May 31, 2008

The Sacramento Homeless Connect [Part 1 of 3]

The Sacramento Homeless Connect, an event held at Cal Expo in the Winter Shelter on May 31, between 10am and 3pm, meant as a valuable opportunity to give homeless and poor people information about services that can help them, was seriously marred by ineptitude in how it was organized.

Attendees to the event were left to spend most of their time waiting on a parking lot to get in. All of this time could have, should have, been used filling people's minds with information they could use. Instead, the homeless and other poor people were left to spend hours biding their time, drinking free bottles of Snapple and "Salvation Army"-branded water.

The waiting time of one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours could have been greatly lessened had the organizers tended to their most fundamental responsibilities: Anticipating visitors' experience and seeking to avoid bottlenecks and shortages.

The organizers should have looked at the problems of similar events to avoid others' mistakes. From what I understand very similar events have been held rather recently in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Portland.

Any able planner for an event such as this would have measured the time requirements to assure that attendees have as excellent and valuable experience as is possible. The average time it takes to interview each person wanting entry to the event should have been measured. The flow of visitors to the event should have been anticipated. While I am told there were possibly double the number of people attending than was anticipated, it was known that most would arrive in the late morning when the event started. Planners should have been aware that a serious bottleneck would occur, even with a small crowd.

There are many things the organizers could have done to make the event more successful at achieving it ends:

  • They can have pared the length of the intake/triage interview that was used before attendees gained entry.
  • They can have used volunteers who were waiting and "twittling their thumbs" [in the words of one volunteer] in the venue to beef up the staff doing the entry tasks.
  • Many of the kiosks/stations in the Winter Shelter where the event was held can have been made mobile by going out to the parking lot to do out-reach work or distribute literature.
The event was "hosted by the Ending Chronic Homelessness Intitiative" which is "co-chaired by [Sacramento] Mayor Heather Fargo and Supervisor Roger Dickinson." Tim Brown was the prime onsite organizer.

May 30, 2008

Food

The Sacramento homeless and poor population that I live in the midst of is inordinantly interested in food. Among the people I know, none is starving -- nor hungry for long -- yet many are keenly interested in what the main course of their next meal might be.

There's a bit of excitement when the rumor spreads at the Union Gospel Mission that the evening meal might feature chicken or barbeque or tri-tip [The tri-tip rumor turned out to be a false one, spread by a prankster on staff]. Likewise, when the free lunches at Loaves & Fishes break from the ordinary that sparks discussion in Friendship Park.

A homeless adult Sacramentan will eat OK, just from the free meals that Loaves & Fishes and Union Gospel Mission* provide every day. There are many other places, as well, that provide food or distribute food to homeless or poor people in greater Sacramento. A broke Sacramento adult or child can find sustenance. It's out there.

One thing lacking in the central-Sacramento homeless diet is adequate servings of vegetables. While there is usually one vegetable with each meal at L&F and UGM, it is usually lettuce with thin shards of carrot, maybe a bit of cabbage, and dressing. Fresh fruit is commonly available, however. From recent meals, I've had bananas, mangos and strawberry-peach compote at UGM and oranges, peaches and plums in L&F's diningroom.

Loaves and Fishes gathers a huge assortment of desserts and pastries that visitors to Friendship Park there enjoy with their coffee in the morning. [It's more than a guess that these are day-old, or expired, baked goods from Safeway or local bakeries.] UGM serves its sheltered men breakfasts of eggs, sausages and toast and/or the really big muffins that I've seen on sale at Raley's. [Poppyseed, corn, chocolate and blueberry comprise the usual selection of muffins.] Also, the desserts with the UGM evening meal are usually excellent. Usually they serve cake or pies from bakeries that didn't sell when they were optimally fresh.

In addition to all the food I've described, many homeless -- including me -- receive food stamps they can use through a special ATM card that the Department of Human Assistance makes available to eligible adults.

Use of these food credits is very restricted -- no tobacco or alcohol can be purchase with them, of course, for example. And with their use comes an exemption from any sales tax.

A person can use food stamps to buy unprepared food, but not restaurant or otherwise-prepared food -- which creates some ironies. One thing you cannot buy at convenience stores is hot coffee, but you can buy a cold $2.79 bottle of Starbucks Frappachino there. You can't buy a one-dollar McDonald's double-cheeseburger, but you can buy a three-dollar packaged ham-and-chedder sandwich at Rite Aid. You can buy a packaged, prepared salad at Safeway or Trader Joe's, but not something similar at Wendy's.

Also, a bit of a curiosity is that homeless people cannot make use of those fake grocery-card club discounts. Without a home, you can't complete the club membership application so you can't get the generous discounts that come with most items.

Being homeless, we often find food given to us is past its expiration date. [This is often safe. Properly refrigerated milk should last five to seven day past it date before becoming blinky.] L&F has given us bottles of Gatoraid nearly a year past the expiration date. [Was the date a misprint and is that why the bottles were not saleable? or does a very old bottle of Gatoraid merely lose some of its oomph yet remain safely drinkable? or should the item not be consumed!?] Similarly, at UGM, we recently got small bags of potato chips two months past their expiration date; they were noticably stale, but still enjoyable.

O, to be homeless. And to dream of pizza, made to order, with mounds of stuff, piled high.

---

* The mission provides a meal to any adults who attend their evening church service. Men who are staying in the mission's shelter also get breakfast the following morning. Loaves & Fishes serves lunch every day of the year except Thanksgiving Day.

May 29, 2008

Free Will and Grace

John Newton

[The Union Gospel Mission is where I have been attending a church service, eating my evening meal, showering and sleeping most days during my first month of homelessness.]
The daily services at Union Gospel Mission are presented by thirty area churches, most of which are Baptist, that each come once a month. Services usually last an hour each evening, from 7:30 to 8:30, with singing dominent in the first half hour and a preacher's sermon beginning at 8:00pm.

The sermons vary in their core messages, often being at direct odds with sermons of prior days. This is understandable, of course, since each church has its own slant on things, but it is troubling the disparity one hears of what's required to get into heaven.

One pastor, Jimmy Roughton of Capitol Free Will Baptist Church, echoed the sentiment of Blaise Pascual in his April sermon: "Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists." To me, this rationale for belief is terribly fragile and is clearly, wholly self-interested. For me, and for most people -- I would wager -- you believe what you must believe and there is no wiggle room for believing what you perhaps ought to.

In his sermon given at the rescue mission in May, Roughton didn't say "I don't know that there is a God any more than any of you," as he had, but he did emphasize the benefits of believing (i.e., gaining entry into heaven and the horrors of the alternative, hell.) His is a rousing, clear message of getting ready for the eternal future.

Other preachers insist that faith is not enough. At at least three services I've heard the sentiment that "even Satan believes in God and Jesus," thus mere belief is greatly inadequate. For these more-conservative churches, being humble before God and following his dictates is necessary to warrant the eternal reward of a body of light and to be in God's presence to praise his glory forevermore. Basically, to live for God you must surrender your free will and fully follow God's will as you understand it from your reading of the Bible.

Other preachers made a simple appeal: Believe in Jesus and heaven is yours. Or, believe in Jesus and that he is the risen son of God and you will live for eternity in heaven. Here, becoming a good Christian is made rather easy. There is ample evidence that Jesus existed and it is not difficult at all to be convinced that Jesus was a remarkable person and that, at the very least, the New Testiment is mostly factual.

Only a couple of preachers I've heard have emphasized compassion and love. Particularly impressive was James A. Robinson, pastor of Greater Hills Zion Missionary in Sacramento. Greater Hills Zion Missionary is possibly the only black church on the roster of those that preach to the UGM congregation. Since the homeless men at the rescue mission are in majority black, it is disappointing that there aren't more black churches involved with Union Gospel Mission. Another pastor that emphasized compassion in a recent sermon was from Wilton Bible Church which associates itself with Bob Jones University, which has gained some notoriety for racism in the past.

Amazing Grace

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

There are a half dozen hymns that are favorites of the constantly-shifting Union Gospel Mission congregation. One is "Amazing Grace." More so than any, it is one visiting churches love use to lead us in song. The UGM congregation sings the words loud and with gusto and demand a final chorus (or two) where the words are the repeated phrase "Praise God, praise God, praise God, praise God ..."

"Amazing Grace" is an amazing song with a beautiful uplifting tune and interesting, profound lyrics. It's no wonder it is near-universally loved by Christians and admired by non-Christians. But there are some instances when some of the older white preachers lead us in singing it when I feel uncomfortable. The end of the first line is "that sav'd a wretch like me!" and I come to feel, from some of the sermons, that the homeless congregation is pointedly being designated as the wretches the hymn is naming.

As is well known these days, due to a Bill Moyers documentary and, more recently, an art-house film called Amazing Grace, the lyrics were inspired by hymn-writer John Newton's mystical, transforming experience while captain of a slave ship that travelled between West Africa and America. In the song while being written, it is the mighty John Newton, and not his cargo, that felt the power of grace -- and was in greatest need of grace -- and was the wretch that experienced conversion.

Of course, the hymn, now, is meant for everyone and it is wonderful that Union Gospel Mission has embraced it. But I do wish I felt that those leading us in song felt humbled and themselves as wretched as we who are being led in singing.

The opening words of the song are interesting; I do wonder what Christians make of them: "Amazing grace; how sweet the sound ..." Why sound, and not feeling or experience?

As many readers of this blog know, bells and gongs are commonplace in Buddhism because they are known to trigger satori. It would seem from Newton's careful, clever lyrics that his experience, too, was triggered by a sound -- likely that of the ship's bell or foghorn.

I believe that grace, cosmic consciousness or enlightment/satori are all the same experience, colored by the tradition one practices. I am sure most Christians would reject this, feeling that God-given grace is unique and far more mighty. I think that that is wrong, that religions have much more in common that we suppose.

It is also of interest that the lyrics in the hymnal that Union Gospel Mission uses are not altogether the ones that Newton wrote. You can see Newton's lyrics in the righthand sidebar at Wikipedia. The Mission hymnal uses the first three of Newton's six verses followed by the "extra verse" written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

May 24, 2008

What should a homeless man do with his dry cleaning?

Fast forward to the present ...
I have perhaps a dozen posts for this blog that are planned or in the works, but with the many needs I have for the brief one-hour's time I get online at the library, my homeless story is slow unspooling. There's going to need to be a lot of backfill to tell all I want to say. When I get my laptop, again, hopefully, I'll be able to catch up with where I want to be with this blog.
Today, I choose to write about very current events. Last Wednesday, having finally recovered from the dire, drawn-out effects of food poisoning, I took public transportation to the city of Carmichael to pick up a very nice suit, a sports jacket and dress pants I'd left at the dry cleaners a month ago. These were clothes for me to wear to my mother's funeral and burial that, it turned out, I didn't need since my mother's death had been transformed into "a celebration of Carol" by my sociopathic sister, Carol.

Anyway, being a homeless person shlepping three-hangers weighted with nice dry-cleaned clothes is a little weird. Fortunately, the fierce, swirling winds of the prior two days had abated. And now I needed to deal with my problem: What the hell do I do with these clothes that I'd saved from being sent to Goodwill by the cleaners?

"Homeless central" in metropolitan Sacramento is a place named Loaves & Fishes, colloquially and affectionately known as just "Loaves" by the population it serves. It's town square is a small fenced-in trees-shaded area called Friendship Park and outside it are the offices or rooms of perhaps a dozen homeless-services organizations. One of the orgs is Genesis which offers mental-health counselling and referals. About five days ago, I had met briefly with Vince, an extremely nice, compassionate counsellor there. Perhaps he could hold my clothes for a day or two, I thought. Another option was to ask Jerry who runs the day storage in Loaves' Friendship Park to hold my clothes.

Ultimately, I would need somebody I knew to take the clothes for the month or two it might take for me to get re-established with a job and housing. For all this, my "saviour candidates" were Terry, my high school friend, whose second home is in Mt. Autum, maybe forty miles away, and Steve, my online friend with whom I co-blogged Thoughts Chase Thoughts and who lives in north Sacramento.

For the short term, I decided to foist my clothes off on poor Vince. Day storage had started handing out slips threatening to always discard items that weren't picked up before Friendship Park closed early weekday afternoons. While I knew the discard threat was idle, it perhaps did suggest how unsafe from theft items were in the little storage shed overnight, without Bodhisattva Jerry watching over things.

So, leaving my duffobag outside, I walked in to the Genesis office, holding up my dry cleaning, and asked the receptionist if it might be OK for Genesis to hold them for me for a short spell.

Vince came in from the back office. "Let me check," he said and headed back where he had been.

Suddenly, I became very aware of the four or five people seated in the little waiting area I was in. And it dawned on me how inappropriate it was for me to be asking Vince -- or any homelss service people or organization -- for something extra outside of what they directly do. More so than a teacher-student or boss-employee relationship, there are strictures to be maintained, a gulf to be respected between the lives of the server and the served, the ordinant and the subordinant. A gulf between the homeless-services provider and their targetted population should be particularly wide due both to the aptness of many homeless people to take advantage of others and the liberal orientation of the service providers, making them particularly vunerable to being taken advantage of.

[more to come]

May 20, 2008

Discovery Park

When I returned to Sacramento [by bus] following my utterly failed suicide effort I immediately tried to check into an inexpensive hotel near where the bus disembarked, in a seedy area of downtown. At the check-in counter, I made the disturbing discovery that my cargo pants did not have my wallet in one of the buttoned or velcro-closed compartments or pockets.

My wallet; my cash [which included most of $150 my friend Terry had wired me when I was in San Fran]; my ID -- everything was missing, gone, gone, gone. Outside, I spotted a policeman, reported my stolen wallet, and asked him what he thought I should do. It was a little after 5pm; he suggested that, if I hurried, I could possibly sleep at the Salvation Army. He told me the way there -- though I knew it -- and after a brisk walk, I was hopeful. But the guy at the door there told me all the beds had been claimed many, many hours before.

"What should I do now?" I asked, hopefully. "I have no idea," he said, curtly.

But walking away from the building, a black man resting on a chair offered an idea: "You can go to the mission; you'd be right on time to claim a bed, there." He added, "See that road." He took me to a point where we could look west along North B Street. It was an undeveloped, uneven road. "Walk to the end of it, then veer right and you'll see it." "So, if I walk a mile or two, I'll be there?" I asked. "Right," he said, "You'll see a bunch of people lying on the street in front of it. That's Union Gospel Mission."

So, lugging my big black oversized duffobag -- or whatever it is -- I walked doubtfully, suspiciously along the black-tarred roadway.

I was suspicious since I saw no raggedy men walking my way. At the end of the road, though, there was an auspicious building, large and octagonal, surely a monument to God.

But as I closed in on it, I saw that the auspicious building belonged to the municipal water department and that next to it was a small water treatment plant. But veering to the right, I found my destination -- a hovel of a place where mostly-unkempt men, a few women and a dog or two were in the road. The people were laughing, cavorting, smoking, spitting and carrying on in front of the fenced mostly-dead-grass yard of a plain-white building, badly in need of paint, Union Gospel Mission.

I was told to go to the cage-window that men were already crowded around for the elbow-nudging tiff to win a bed on a cold night. As a "new guy" I should have been a sure-shot, top-priority bed winner, but I blew it due to my greenhorn ignorance and ended up not getting a bed. I did stay for what I could, though: a rousing gospel service and a fine meal.

Afterward, me and a couple other guys -- Brian and Ed -- were outside, left to figure out our own way to make it through the night. Brian suggested we go to Discovery Park, which was nearby. We could gather sticks and make a fire. Brian told us he had a tin of butane with him.

A short walk from the mission, on that new-moon black-as-tar night, there was this complex of different motels -- there for no apparent reason other than being next to an Interstate 5 exit. And beyond that, Discovery Park, which began as a dark wood out of which we crossed an American River tributary over a damned-impressive underused bridge taking us to a meadow, and beyond that, a campground.

There were a lot of small sticks on the ground, but there were also dead branches that gymnastic Ed climbed the trees to break off. Our efforts seemed to be paying off. There was a steel garbage barrel we could use to contain our warming fire. But without a hole in the barrel we had no air induction and our fire didn't catch so we ended up sleeping as we could in the cold air and on a big cement area to avoid being doused by the sprinkler system. Brian and Ed slept rather well in their sleeping bags. I didn't have one of those, and slept intermittently. I saw many of our visitors that night, which included a man who collected trash and others who passed by who didn't bother us, allowing us to sleep, as we could.

The morning came with a brilliant-blue sky and a brisk breeze. I left Brian and Ed, sleeping, and recrossed the bridge knowing not what I could make of the day.

May 12, 2008

Suicide Run

My last apartment in San Francisco [some six years ago] was out in The Avenues -- in the northwest section of the city, the Richmond District, in the shadow of The Golden Gate Bridge.

When I lived in The City, I had several major bouts of depression and I came to believe what I still believe, that a leap from a bridge, that bridge, was the best way to end one's life -- at least, it is so for me.

One day, I'll take that leap, if only to avoid the descent into dementia that has claimed many of my relatives, including my parents. I'd hate to be around to watch my brain shrivel into confusion. As Woody Allen joked, my brain is my second-favorite organ.

So, being homeless and carless following the Flying Glass incident, with only about $65 in my wallet, I decided a leap attempt was in the cards. I had so very little -- my sociopathic sister having perhaps successfully commandeered the inheritance from my mother for herself, against all that was true and just.

The route from Sacramento to San Francisco has two legs: the first, much the longer one, is by train. Yeeha. Both my recently deceased mom and I were train fans. While it is a short ride, lacking all the train-culture benefits of a Zephyr run to Denver [or, further, to Chicago], it was a bit of a nice ride from Sac'to to East Bay's Emeryville. From Emeryville the ride is by bus, across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco's depressing Bus Station, at 2nd and Mission streets.

I used to work next to the SF Bus Station, so I was familiar with the area, with its mix of new, fresh businesses and blight. The bus station, though, is wholly blight and very much as it was when I worked next to it, 80% abandoned and dirty.

There is a small ticket office inside with cross-country busses disembarking and leaving, but mostly there is a vast interior space that is unutilized. In its heyday -- the 30s? -- the place may have been lively with restaurants and group treks to Reno, but no longer.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in San Francisco is that it was very cold, damn cold -- and here I was without a coat. The cold was welcome, though; my poor dead mother had complained throughout the terrible 10-hour ordeal of her death from sepsis [bacterial blood poisoning] that she was extremely cold. I wanted to feel her pain, encounter some of the misery she had to try to bear -- until her heart gave out.

I had come to The City to die [maybe]; it made sense for me to embrace Mom's recent death, even though we were not terribly close, in most ways.

I don't want to be overly morose here. While I have had "dark nights of the soul" more than a few times, my will to end my pain has always been overwhelmed -- while standing on The Bridge -- by feelings that I can renew my life, somehow, and begin again. Also, I am overwhelmed by how terrorizing a leap into the cold waters would be. Cowardly Tom had always trumped Suicidal Tom before. And since you are reading this now [written on 5/12/08] you know I did not kill myself when I was in San Francisco three weeks ago [ ~ 4/17 - 4/20/08]. Cowardly Tom triumphed, again. Damn him.

While I was in San Francisco, I learned about homeless culture within the bus station there, and the purely cruel policies of the security staff. [I'm unclear about what the security staff was securing at the mostly vacant station, but they were there in large number, dedicated to a mission of keeping people cold and preventing them from sleeping.] More about this is a later post.

When I did get around to my "suicide run," taking a Geary bus out to The Richmond for a walk to The Bridge to attempt my leap it was so incredibly cold, I could barely move. So, I never got closer than a few miles from the bridge. Ah life. Here I am. I continue to live. Breathe in; breathe out.

May 3, 2008

Flying Glass

Suddenly, I became homeless. The reason -- or the sequence of events getting me here -- is rather straightforward, but behind it all is a long ridiculous story. I'll relate all that to y'all in bits along the way.

But let me begin with the beginning of homeless- carless- ness, when, in the distance, I could hear sirens and I strongly suspected that the shrill, piercing noice was all about me.

I was leaning against the 97 Buick Skylark that blocked the driveway, my fingers were dripping blood. I couldn't remember where I had left the crowbar.

My sister, Carol, and the woman who was, until recently, her significant other -- but was still significant to her and to this story -- were at the porch of a house two doors down.

Slowly, quietly [their sirens off] two cop cars, three policemen on motorcycles and an ambulance rolled into view from the north. Soon, in dramatic fashion, I was ordered to face away, put my hands on my head and drop to my knees.

While a few of the police talked to Carol and Becky, I was handcuffed and told to sit on the back bumper of the Buick.

"So, what happened here?" an older policeman asked me. "Aren't I supposed not to say anything? Isn't that what they do it in the movies?" I said. It was all very surreal. "This isn't the movies; this is reality." said the philosophic policeman, flatly and kindly. "Well, I knocked out some windows," I said. "What with?" I was asked. "A crowbar," I said. The trunk of the car was still open and stuff that had been in the truck was on the street alongside the car. I had pulled the crowbar from the well in the trunk which held the temporary tire.

I was asked to stand. "How did you get the blood on your hands?" asked a young cop. "I don't know," I said. "Flying glass," said the older policeman. "Shallow cuts."

Carol and Becky were all this time in discussion with their own set of Elk Grove cops. "You're a psycho," yelled Becky at me at one point. "Now, don't taunt him," responded one of the police guys surrounding me.

A young medic from the ambulance, who identified himself as Adam, began a close examination of my hands: "Are they sore? Feel any hard bits of glass?" "No," I said, "They feel OK." He looked over the cuts; believed there were some that could use a stitch or two; cleaned my hands as he could and wrapped gauze around four or five digits."

The older cop said, instructively, "You shouldn't do this." He meant everything -- the mayhem. "OK," I said. The cop added, "If you come back here, we'll arrest you." I was surprized to know I wasn't to be arrested, now.

"5150?" asked Adam of the cops as he led me to the ambulance. "No," someone said.

Adam had me sit in the gurney-like seat for the injured person. I was driven away to what would be a long wait in a hospital ER to receive care -- including a single stitch -- for the minor, shallow cuts on my hands. The Buick, my laptop, my coat were all left behind in the Buick in front of Carol's house. And so now I'm homeless, carless and with only the clothes on my back and a hundred dollars in my wallet and no idea of what to do next.