gresham is only enforcing what the state has handed to them. The differentiation between 15 and 90 day shelters come from the state. Thus, the fact that we are not permitted to help the homeless on nights below freezing is a result of the state system.

Of course, we want a bad guy, someone to blame this situation on. So who passed these state regulations? Well the fire code is determined by the Oregon Fire Marshal. And they receive some building requirements (such as 200 square feet per person) from the Oregon Building Code Committee. And why do they make such regulations that prevent us to help the homeless? Because those who provide shelter for the homeless has not, as yet, given input to these regulatory agencies. I’m sorry, but there’s no bad guy here. There are only people who don’t know what is needed.

What About Portland?
It can be asked why Portland allows shelters without such restrictions. The comment that was made by those in Gresham about Portland is that they “turn a blind eye” to certain people providing shelter. I can see that. Portland has realized that the State codes hasn’t yet caught up with the need they are experiencing. The homeless issue is bigger than State codes, and Portland realizes this. Gresham is just beginning to take ownership of their homeless issue, which is bigger than they realize. And they don’t feel the need to turn a blind eye to anything. They want to follow the state regulations. Of course they do.
We would all want to do what is legal. Why should Gresham be different?

What can be done?
a. Make an acceptable facility
We can take a building and make it acceptable according to state code for a 90 day seasonal facility. This would require money and time. If we obtained grants or donations. We could bring the Anawim building up to code. First Baptist is the closest building to state code, so perhaps we can provide updates to that building, if that congregation approves. This will take time, but perhaps by next winter we could have a building gotten through the process.

b. A Media Blitz
We could let the media know about the problems that we are having with obtaining permission to help those in need. However, this will not change the fact that the state regulations deny us that very permission. How can we get the media to focus on the state problem instead of blaming particular individuals or certain cities?

c. Change State Regulations
Perhaps our good friends Oregon Center for Christian Values, who have a poverty committee could assist us in changing the state regulations. This would require changing the building code and fire code of Oregon, granting leniency for those in particular health dangers, particularly hypothermia. We could then provide health shelters for those who are in a doctor approved risk group, to stay in shelters, such as churches, that otherwise wouldn’t meet state requirements. I don’t know, this is just an idea. If you have a better one, let me know.

Nevertheless, we have quite a bit of work to do. This will require the support of many communities and many organizations. This is not just a problem with Gresham, but Oregon in general. We need a lot of prayer and a lot of wise action. Let us be wise, but as long as there are people whose needs could be met, let us never stop.

No Shelter

A poem written in response to the suffering of the homeless in Gresham. Written by someone in the broader Anawim community.

‎"No Shelter" Leanne Tipton

Its been freezing outside for two days now,
The wind is screaming with all of its might.
The cold seeps through the cracks as I lie in my room.
I've not slept one hour tonight.

I toss, I turn, my thoughts filled with you.
You have no shelter, no heat, no pillow, no bed.
I pray, I worry, I get up, pace the floor.
But I can't get you out of my head.

There are so many people praying for you,
that justice and fairness will win.
To turn ones back on the poor and the outcast
Is truly one of the worst of the sins.

I cannot imagine being outside in this,
Its so cold right here in my home.
Though you're there and I'm here
Please try to remember,
You never are truly alone.

I pray through my tears I will see you again.
I pray for your safety while we are apart.
I pray for your health, but most of all
I pray for protection from cold weather and cold hearts.