May 2, 2009

Who the Sacramento Homeless really are

Following is an opinion piece I submitted to the Sacramento Bee on April 7 – which, from their non-response, I learned they had chosen not to publish it. I found a copy of it in my backpack, today, and thought Gee, this is pretty good; I should let readers of my blog read it. And so, here it is.

Who the Sacramento Homeless Really Are, and
How Best to Help Them. Guidance from an Insider.

How can you a wealthy or, at least, well-off or working person in the Sacramento metropolis, best help the homeless in our area whom you've heard so much about, recently, and whom you care about and worry about!?

Ahhhh, that's sweet. Compassion is a wonderful thing! As the Dalai Lama is credited with saying: "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." And as Jesus emphasized, according to the Bible: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

We homeless are your neighbors. This is something I have learned in my near-year out in Homeless World Sac. We homeless are remarkably like you, though not in the way news coverage has described things in recent months, during the post-Oprah media blitz.

We are not in overwhelmingly number cowering, broken Caucasian families, unaccustomed to not having the wherewithal to tool around on the freeways in our SUVs.

Most of us are solo men, and of these, we are disproportionately black. Certainly, there are women and boys and girls and couples and families, too, that are out there on the streets, living in tents, and staying in shelters. The variety of people is as broad as the general population. If you look, you'll find a near-doppelganger of yourself or your family in Homeless World Sac.

But, indeed, a great great many homeless folk have substance-abuse issues. And maybe a past that includes large swatches of time being locked up for bad, and sometimes terrible or monstrous, deeds.

Many, many homeless have debilitating mental-health issues and have been dumped by society. Of these people, many talk to themselves and do not converse with others.

Many homeless are as wholly self-interested and inured to others' problems as AIG executives. They feign sympathy; habitually, effortlessly lie; and play mind-games.

But savaged with problems or not, you will find, among the homeless, in greater proportion than in the general population, people with mighty hearts and kind natures – folks who are likable, lovable, thoughtful and as generous as they can be. Not surprisingly, Jesus was homeless [Matt 8:20], as was Buddha. And as are saints [like St. Francis and Margaret of Cortona] and bodhisattvas [like Layman Pang and Noah Yuttadhammo].

A lot of how homeless people are depicted is flat-out false. We are not whiny and morose, as we seem always to be on the news, or can seem to be on some homeless-advocacy websites. The homeless community, by and large, is cheerful and resolute to hold on and make do.

There's a lot more money in Homeless World Sac than I would ever have supposed before landing here. A great many of the guys get monthly disability checks – which some call "happy checks" – in an amount just short of $900. That is the prime source funding the considerable use of substances to alter consciousness or otherwise have a spree early in the month. Shelter space for men frees up very very noticeably early in a month, going from "insufficient to meet demand" to 20% empty beds.

Why society gives so much money to "disabled"* people so that they can make themselves more disabled and shorten their lives, I don't understand. I wonder if things might change if people better knew what was going on.

And, finally, the homeless are not a bunch of Maynard G. Krebses, squealing "Work!" and running away. We line up for temporary work in Friendship Park, hoping something will come of it. We take whatever jobs we can, certainly including what's offered under-the-table. Guys work for small businesses doing telephone soliciting; putting up drywall; selling insurance on commission; waving signs on the sidewalk; working high-traffic hours at restaurants. Some of us recycle cans and bottles that the general population tosses out their car windows, and are Johnny-on-the-spot to help people move furniture or plant petunias.

How YOU can best help those most in
need in Homeless World Sacramento

Most of the homeless in Sacramento are die-hard fans of the homeless-aid and -advocacy programs in The Community. Me, I'm more of a curmudgeon and a critic.

Loaves & Fishes is Homeless World Sac townsquare to the homeless folk in our metropolis, and to those who grumble when they pass by it on light rail on their way to work. It's where about six hundred people get a free lunch each day and might spend an hour or two in its park or library. The affection homeless people have for Loaves – as it's nicknamed – is considerable, based on the view that, absent the facility, their lives would be downgraded to dumpster diving and great unhappiness.

Me, I'm a critic of Loaves, questioning its policies and efficiency in its use of funds. But I'm sympathetic to the mutual-dependency that Loaves and the homeless community are locked in. If Marcos Breton writes something hateful about the homeless, Loaves takes a hit in its fundraising and who knows how often meatloaf will start appearing on the menu and what leftovers the kitchen staff might need to put in it; If Loaves is lauded by Oprah Winfrey, we homeless might see nice, tasty, healthy food, served to us under the twinkling lights of international newcasts' TV cameras.

So should someone wanting to help the homeless do the simple thing, write a check to Loaves & Fishes, or another homeless-aid agency, like Volunteers of America or Union Gospel Mission or the Salvation Army or WIND Youth Services? Sure. If your time is valuable, one of those organizations is likely to squeeze a lot of good out of whatever you can send.

But if you can spend some time to target your money to really, really make it do good, here are my insider ideas: End-around bureaucracies and administration and get the homeless what they most need.

What do we need? Vegetables! There's lots and lots of sugar and starch in Homeless World, but artichokes and asparagus are next to unheard of. See if you can get your grocery store to help you out and sell you some produce that is being taken off the sales floor and GIVE it to you, or sell it to you at a deep discount, which you can GIVE to us!

Broccoli, green beans, asparagus, onions and tomatoes, hooray! If the quantity seems enough to provide a serving to feed a hundred-twenty, take what you collect to Union Gospel Mission [400 Bannon St.; Sacramento]; or, if its a great deal, that will contribute toward feeding 600, then take it to Loaves & Fishes [1300 N. C St.; Sacramento].

Another good idea: Buy Subway sandwich gift cards in the amount of $6 each and pass them out to homeless men and women you see. A Subway sandwich, much more so that McDonald's, say, is packed with plantlife. And Subway franchises, like McDonald'ses, are ubiquitous.

* I put the word in quotes, since it's an open secret that many of these disabled aren't disabled: they've just gotten themselves lawyers who know how to work the system.]

Tom Armstrong has been in Homeless World Sacramento for nearly a year, now. He was made homeless when his sister stole his inheritance and his belongings.


Nagarjuna said...

Very good, Tom. It's too bad the Bee didn't publish it. But I have a question. Do you believe that, in order to prevent people from spending their disability checks on their vices, no one should receive disability? And if you don't believe this, how can people who receive disability checks be prevented from turning them into "happy checks" that do them more harm than good?

Tom said...

Nagarjuna: What I would hope is that instead of receiving cash, some people on disability should receive vouchers that limit what the payment can be spent on.

How this would be administered, I don't know -- but the government does things like this often. Food stamps are 'vouchers,' even when, as happens nowadays people get them on a special debit card, an EBT. There are limitations on how food stamps can be spent.

One problem, though, is that food stamps, for example, are limited for ALL recipients. But what would need to happen with disability payments is that they would need to be selectively limited. Limited just to those who have the propensity to misuse the money. I don't know how you do that, exactly, but it should be doable.

yuttadhammo said...

Dear Tom,

You embarass me! I may be a homless bum, but I'm no Bodhisattva. Just an ordinary bum. Next month I plan to hit the streets of Hollywood with the beggars. I already walk for alms here in North Hollywood, but I have a room in which to stay for the time being.

Thanks for the great article.

Peace and love,


Tom said...


Yes, you don't accept that you are a bodhisattva -- you not being a mahayana buddhist -- but I arrogantly proclaim you one, anyway.

As for you not now being homeless, I grant you that. But since you have been a bit of a wanderer and home unattached, you are a certifiable member of the Homeless Union, thus the honorable appellation "homeless" applies, I aver!

Tom said...

[also, yuttadhammo, there's that Classified ad thing.] J'accuse!

yuttadhammo said...

Dear Tom,

Sorry, I missed your replies. Forgot about that ad... well, I did end up staying under a picnic table once in North Hollywood. Just me, my robes and the cement. One of the best nights of my life.

Keep up the good work!