On the sidewalk outside Bill Graham Auditorium in San Francisco’s Civic Center, a volunteer confesses that she ditched work that day to participate in Mayor Newsom’s third Project Homeless Connect. She doesn’t want me to interview her, because she’s afraid if folks at the non-profit where she works found out she wasn’t actually sick that day, she might become jobless herself.
We share a moment of social awkwardness as I hand her my cigarette lighter (unconsciously marking that we’re standing at least 50 feet from the door), but soon I realize that we’ve created a draw ourselves outside the City of San Francisco’s biggest homeless handout: Cigarette Connect… entry-level access to substances of abuse for poor people compelled by guilty habits.
Ironically, I notice some concerned citizens with services (and likely food as well) for homeless people’s pets have a table and banner set up almost exactly where Food Not Bombs located theirs on rainy afternoons and evenings a decade and more ago—back in the days when we were feeding more than 400 homeless people in Civic Center twice daily. When it wasn’t raining, we FNB volunteers would set up our table directly across the street from the balcony outside City Hall’s Room 200, where mayors, supervisors, city staff, and later, SFPD brass could sometimes observe a serving line cued two persons deep and reaching all the way to McAllister Street.
Marveling about that in the back of my mind, and distractedly trying to get a feel for the volunteer’s take on what was going on inside the building, a homeless man demands a cigarette—angry, he tells me, because he didn’t get an SRO hotel room through the city’s official homeless outreach program inside.
Inwardly I sigh, as I as pull another from the yellow pack and hand him the lighter that hadn’t quite found its way back into my pocket. Over a decade into helping homeless people through their struggles getting off the streets, and I still don’t have any easy answers for him. Today it still takes lots of footwork, phone work, appointment setting and keeping, and long months on a waiting list to accomplish that seemingly simple task, which is something my homeless friend wasn’t really prepared at that time to hear. Sometimes a cigarette, commiseration, and some vague words of encouragement are the best that can be offered. And even when such an exchange remains amicable, it’s never, ever enough.
Since Cigarette Guy wasn’t eligible for the single adult Care Not Cash welfare program (and if he was willing), he’d have to stand in line at 39 Fell Street for a shot at an uncontested shelter bed that night. And if he was real lucky and humble and was somehow deemed worthy somewhere along the way in that frailly-rigged circuit of referral, that night might stretch into a week. Because at this stage of the game, most of the “decent housing” the Care Not Cash campaign promised voters still comes in the form of shelter beds. And Trent Rhorer’s Department of Human Services is so intent on maintaining the charade of Care Not Cash’s “success” that around 80 unclaimed shelter beds will stand empty tonight, assigned to clients whose personal estimate of the city’s “Care” mirrors Cigarette Guy’s own evaluation of the efficacy of Project Homeless Connect, evidenced by those CAAP enrollees’ unwillingness to sleep at the shelter.
Doubtlessly, it was the many images, headlines, and 11 o’clock news teases depicting Mayor Newsom foisting keys for a reclaimed, master-leased, Single Room Occupancy hotel unit on some poor soul like himself that became the big carrot luring Cigarette Guy down to the Auditorium that day.
The Coalition on Homelessness was there, too—not for the handouts, or to offer any, but to arrange citation defense for homeless campers engaged by the criminal justice end of the City’s homelessness strategy. That, and promoting opportunities for panhandlers who might want to try their hand at legally selling STREET SHEETs with dignity restored.
The volunteer and I struggled to attach descriptors to the palpable energy that was evident to even the most casual observers. I told her I came to the Auditorium that day hoping to find something wrong with the picture—something I could rail about here in the pages of the STREET SHEET—but had come up empty. No-one—least of all me—could fault anyone for giving up a day of their lives to help others who clearly need help. The impression I was left with was the only reason anyone left Homeless Connect disappointed was entirely due to the bane of every homeless program—scarcity of resources. I’m sure if there had been 1000 available rooms for the city to distribute, every homeless soul in attendance would have walked away with a shiny set of keys in their hands.
And if there was anyone I met that day with a valid reason to be angry about that, it was Cigarette Guy.
Another woman approached us, passing out pink flyers with a banner reading: Who is Project Homeless Connect Really Serving?? No organizational identity assuming responsibility was listed on the flyer, other than a Yahoo.com email address
(email@example.com, in case you’re interested), so I asked her who she was representing. “I’m here as an independent observer,” she replied. I had to chuckle at that, having just used the same dodge when striking up a conversation with the volunteer moments earlier.
The volunteer’s face froze into a mask of disappointment at my interest in the woman with the flyer. She finished her smoke and turned to reenter to auditorium, saying something to the effect: “Well, now you have your hit piece.”
I sincerely I hope she reads this, because that’s not what I have to say.
There was some pretty strong criticism of Homeless Connect on the flyer: that only 2.5% of homeless folks at the last Project Connect were placed in housing (and that housing was temporary “stabilization units”—not permanent housing); that Homeless Connect diverts resources away from serious outreach efforts (true, because the only place a homeless person can find any services on Project Connect days is at Project Connect); that Project Connect is based on false assumptions because it implies that the resources to solve homeless peoples’ needs are available—they just need to be “connected” to them; and, finally, that “Project Homeless Connect is elitist and politically motivated,” decrying the notion that “that short term contact with well-meaning middle class people will somehow transform the lives of homeless folks.”
When I asked the woman, whose name is Sarah and who works at another local non-profit, what the object of the flyer was, she told me, “I just wanted to raise some questions. I think there are a lot of people here who really do care and want to help, but I don’t think they have the information they need to be truly helpful.
“The project is based on a very elitist view. Somehow Gavin thinks that a middle class person talking to a homeless person is going to change their life.”
I thanked her for the quote, and she went on to hand out more flyers. A hit piece was what I was after, and I now had my ammunition. But I was left there on the sidewalk thinking about how elitism cuts both ways on this issue.
After all, one of the biggest criticisms of our grassroots activities in the Food Not Bombs days was how “helping the homeless” was best left to “experts.” Food Not Bombs refused to buy into that kind of reasoning. Most of us were arrested many, many times because no-one could make us believe that helping hungry homeless people was the wrong thing to do, regardless of whatever hollow and politically-motivated criticisms mayors, police, and city officials had to offer.
Even now, after many more years working at the Coalition on Homelessness, the idea of “homeless experts” rings every bit as phony today (picture President Bush’s sycophant and “homeless czar” Phil Mangano here<).
The only real homeless experts in San Francisco are homeless people, and their needs and ideas and desires are what the Coalition gathers through daily outreach activities, and then represents to electeds and in public forums.
What homeless people invariably tell us they want and need is pretty basic: safe, affordable housing; quality, accessible healthcare; jobs that pay enough to live in this city; and educational opportunities. That’s what all the many generous foundations and individual donors who support our work pay us to do—organize homeless people to call the shots, and then help carry that agenda forward by every legitimate political means at our disposal.
And after we’ve exhausted those, sometimes we have to resort to civil disobedience. It’s honorable, even spiritual, work. And it’s as American a tradition as homemade apple pie.
Don’t believe me? Ask Gavin Newsom.
Better still, ask Food Not Bombs.
And despite every damned thing that may or may not be wrong with Mayor Newsom’s Project Homeless Connect, I can’t say one bad word about all those Project Connect volunteers.
I can’t dishonor their clearly honest good intentions and hard work. Do you realize, gentle readers, that there was almost a one-to-one ratio of volunteers to homeless people being served?
Sure, there’ll be homeless folks like the Cigarette Guy who breeze in half-buzzed and then get offended when someone tries to steer them into treatment referrals instead of immediate housing. And just as surely, there will be volunteers who will immediately run home and shower until their skin’s rubbed raw to get that “homeless smell” off their bodies.
But if we can find it in our hearts to accept Cigarette Guy, warts and all, and see him as a human being—imbued, as are we all, with an intrinsic value and dignity—would we not extend the same to any of those generous, kind volunteers?
Oh, sure, we could act self-righteous and sadly shake our heads, wisely intoning our sense of pity that these well-meaning San Franciscans are being duped by a politically-motivated media event. We could rightly point to the fact that only about one in five homeless people in this city are actually helped by the city’s Ten Year Plan to Abolish Homeless, while Care Not Cash actively displaces seniors, immigrants, and disabled folks from the city’s shelters—all seemingly (or conveniently) forgotten by Mayor Newsom’s administration and the media. And, undoubtedly, Mayor Gavin Newsom will benefit much more from washing some homeless guy’s feet than the homeless guy ever will.
But maybe that’s the point I’m trying to make.
After Gavin Newsom had his much-heralded “epiphany” and hitched his political star to solving San Francisco’s “homeless problem,” the rhetoric of Care Not Cash and the subsequent campaigns opened the door for every kind of hateful, dehumanizing demonization of homeless people in this city by a whole host of profit-driven entities (picture the Hotel Council’s astroturf “We Want Change” campaign here).
It’s only just and fitting that Mayor Newsom should now reverse that process and provide an opportunity to restore a little humanity to all the homeless people whose daily life-and-death struggles he co-opted to his ambition—if not for his own benefit, then at least for the benefit of all the voters who put him into office.
And if we’re ever going to truly end homelessness in San Francisco, and the rest of America, it’s going to take a lot more than the Coalition on Homelessness OR Mayor Newsom to achieve that lofty goal. It’s going to take a lot more than Food Not Bombs or Project Homeless Connect.
And it’s probably not going to be a day that anyone reading this paper will ever live to see. We would be tragically naïve to think we can overcome the more than thirty years of federal and state policies that created our national homelessness epidemic by volunteering a day a month.
But in spite of that, sometimes a convergence of events can push the envelope open just a little farther-and help pave the way to what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King termed “a true revolution of values.” Reasoned risk-taking at opportune moments can speed this process, too.
Again, if you don’t believe me, just ask Mayor Newsom.
And since Mayor Newsom has a penchant for borrowing inspirational quotes from great leaders, and since I’m certainly not above employing such a device myself, and since I hope to God the mayor finds time to occasionally read our smudgy little paper, I’m going to quote Dr. King here at length:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
Still with me, Mayor Newsom? I hope so, because now I’m going to make a proposal.
It’s one thing to put your reputation at risk by committing civil disobedience to secure marriage rights for gays and lesbians here in San Francisco, but it’s another thing entirely to put your ass on the line for a discriminated minority that doesn’t enjoy the fabulous political clout that San Francisco’s LGBT community does.
It’s one thing to use a bully pulpit like the Jim Lehrer NewsHour to condemn the Bush Administration’s proposed HUD policies and budget cuts that will spell out homelessness for many, many more poor people in the very near future, but it’s another thing entirely to back up such words with action.
Dr. King had something to say about that, too. He said, “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
Now, I don’t know exactly when the next opportunity to put beliefs into action by committing civil disobedience on behalf of homeless peoples’ civil and human rights will occur, but trust me, it will happen soon enough. And if you could lend your presence to that cause, we might just be able to trigger another revolution of values. After all, this is San Francisco, that “shining city on the hill,” where inspiration and possibility exists without end.
And maybe, just maybe, if we wind up in a holding cell together, we’ll finally find time for the fifteen minute interview you promised STREET SHEET when you were still running for mayor.