Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Quote of the week

Photo credit: bosela from

"Gotta to get used to riding my bike.  Cost of gas is going up."
                                (A friend said this when she showed up on her bicycle)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Part 3: Zeroing in, homeless prescription (Week 10)

From Life 2.0

One day back in the dark ages, our 7th grade choir teacher Mr. Verbout put a dot on the blackboard and asked the class, "what do you see?" Most of us dummies said "a dot," but somebody (who probably went on to Harvard) said "a blackboard with a dot." "Right!" said Mr. Verbout.  "Most people see the dot instead of the board.  Trouble makers are the dot.  They get all the attention.  I see you.  All of you."  

I can't remember his prescription for trouble makers, but I remember the dot. 

Think of a homeless meth addict shouting obscenities on a street corner.  He's a dot.  The rest of the people who are homeless are the blackboard.

Most homeless people, about 80%, can't wait to get off the streets. A night in a shelter is not something most people find enjoyable.  This group is pretty much invisible, except to volunteers and social service workers, keeping their heads down, trying to avoid thieves and police and predators, hanging on to a veneer of normalcy. They are busy trying to get back into the mainstream.  Most of them make it.  

Another 10% don't function as well and need more help, but also dream of regular lives with enough money for food and a place to live and a job.  

That leaves the last 10%, who are pretty much chronically in trouble.  They often live on the streets for years, struggle with mental illness and drug addiction, have health and legal problems. They are visible, used to panhandling, not worried about appearances. When people throw up their hands and say things like "the poor will always be with us," I suspect they are picturing this 10%. 

Source: KVAL special on homelessness
Focusing on this small, troubling cluster warps discussions about what to do.  Separate the permanently distressed from the temporarily in trouble, however, and it's a little easier to imagine solutions.

For the vast majority of homeless, a basket of traditional community services works well.  This usually means a partnership between private donors, volunteers, faith communities and service agencies, who work together to provide vouchers, food, job and housing referrals, assistance with public benefits, drug and alcohol treatment, child care, safe places to sleep and shower, legal advice for mortgage troubles.  

For the more intractable, traditional measures don't work.  

What to do?  First accept and plan on spending money, either directly through donations and taxes, or indirectly for  (1) unpaid medical bills, since the chronically homeless have a lot of health problems, and (2) jail beds, since most of them spend time there, as well as the services provided to all homeless.  Many cities throw up their hands and let this rag-tag group bump along, treat them in emergency rooms, rotate them in and out of jail, step around them in the city parks and doorways, and pay enormously in social and monetary costs.

Some cities are trying novel approaches.  The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for instance aims more or less for permanent dependence on social services rather than self-sufficiency.   I kind of like this idea.   

I know, I know, it sounds terrible and counter-intuitive, but put it this way:  take a guy with an addiction to meth, no teeth, cirrhosis and Hepatitis C. who has done three jail stints.  If you get him into rehab and then in a relationship with a social worker he sees every couple of days in a supervised living situation, with regular food and health care, maybe hospice if that's what he needs, wouldn't that be a success?  Even if he was there for ten years?  

Housing for formerly homeless, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
Yes, it's expensive.  So is jail and a three week hospitalization for pneumonia.  Yes, it won't work for everyone, but again, the overall numbers aren't very high.  If we got, say 90% of the worst cases into free care, that would that be good news. Best of all, we could steer this group, both physically and in the minds of the public, away from the larger group who are temporarily in trouble.    

I think our town is headed in this direction, but we have a ways to go.

In the long run, the food kitchen where I volunteered is probably in trouble. This is very sad because it is a wonderful facility. There is a push, however, to revive downtown and as more money gets invested in downtown businesses, there will be a parallel push to move street people out.  Right now there is no way to separate the mentally ill from people who just need a meal, so the kitchen will continue to be a gathering place for troubled folks, and it is going to make people who shop and visit downtown uncomfortable and antsy for a cleanup.  Time to start planning a move.  Businesses who would like to see the kitchen relocated should participate in the planning and chip in on the fundraising. 

So, the long and short of it:  food kitchens are a good thing.  Volunteer in one if you can, or send money.  If you get involved in a discussion with someone who swears up and down that helping the homeless is a waste of time and money, assure them it's not.  It's an investment in our community.  If you see a guy on the corner asking for money who looks like he's just going to spend it down the street at a bar, you might unfortunately be right; then again, you might not.  If you volunteer at the food kitchen though, you might get to know him and find out for sure. 

Street corner panhandling
For more reading on dealing with the hardest cases of homeless people, see Malcolm Gladwell's 2006 New Yorker Article, "Million-Dollar Murray."  

Week 10 of commuting by bicycle:  Total commutes 23 (three in the bank).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Feeding People: Part 2 (Week 9)

“A castaway in the sea was going down for the third time when he caught sight of a passing ship. Gathering his last strength, he waved frantically and called for help. Someone on board peered at him scornfully and shouted back, "Get a boat!” 
― Daniel QuinnBeyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure

Bicycling Destination: a kitchen providing free meals.

The Dining Room
There is an interesting dynamic between patrons of soup kitchens and volunteers who work there.  No getting around the fact that the people behind the counter are going home to their own beds when the shift is over, and that meals are a stopgap at best, considering how much the people in front of the counters probably need.

You just have to set all that aside. 

A soup kitchen is a leveler.  Everybody has to refuel.  It's as simple as that.

The organizers of this place believe: (1) the better the fuel, the better people function; and (2) all people deserve respect. They aim for the best meals in as nice a setting as possible and they do a great job.  

People with physical limitations and young families get priority seating. For everyone else it's first come, first served.  On my night there was a steady line of people who were profusely, almost embarrassingly, grateful.  Many looked very, very thin. One guy shook his head to bread and salad. "No teeth to chew it," he said. "Bummer, huh?" Behind him watching intently stood his son, who looked about 4 or 5.  Another guy came in with one eye swollen shut, his face scabbed and blood on his shirt. Someone asked what happened and the guy said, "Got jumped in the park."  What could we do?  We served him dinner.  

The Dining Room is run like a restaurant with padded booths and low lighting. A young woman with a tray of desserts weaves between the booths and tables.  On the menu that night:  spaghetti, garlic bread, crustless quiche, cantaloupe and a big salad with leftover greens and cherry tomatoes from the farmer's market.  It looked bright and cheerful under the lights.  

Summer Greens, Horton Rd. Organics
There was no butter, so the staff made their own by whipping cream.

One guy looked at his plate and said, "It's beautiful."  It really was.

Some neighboring businesses are unhappy about the food kitchen, and it's easy to see why.  After dinner, a couple on the street got into a shouting match.  A guy with two sleeping bags and one good eye spent a long, long time in the bathroom, then stumbled outside, mumbling.  Another settled in a doorway, apparently for the night.  To be fair, it's not just the dining room that's a source of problems.  Down the street is a liquor store and a methadone clinic, both of which are magnets for troubled people.  Not everybody is unhappy though.  The glass blower across the street and a furniture dealer a couple blocks away say they haven't had trouble.  On my night, police on bicycles (yeah cyclists!) were on hand to deal with problems.  A half hour after the food line closed, the bike racks were empty and the street was quiet.  

Last winter, after someone was beat up and died in the homeless-infused Occupy camp, the camp was closed, and some of the best in the city put their heads together to talk about how to deal with problems associated with a sizable population of poor people. They continue to labor behind the scenes.  They need a lot of help (see below).  The Dining Room is not a bad place to start, eye to eye over a serving line.  There is no more visceral reminder of how much we all have in common, the need to eat in particular, than a food kitchen.  

Still, the question remains:  does The Dining Room belong where it is? Is the local businessman who says the dining room scares away customers, right?  If so, what kind of change, if any, is called for?

Stay tuned.  

Want to help?  Need help?  Here are some of the front line organizations in our town:
The Dining Room is Run by Food for Lane County
ShelterCare offers services to homeless people, people at risk of homelessness and people with mental illnesses and brain injury
The Eugene Mission is a faith-based organization that offers food, clothing, shelter and services
Goodwill Industries offer enterprise based services to people who have a hard time finding work

Update, week 9 in my quest to commute by bicycle 104 times in 52 weeks:  19 commutes (one ahead)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Feeding People: Week 8 of 52

Next Stop:

Food For Lane County's Dining Room

Homelessness on the brain.  Here is the Dining Room, run by Food for Lane County.  It feeds about 1200 meals per week, for free, Monday through Thursday with four course meals served restaurant style.

Some of the neighbors are unhappy.  The owners of a floor covering store, according to the local paper, "reckon with drunks, jaywalkers, loiterers and pot smokers, as well as people who urinate in public, use 'very foul language' and even have sex on the sidewalk."

This I gotta see.  Check back for a report after I take one of the 5:15-7:15 meal prep shifts.

Update on 104 commutes by bicycle in 52 weeks:  Week 8, 16 Rides.  Still on target.