A wooden box is not a home…but…
By Jeeni Criscenzo
Part three of the quartet of storms pounding San Diego this week is in full force as I sit here at my computer. The alert goes off on my phone signaling a flash flood warning. The shade cloth over my neighbor’s garden has disengaged itself from two of the poles securing it to earth and is preparing for takeoff.
Peering out the rain-whipped, sliding-glass doors that safely separate me from the deluge outside on my patio, I can’t help but wonder how the people living out on the streets are faring in this godawful storm. Even those fortunate enough to have a tent can’t be feeling protected right now.
Earlier today, local homeless advocate Lisa Kogan had given me an update on the 4’ x 7’ wood structure that she had built for Red, a homeless man she befriended. Within three days of “moving in” to the first place he’s had in years where he could lock the door and feel safe, even while it still smelled of fresh cut boards and new paint, the police impounded the structure and arrested poor befuddled Red for encroachment and lodging without consent.
Kogan bailed him out that night, but the structure that was Red’s home for three whole days sits empty in the police impound, as the rain pelts the poor souls living on the sidewalks of San Diego.
Surely an organized cluster of wooden shelters would look a lot better than the tents and makeshift tarps one sees in encampments throughout the city.
Kogan has been conferring with an attorney and Elvis Summers, founder of Starting Human, who has built over 25 similar structures in Los Angeles. To date, none of his “homes” have been impounded. Armed with good advice and determination, Kogan hopes to find property where she can place more of these wooden shelters for homeless people. Surely an organized cluster of wooden shelters would look a lot better than the tents and makeshift tarps one sees in encampments throughout the city. And if we could add portable toilets, organized storage and scheduled stops of the mobile showers that Think Dignity is planning, we could actually make the horrendous experience of homelessness a little more humane.
Indeed, a wooden box is not a home, unless you don’t have anywhere else to go. On a day like today, I’ll bet the THOUSANDS of people living on the streets of San Diego would take that box in a heartbeat and thank whatever gods they can think of for having a place to get out of the elements that won’t blow away.
And for the growing numbers of women and children who are “living rough,” the best feature would be the key that locks the door so they can feel safe enough to go to sleep. Imagine how much easier it would be to get your head together and start taking the steps needed to get out of homelessness, if you actually had a good night’s sleep. Imagine if you could lock up your stuff, your important papers, your cell phone.
Imagine knowing you had someplace to get out of the wind and rain–because this El Niño winter is going to be hell living on the street.
As I turn on our gas heater and savor the warmth filling my office, I wonder if the police officers who had Red’s wooden home removed are thinking about him today? Kogan tells me that Red was able to help get shelter in a little church on 16th Street where Bishop Steve Smith lets homeless people sleep in the pews. Otherwise he’d be out there, huddled under a tarp, in a doorway or under an overpass … if it hasn’t been flooded. That’s what happens under overpasses in this kind of weather.
No, a wooden box isn’t a home. So we impound it. And we spend hours sitting around tables planning how were are going to prioritize who we’re going to house. And how we’re going to end homelessness.
At least in the church pew, Red is better off than the woman with an infant and toddler who is hunkered down in the parking lot across the street from that church–the same parking lot where I went to survey people for the 25 Cities Campaign to End Homelessness a year ago. Where the first person I interviewed was a young woman with a newborn infant in a stroller who said she’d spent the night there. That baby wasn’t even a month old.
It was when I was filling in that survey form that I realized there was no place to indicate that a person had a newborn infant. When I pointed out that flaw, I was informed that their program to identify the most vulnerable homeless people didn’t include families!
No, a wooden box isn’t a home. So we impound it. And we spend hours sitting around tables planning how were are going to prioritize who we’re going to house. And how we’re going to end homelessness. But then we craft definitions of homelessness that exclude thousands of women and families and people who are not addicted and people who haven’t spent the precise number of months on the street.
On Monday, the State Senate proposed spending $2 billion to build or rehabilitate permanent housing for mentally ill people living in the streets. Now the muckymucks will submit proposals with three-figure salaries for administering programs that will spend millions in legal costs to counter the NIMBYists and when it’s all done, they will pat themselves on the back for getting a few hundred chronically homeless people housed.
Or, maybe, instead, people like Lisa Kogan and the many unsung heroes who don’t get paid diddly squat for the work they do to serve the most destitute people in God’s creation, will combine forces and start with wooden boxes with doors that lock, and take over empty lots and golf courses and abandoned buildings that have sat empty for decades while their owners waited for their investment to increase in value.
And they will build real housing, real homes with bathrooms and kitchens and bedrooms and windows with curtains and doors that lock, for homeless families and impoverished old ladies and lost souls like Red.