Sunday, October 6, 2013

Homeless Bill of Rights

If we are going to see the lives of the homeless improve, a first step is to keep government officials (especially city officials) from preventing the homeless doing legal activity.  Things like sleeping in a car or a public park, having access to a bathroom.  Seems pretty basic?  Yet our homeless folks are told to leave the city because a police officer sees them sitting down or laying down on a sidewalk.  They aren't asked to move.  Sometimes they are given a ticket.  Sometimes they are told to vacate the city for 30 days without due process. 

Being homeless is hard enough, with the stress of poverty, and the difficulty of surviving.  It's harder to get off the street.  But it's even harder to do all that and have the government treat you like an enemy because you don't happen to have a place to sleep.  

One way of dealing with this is to have states pass a Homeless Bill of Rights.  Conneticut already passed on this year, which prevents the homeless from being persecuted for being human.  Here's an example of one that WRAP is trying to pass in California and Oregon:

1.     Right to move freely, rest, sleep, & pray and be protected in public spaces without   discrimination.
2.     Right to occupy a legally parked vehicle.
3.     Right to serve food and eat in public.
4.     Right to legal counsel if being prosecuted.
5.     Right to 24-hour access to “hygiene facilities”

This bill, if passed by state legislators, will improve the lot of the homeless tremendously.  It doesn't provide them with any services, but it takes out one of the major stresses of everyday homeless living: wondering if an officer will wake you up and tell you that you have to move on.

The Six Point Plan to End Homelessness

Daniel Hong, Jose Serrica, Michael Withey and others in Portland have presented to the Mayor of Portland a six point plan to end homelessness.  I think that this is a significant approach to actually accomplishing the goals of Portland to end homelessness.  The one-track approach of trying to get some of the homeless housing, even the most needy, has not worked.  A less expensive, multi-faceted approach is necessary.  Here is their proposal, as found on Facebook "The Six Point Plan to End Homelessness":

Homeward Bound, otherwise known as the "10 Year Plan To End Homelessness" has failed. Non-profit corporations that were paid to put themselves out of business, could not bring themselves to do so. Tens of millions have been squandered on new buildings that temporarily help few, while real solutions are offered at no charge to the public and are quickly put to an end by City government or members of the homeless industry.

One case that immediately comes to mind is Right 2 Dream Too. This small "camp" hosts up to 80 individuals nightly at no cost to the city. This "camp" has saved Portland tax payers millions of dollars in emergency room visits, legal costs, etc. More importantly, it saved lives. Unfortunately, R2DToo is fined over $1200/month because no good deed can go unpunished. Another case in point would be the new "Bud Clark Commons" Building. At it's initial cost of $40 million, there could be housing for 2,750 individuals in self sustainable, community supportive "Eco-Villages." Bud Clark no longer allows showers or laundry past 2:00pm due to budget cuts.

While some may wish to stay on the street indefinitely, most do not. The public typically will see the "chronically homeless man" and think that that is the face of homelessness. Most do not see the family living in a van or the women that just lost her home to foreclosure, sleeping on her daughters couch. This segment of homeless do not want to be seen but they do want to be helped. We all need to ask ourselves, what would I do if that was my sister or my brother? Would you care enough to get involved then?

With the help of the homeless community, homeless advocates and the general public, this document was formed. You will find within this document, some of the answers to the issue of homelessness.

Here are some ideas to ponder:

1. Eco-Villages
Small communities that are self sustaining already exist in Portland, Oregon, successfully. Homeless advocates have been working hard to bring their plans to fruition, lacking only the support of our city government and members of the homeless industry. These Eco-Villages are our least expensive and most favorable option for a long term solution.

2. Americorp Relief Camps
Americorp comes in after natural disasters to bring immediate relief and temporary housing. Federally funded and volunteer run. Relief camps would offer all of the things that you would expect including lodging, meals, laundry, storage, employment assistance, educational assistance, counseling, ect. etc. Those staying at a relief effort would have a case worker that would actively participate in securing the needs of client, with the end goal of permanent housing. I would like to remind everyone that Americorp is a Federal program and the Federal Government should by all means, be utilized whenever possible for it's vast amount of resources.

3. Rest Stations
A "Rest Station" is a place in which one would erect a tent in which to sleep, from dusk till dawn. While at a Rest Station one would not be allowed to consume alcohol or drugs. One would not be allowed to roam or visit with others. One would be there to sleep and only to sleep. Rest Stations could be located throughout the city in "Low Key" areas so as not to disturb residents or business. Rest Stations would be monitored by security officers.

4. Existing Buildings
City or privately owned buildings could be transformed into housing using volunteers and donated building materials. Millions of tax dollars would be saved on construction costs.

5. Campgrounds
City or privately owned land could be leased and a permit to operate a campground could be granted. A fee could be charged to residents that would cover costs including security. Dodge Park is a camp ground operated by Portland Parks and is closed to the public between October and May. This park should be made available to a responsible entity that can guarantee that the park will remain in its pristine state and that this camp be a safe, clean and cooperative environment.

6. Day Centers
A "Day Center" would serve the immediate needs of a person experiencing homelessness by providing vital services that one would need to be able to become gainfully employed. One would have the ability to shower, store their belongings and be assisted with job searches.
Another service that would be offered at a "Day Center" would be Education. Volunteers would assist with enrolling those desiring a GED, collage courses and vocational training through Pell Grants and all other types of financial assistance.

I fully support this proposal.  As an advotate of the homeless in East Multnomah County I've been talking about the need of a multi-faceted approach for years.  This proposal comes the closest I've seen to the desires of the homeless that I have spoken to.

I have two suggestions beside the six proposed above:

1. The distribution of street-ready mobile homes made to attach to bicycles.

2. A campaign to Multnomah County home-dwellers and especially police officers to treat the homeless as fellow citizens and not criminals, so as to reverse the trend of dehumanization.

In order to follow the outcome of this, or to support this proposal, please follow their Facebook page. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Mercy On His Soul

I don't have a picture of Buster or Bill, but he's a homeless guy
named Dennis.
Buster didn’t really like me.  I was new to the homeless scene and while he appreciated the food on occasion, he knew I was there to “save people’s souls” and he thought that I was as much use as a fourth leg on a tripod.  But what most of the homeless know is that a middle-class pastor is a connection to the outside world, and sometimes that connection is necessary.  And this day, Buster really needed me.

It must have been serious because I didn’t see Buster very often.  He had a long trek, perhaps two hours, to get to the church, but he was there.  After taking a breather, he approached me and said, “We need to talk.”  I was a bit mystified because Buster had never needed to “talk” to me before.  He talked about me, or at me, but never to me.  So we stepped aside into my “office” (the middle of a field) and he said, “It’s about Bill.”

Ah.  Bill was Buster’s camp-mate and drinking partner.  Bill was an older gentleman, with an emphasis on the gentleman.  He was always polite and kind, if a little self-absorbed. He had often showed up to church sober, only to have a seizure in the middle of the service.  (See the Homeless Pastor Hint below for what to do in that circumstance.) Over the year I knew him, Bill was gradually losing his sight.  At first he was losing his night vision, but it gradually became worse so that Buster was leading him to wherever he needed to go.  And after a month this, Buster needed to talk to me about Bill.  This can’t be good.

“He’s going crazy.  He’ll wake up in the middle of the night, screaming.  And he’s always talking to people who aren’t there.  He’ll wander off and fall.  I’m afraid he’s really going to hurt himself.   Could you get him into a hospital?”

“What kind of hospital, Buster?”

“He’s crazy.  He needs to be taken care of.”

“Well, I can’t put him in a hospital, but maybe I could talk to him and convince him to go to a hospital to get checked out, and they could make their own decision.”

“Sure, that would be great.”

So I got the directions to their camp (behind-the-store-down-the-street-end-of-the-cul-de-sac-behind-the-wall-next-to-the-ditch) and agreed to seek Bill out at about 8 in the morning.

A homeless camp in Harrisburg which is kinda like Buster
and Bill's camp.
It took me a minute to find the camp, but the directions were quite accurate.  At the end of the wall were three tents, next to the ditch.  I did typical camp ettiqute, calling out “Hello!” before I reached the camp. 
No response.  That was odd because Buster said he’d make sure Bill was there.  Perhaps Bill was still asleep, so I approached each of the tents, calling out his name.  After that got no response, I called out Buster’s name.  Nothing.

I wandered a bit further out.  I saw a neat pile of camping gear to one side.  Frankly, they kept a nice camp.  No piles of trash, and the bathroom spot out of sight.  That’s pretty good for a couple alcoholics.  My respect for Buster deepened.  He really knew how to live on the street.  Keep a low profile, keep your camp neat, be polite to neighbors and they’ll leave you alone.  And he was helping Bill all day, every day for months.  He was rough-spoken, but a good man.

But I was still mystified.  Perhaps Bill insisted to go with Buster.  I looked around once more and then I saw.
About twenty feet away from the tents was a concrete ditch.  And at the bottom of the ditch was a body, face down.

I climbed down the steep walls of the ditch, and shook the body.  “Bill… Bill?”  Nothing.  I turned his face.  Yep, it’s Bill.  His lips were pale.  His face was cold. 

I climbed out of the ditch, pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911.  “I think my friend is dead.  He’s at the bottom of a concrete ditch.”

Still not us.
A half hour later, after his death was confirmed, a police officer came up to me and said, “You don’t look good.  You’ve never done this before, huh?”  I hadn’t.   It wouldn’t be my last time calling in the coroner. 
I looked up then and saw Buster walking up, seeing me and all the emergency services activity and looking confused.   I went to him and just said, “He’s passed away, Buster.”  For the first and last time, Buster and I held on to each other, needing the others’ support.

A few days later I called the coroner and asked him how Bill had died, wondering if he had wandered in the night and hit his head.  “William didn’t die right away,” he said.  “Although he hit his head, he didn’t have any internal bleeding.  He died of hypothermia.”  He froze to death on the concrete in the middle of the night, just far enough away from the tents that no one could hear him calling.

Buster met me later in the week and handed me a phone number.  “This is the number of Bill’s sister-in-law.  His family is back East.  Could you give them a call and let them know?”  Of course.

Not her.
I call her and try to gently tell her the news.  

“So Bill was in Portland?”, she asked.  


“And he died of hypothermia at the bottom of a ditch?” 


“Good.  After what he did to this family, he deserves whatever he got.  You can be sure that I’ll let the family know and they’ll be happy about it.  I’m sure he’ll go to hell.  Thanks for your call.”  

And she hung up.

I have no idea what Bill did.  I know that he spent some time in prison for it and ran across the nation to escape the shame of it.  I suspect it was the shame that caused him to drink and to wake up in the middle of the night screaming, talking to people who weren’t there.  I’m not sure, but that’s what I think.

But Bill was mourned in Portland, if nowhere else.  We held a small memorial service.  And I know that the traditional homeless mourning ceremony was also held—his friends gathered together, scraped up money for a beer each, and they each poured out their beer on the ground in memory of their friend.  A drink and grain offering in memory of the dead. 

May God have mercy on his soul.  For few had mercy for him on earth. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Will Plant Trees for Food

The other day I saw an air guitarist earning his daily bread.  Or pizza, whatever.

He was on a street corner, holding a sign for a pizza place… it might have been Little Caesar’s or Pizza Hut.. and he was doing what street sign holders do—holding a sign.  Nothing special, except that the sign was in the shape of a rock guitar.  And instead of just holding the sign, or dancing around, or waving at us passers-by, he was rocking.  Yep, he was playing that air guitar for all it was worth.  As a former air guitarist, I really appreciated his work and that he was allowed to do it in public.  Nay, even encouraged.

It makes me consider the many occupations that might gain no heed were it not for forward-thinking employers.   Think of the many mimes hired by the Disney Company to dress in costumes and wander around their parks.  Think of the thousands of artists hired by animation companies (mostly in Korea, but still).  And the many English majors hired by fast food companies… I mean Huffington Post… I mean… wait, how do English majors earn any money?  Think of all the useless theology majors hired to be pastors.  That’s some innovative hiring.

Then I thought of all these folks I know with practical skills.  I know plumbers, electricians, handymen, landscapers, cooks, factory workers… all of whom are on the street.  These aren’t people who are lazy or stupid.  They are good workers and know their business.  But they can’t get work.  Some of them are poor businessmen.  Some of them moved when they should have stayed.  Some of them changed jobs when they should have remained at the one they were at.  Perhaps they made poor decisions.  But their skills are necessary, and they are essential for keeping our society running.  Yet they are left to languish on the street, not even knowing where they could possibly find employment because no one is hiring people who are on the street.

A new friend of mine told me his story the other day.  He was a union construction worker and made 23 dollars an hour.  He had a family, purchased a house and settled into a good middle class life.  He made an error when he passed the ownership of his house to his brother, as a financial decision.  His brother sold the house out from under him.  He then lost his family, and decided to try his hand in another state as a ranch hand.  They underpaid him and gave him horrible living conditions.  He decided to go back to his hometown, but there was nothing there for him.  His family didn’t want him, and he couldn’t find work.  Now he is on his own in a tent and he doesn’t know what to do with his life or even if he should continue to live.

Why can’t we find work for people with skills?  Perhaps their people skills are something to be desired, and perhaps they are not employable by corporations.  But shouldn’t the church be willing to do alternative hiring, to provide people with work who otherwise can’t find work?  If each person saying “get a job” were willing to hire, the number of homeless could be cut in half.