By Jeeni Criscenzo
Is the Regional Task Force on Homelessness (RTFH) really expecting people in desperate situations to patiently wait another year while we work on yet another plan?
Do we have so little confidence in our own ability to assess a situation that we need to bring in an expert from Sacramento to tell us what to do? Or are we so hamstrung by the same old vested interests that we can’t accommodate new ideas unless they come from outside and we pay lots of money for them?
I really want to believe that we are getting closer to a coordinated plan for housing people who’re experiencing homelessness. But I’ve sat through enough of these meetings over the last decade to justify my skepticism.
I’m not intending to criticize the concerted and well-intentioned efforts of the RTFH to craft a solid, viable plan for ending homelessness in San Diego. And this isn’t to trivialize the value of the work being put forth by Focus Strategies, a consulting firm from Sacramento, in crafting a plan based on data and metrics. But when I heard during the RTFH membership meeting that their plan won’t be completed for another year, my heart sank.
Surely most of the providers and advocates attending that meeting are close enough to the human beings currently experiencing homelessness to know what another year of waiting and planning and meetings will mean in human suffering. For many, a breaking point where they lose hope and turn to drugs and alcohol for solace. For others, another year on the streets will result in assaults and rape, loss of their children, loss of employment, loss of dignity and even entrapment in human trafficking.
For some, it will mean death.
For a 12-year-old boy we will call Jose, a year of homelessness and living in a volatile situation where he and his family were subjected to abuse in exchange for a place to sleep was just too much to endure. Last month, Jose tried to end his life by jumping off a balcony. If not for the quick response of his grandmother, he would be just another number in the coroner’s annual report of deaths of homeless persons.
The organization Amikas has been working to find housing for Jose’s family since we met all of them living in North Park Community Park.
Jose’s aunt, Maria, had taken him and his little sister in after their mother was deported. The addition of two more children to a household that already had four kids was sufficient rationale for her landlord to raise the rent just high enough that the combined income of Jose’s two aunts and his grandmother couldn’t pay it. A judge told Maria that if she left the premises immediately she would not have an eviction on her record.
A week later, I met the family in the park. They had lost everything.
I brought Maria to Father Joe’s to get her into “the System” – the Coordinated Entry System that is supposed to direct people to the resources most appropriate for them. They took her information and gave her a voucher that covered the cost of getting birth certificates that she needed for the six children before they could add her to their housing list.
Maria, who doesn’t have a car, can’t afford the bus, and has a 4-year-old, couldn’t manage the weekly trip downtown required to stay on the list. Could this be one reason homeless people congregate in the East Village area?
I took Maria to the County Administration Building and they were very efficient about getting the birth certificates needed to complete her intake at Father Joe’s. Fortunately, Maria and the children were all born in the United States. Not all of Maria’s nine brothers and sisters were so fortunate. So, by the fate of where their mother was when she brought them into the world, this family has been torn apart.
Maria’s mother and father thought they had been covered by the amnesty program offered under Reagan’s presidency, but two years ago, while riding his bicycle to work, her father was picked up by ICE and the major breadwinner in the household was subsequently deported. Another terrible story for another time.
With assurances that we were working to get her into housing, Maria’s eldest daughter and son-in-law reluctantly agreed to let the family sleep on the living room floor of their very small home in City Heights. I knew the situation could turn ugly fast, so we reached out to every resource we could find to house this family.
Through Home Start, Maria was directed to an apartment available through the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC). We tried to assist in the process, but just like every other experience Amikas has had with the SDHC, we were thwarted in our efforts every step of the way. There was no clarity; the case worker with Home Start was inexperienced and uninformed, though well-intentioned. Given the ages and sex of the children, HUD policy required Maria to have a three bedroom apartment, and she couldn’t meet the income requirements of an apartment that size, even with a subsidy.
Months went by and the situation in Maria’s daughter’s house deteriorated. Because they were now housed, by HUD standards they were no longer considered homeless and didn’t qualify for housing assistance. They were caught in limbo.
Maria, who is qualified to work as a medical assistant, instead spent her days doing everything she could to appease her son-in-law — cooking, cleaning and trying to make the children invisible. Despite her efforts, her son-in-law would scream and spit in her face, demanding that they leave.
The stress took its toll. Maria oldest son ended up in Juvenile Detention. Maria put on weight and then she was diagnosed with cancer.
This story has a happy ending, thanks to a super-human effort on Maria’s part. Cancer treatments at La Maestra seem to be working. General Relief, EBT and weekly food distributions have kept the family alive. Maria’s mother contributes to the family income with housecleaning jobs. And one of Maria’s younger sisters holds down a full time job that adds to the extended family’s income.
This week Maria sent me a text that she had found an apartment — more about how that happened in a minute. I went to see the apartment and it’s really nice — clean, sunny, a large living room, two decent sized bedrooms, the kitchen even has a dishwasher, the bathroom is clean and best of all there is no son-in-law abusing them.
Jose was sitting on a little stool in the corner of the living room when I arrived on Tuesday. We chatted while I waited for Maria and his grandmother and uncle to return with some furnishings.
He told me his cousins were at camp for the week but he couldn’t go. When I asked if there was a park or play ground in the area, he sadly shook his head no. The only place to play is the stairs, he explained. So I told him about some games I used to play on our front stoop in New Jersey when I was a kid – Red Light/Green Light and Mother May I. It was just conversation, but not really helpful when you have no friends, and thinking about it later, really silly suggestions for someone on the cusp of puberty. But he seemed so young, so fragile.
Jose remembered the time I took him and his cousins to AmVet and let them all pick out shoes and clothes. I had been so impressed by their polite behavior and how they helped one another to find things. He showed me the room he would be sharing with five other children and I suggested that if we put bunkbeds in there, he might be able to have is very own bed.
So, on Wednesday, when I drove Maria and her mom and Jose to Bridge of Hope to see if we could get some furniture, I told Jose to think “bunkbeds, bunkbeds, bunkbeds.” And it worked! After filling out the forms, Maria wrote on the line where it asked what you need – bunkbeds.
The caseworker who looked over the form, lit up as she exclaimed, “I can’t believe it – we hardly ever have bunkbeds and they get taken right away, but we just got a call from someone in Escondido who has a bunkbed to donate and our driver is on his way now to pick it up!”
I can’t wink, but when I looked at Jose, he knew I was.
But this is a story about getting people housed and what happens when we take a year to do it, and the people who won’t show up in your research and the tragedies that are hidden in data.
This is a story about what actually works when there is no affordable housing and too many people with insufficient income, who can’t fit into the requirements and restrictions created by HUD and the San Diego Housing Commission.
In the end, what worked for Maria and her family was tenacity, endurance, family bonds and the compassion of a landlord willing to give this family a chance.
Maria’s sister drove past that apartment complex every day while taking the children to school. One day, Maria noticed a banner announcing there was a vacancy. In a burst of optimism, she asked her sister to stop and get an application. Maria’s brother, who is employed and has good credit, agreed to add his name to the lease. Her mother and sister added their income to the General Relief income and it was barely enough to qualify.
Against all odds, the landlord called to say they had been approved! She said that she too was in a situation like Maria once, and someone had given her a break. We just need a few thousand more landlords with that attitude.
Maria, her youngest sister who is still a teenager, and her mother will share the small bedroom. Another sister, who works the graveyard shift, will sleep in that bedroom during the day. There will be six children sharing the larger bedroom and when Maria’s eldest son comes home — which he can do now that he has a home to return to — he will sleep in the living room.
Now the challenge is to help this family keep this housing.
Because the rent is so high, any bump in the road could send them back into homelessness. Considering what they had to endure to get this housing, homelessness prevention should be a priority in any plan to end homelessness.
We can help this family get the myriad of items that make a house a home: kitchen items, lamps, vacuum cleaner, chairs, bedding — even another bunk bed. That’s the easy part.
I’ve enlisted a kind and patient man to be a big brother for Jose. Maria is going to need a job, and her Mom is looking for housecleaning work that she can get to by bus. The cost of a monthly Compass Card — $74 — takes a big chunk out of their income. Why don’t we have a discount for low-income people who are so eager to work?
So things are finally looking up for this family. There’s even a new YMCA opening up in their neighborhood so the kids will have a place to play.
Our challenge is not to wait a year for a plan to tell us what needs to be done. We know what needs to be done. We need to get people housed. Now. Harm reduction. No more little boys thinking life holds no hope for them. No more mothers enduring abuse to keep a roof over their children’s head. There is too much kindness and compassion in us to let this continue to go on.
If creating sufficient housing is going to take years, we need to, at the very least, create interim, safe shelter. Amikas has been proposing emergency bridge housing communities with very inexpensive sleeping cabins.
Due to the San Diego Mayor Faulconer’s cuts to funding, the new Select Committee on Homelessness was unable to schedule the action needed to facilitate this on their first meeting this month. And so another month goes by — and another, and another.
Call to Action
On Wednesday, June 28, we are hosting a presentation with Sharon Lee, the director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute. She’s going to share with us what Seattle is doing with Tiny House Villages for homeless people.
I invite anyone who is skeptical of the idea to come hear what she has to say. And anyone who is ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work on getting families housed, to join us the following day at 10 a.m. for a workshop with Lee on the nuts and bolts of getting this project going. Click here for details on both events.
It’s time for reasonable people to just do this — put these communities up and get people sheltered. If necessary, we might need to act as human shields to protect the residents from law enforcement being directed to arrest people for having no place else to go.
Legally or not, it’s time to say, “No more broken little boys who can’t find a reason to live. No more mamas forced to be subjected to abuse just to keep their babies sheltered. No more meetings. No more research. No more waiting for permission to do the right thing.”