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I went downtown on Thanksgiving morning and saw people feeding the homeless and it really pissed me off.
It seems to me that feeding the homeless once a year on Thanksgiving is a little like only going to church on Christmas Eve.
But, yes, there is more to this than what you may initially perceive as my Mother Superiority complex.
I need people to stop feeding the homeless on my block. Period.
I work at Quinn Cottages, a program that provides housing for homeless people who are ready to change their lives, to move from the streets and become self-sustaining. Many of them are in recovery from drug and/or alcohol addiction.
Many have mental health issues. All of them are committed to change. All of them perform at least 12 hours of community service a month, and most many more than that, closer to 30.Some are in the process of reuniting with children or reestablishing relationships with other loved ones that became broken during months or years of poor decisions.
Quinn Cottages is located on North A Street, just off of 16th Street. Next door, is a shelter program, one of several run by Volunteers of America. Also helping their clients to remain clean, sober, and committed to the positive choices they are making while waiting for more permanent accommodation.
Homeless people not in programs tend to congregate outside on the street anyway. They hang off the curbs, discouraging people from parking. They smoke dope--I know this because when I walk to my car I can smell it—well, I think so, anyway; I’m told it smells like oregano-- they talk trash, and they leave trash.
They throw running shoes up over the power lines to signal the availability of drugs for sale.
Eventually, law enforcement will manage to get them to disperse and things will start to look decent and safe again (although the shoes stay, and I don’t know what the ramifications for actual business practice are).
And then, within a few days or a week—a month at most--cars and vanloads of good Samaritans pull up with food to lure even more of them back to our block.
It has, at this point, become a game of Them and Us.
I am not a hater of homeless people. I have said before that not only have I spent years hanging out and working with homeless people, but that they are not a category unto themselves: the only thing a lot of homeless people have in common is being designated homeless by the county or not sleeping in a societally sanctioned home.
I’m okay with homeless people. I have a problem with riff raff.
I’m okay with teenagers who like gangster rap. I have a problem with gangsters.
I am not a hater of people who feed homeless people, although I used to cringe at the use of the word “feed” until I saw the frenzied events of which I speak, and it resembles nothing so much as that.
I take issue with the lack of forethought and sensitivity with which these forays into charity work are conducted.
The people who stay at Quinn Cottages and Volunteers of America have made a choice, an often difficult and life-wrenching choice.
Depending on their personal circumstance—shelter v. Transitional Housing—they may have years, months, weeks or minutes of clean time. It might still be taunting them with future failure.
And what do we ask them to do?
Walk a gauntlet.
A gauntlet of syringes, and smoke and sneakers overhead 24/7.
I hear a whisper. A little defiant whisper saying something about “real life.”
But this isn’t real life; this is Early Recovery—from something that sucks, whatever that something was—and it’s hard enough without being tested on the way to your own front door every day. It’s especially challenging for those who weren’t at all sure they’d ever have—or deserve to have—a front door again.
There are people over the past few years who have put forth plans that seemed basically to want to make the homeless vanish, or at least, speculate that if they continued to spin the plans long enough and fast enough, they would run off or be sent somewhere and the problem of unattractive people schlepping about the streets would right itself.
The homeless people are in Roseville and Elk Grove. When enough turn up in Granite Bay and (I know, I know!) Rocklin, and someone petitions for a shelter, that might be the first strong mayoral candidate to succeed in this area—and you go Placer County; just don’t be haters!
But I digress.
I am beginning, as I always suggest people do, with my little corner of the world. I am not proposing that groups stop catering meals for the people on the street. I am not imagining that people will stop smoking or selling drugs or throwing garbage on the streets.
Just our street.
Three blocks down, Loaves & Fishes provides an amazing array of services for homeless and low-income individuals during the week. They are openly non-discriminating about the level of sobriety of their patrons. Organizations could set up there on the weekends when L&F is closed. Or, on weekdays nearby, where the behavior has been deemed unofficially acceptable.
From my perspective, it would also be great if the organizations communicated, so that they didn’t all show up at once, since people can only gorge themselves on so much food and carry so many provisions at one time.
This brings me to my second subtle suggestion: spread the love and joy throughout the year.
I will give you a very different example.
I have worked in two different programs where families are adopted for Christmas, and sometimes for Thanksgiving, as well.
Thanksgiving typically involves donation of the ingredients for a traditional meal, maybe the necessary tools if the kitchen isn’t well stocked. The family drops off bags of food, introduces themselves, asks some questions about the sizes and interested of family members, and says they‘ll see the family around Christmas.
Christmas can be a very different story. Christmas can be crazy.
Think about buying your child that gift you really can’t afford because you know you haven’t been around as much as you wanted to be this past year, and you feel really bad about it, so you want him to be able to have something really cool, because it’s the thing you can do.
Now take your child out and substitute a homeless boy or girl—or five.
Now follow the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be. You’re that child’s mom. You finally have your three years of sobriety/stable mental health. Your kids are working with you again. You have a job and you’re not getting government money anymore. For the first time you’ll be able to pay for your own Christmas! You don’t have credit, because that’s part of what got you in trouble in the first place, but you have cash saved all year just for this purpose.
But as you gather your purchases, the purchases your started out so proud of, you begin to hear their voices…This is the ghetto version, Mom! I asked for the other one, not this one! Is that all? Rather than give a child a Christmas once a year that a family will never be able to match once they're on their own, why not spread your time throughout the year with a family, modeling parenting skills, budgeting, talking about the other meaning in a holiday that doesn't revolve around expensive goods. Instead of throwing all of your money at Thanksgiving, endow or facilitate a monthly or weekly group that a program could otherwise not afford.
Find a program that means something to you, and ask them what they really need. Seriously. A Horton Hears a Who moment: Not only will they appreciate your generocity, but they will take note of and appreciate your empathy--I guarantee it.
Those of us, who work in mental health, recovery, and social services, do appreciate volunteers, and people who give service.
As long as it is a service.
"The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own." ~Benjamin Disraeli
"You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence is not an event -- it is a habit."
More about how you can support the agencies mentioned is available at:
Cottage Housing www.cottagehousing.org
Loaves & Fishes www.sacloaves.org
Volunteers of America www.voa-sac.org