By Jeeni Criscenzo
This has been a helluva week for those of us helping people without a place to live.
There were plenty of tweets and Facebook posts about the heatwave, as well as the Border fire that was threatening several communities out in East County. But unlike the all-out effort to help residents, pets and livestock in the path of the fire, there was no effort to help the residents of downtown under direct assault from a relentless sun.
Except for access to the library which, for those living on the street, would entail leaving all of your few meager possessions outside, unattended, there was no Health and Human Services program to help them.
The week actually began last Friday for me when my friend Martha Sullivan called asking for help to provide a Cooling Station offering lifesaving hydration and shade for homeless people during the predicted heatwave.
I had been focused on a different project when she called and tried to wheedle my way out of yet another humanitarian crisis. But, as anyone who has tried to turn down a plea for help from Martha knows, she doesn’t take no for an anwer. So I agreed to helping on Saturday and after a Father’s Day brunch with my dad on Sunday.
The heat wave didn’t deter the green notices posted throughout the East Village over the weekend warning that unattended items would be disposed of in an “abatement” scheduled for Monday. Ever since that heartless sweep on March 7 just prior to a major El Nino storm, the City has been targeting one or two blocks in the East Village each week to remove tents, and unattended belongings. Needless to say, folks are wary of leaving their stuff so they weren’t flocking to the library.
It occurred to me that in a crisis, even livestock get shelter, but if people happen to be destitute, they just have to deal with it.
Then there came a call from one of our Amikas volunteers who was out collecting information about the different organizations who are bringing food to homeless people with the intention of developing a phone application called FindMyFood. The idea is to help organize food distribution so people can find it, and so those distributing meals can coordinate to ensure that different areas are getting food every day.
But one of the volunteers for an organization that serves food every Monday and Wednesday on 16th Street and Island had told her that they had been warned to stop distributing food in July because of the All Star Game. I couldn’t believe it. First there was the human-deterrent rockscaping, then the weekly sweeps, and now they were stopping food distribution — all to sweep our dirty little secret under the rug that San Diego doesn’t care for our homeless folks when company comes a calling.
The weekend came, and Martha, along with Lori Saldaña, had organized the Cooling Station under the shade of the wisteria pergola at Tailgate Park. After doing the first part of a walk through of the site where the new Day Center should be relocated sometime this Fall (although it doesn’t look like anything has even started), I walked over to the Cooling Station just in time to help set up.
We put folding chairs out so people could sit in the shade. One lady told me, as she settled into a chair with a long sigh, that they are not permitted to sit anywhere without getting ticketed for encroachment. The dozen or so chairs were steadily occupied throughout the day, with some very philosophical conversations going on.
We unloaded chests of ice and jugs of water from Martha’s van and we were “in business”. It was such a simple thing to do – put together in a day, with donations and volunteers (and Martha’s event organization experience). Why couldn’t the city do this?
I helped hand out hundreds of cups of ice water, bandannas soaked in cold water, snack bars, and refillable water bottles filled with ice. Some of the hands reaching out for these things were very dirty; some were remarkably groomed; one man had just cut his finger and one of those bandannas served as an emergency bandage. Some of the arms reaching out to us were thin and weathered, and some were so very young.
I looked into eyes that were teary with gratitude, though some were pools of hopelessness and others were so lost. One lady rambled on and on, and I couldn’t understand a word she said. So many people blessed me that if I had died, I would have surely floated straight to heaven – all for a cup of cold water.
Monday morning I heard that the sweeps were in full force and people were being packed into Neil Good Day Center. I went down there with a friend to see what was going on. Both sides of 17th Street were a solid line of shopping carts covered with blue tarps, and people standing about looking disorientated. Neil Good Day Center was full, but not as bad as I had expected. The manager, Dennis, told me it had been much worse earlier, but people seemed to move on. Where? He didn’t know.
While chatting with Dennis about the showers that are now at St. Vincent’s, he pointed out that because they are group showers, like those back in school lockers, there is no place for kids to shower. Moms or Dads can’t take their children into showers with other naked adults. We wondered how homeless parents can bathe their children. I certainly saw plenty of them the past weekend – homeless children.
Later that day, I attended a rally at an apartment complex in Linda Vista near where I live. Two families who had filed grievances about deplorable living conditions, including mold, and rent increases of $500, had been evicted. Even though it is illegal to retaliate against tenants who ask for repairs, slumlord Michael Conteras thought he could take advantage of these tenants. While there was a very vocal coalition of tenants there with signs and chants and a few activists making speeches, the media was a no-show – except for me. Not a single story – just two more families facing homelessness.
Because affordable housing is so scarce, most will continue to live with the mold and disrepair and find some way to pay the increased rent, until they can’t, and then they too will be on the streets.
That seems to be the way of it. No affordable housing. Plenty of promises. A city that cares more about showing off for a baseball game than where kids can take a shower, or old ladies can sit down out of the sun or hundreds of people can get a meal.
Any society that disregards the needs of the poor, is tottering at the precipice of failure. Remember when Marie Antoinette was informed that the people had no bread? When she suggested they eat cake, she wasn’t being oblivious to reality, she was being mean – she was referring to the burnt crust that remains in the bread pan after you pop out the fresh baked bread.
In the end, it didn’t turn out so great for Marie.