Robert Cox: I’m not just a squishy liberal. I’m an ex-marine, a retired educator with a Ph.D. in philosophy and literature, a senior activist with a nice little government stipend, which gives me the freedom to do the important work of a citizen. I have no agenda beyond a desire to reduce the suffering caused by homelessness. I believe we should spend more time on healing our communities, and less time on figuring out how to take them back. Law enforcement has its place, but it’s not the solution. Ask any cop.
If there is an interest, I’m proposing to write an occasional column. Please let us know what you think? Your interest and participation will determine future developments.
A little over a month ago, while I was getting gas at the 76-gas station at the corner of Central and Heller in McKinleyville, a man rode up next to me on a bicycle and stopped. Dirty, his windburned face and hands, and his overall intensity suggested he was on the verge of some kind emotional meltdown. When he began wagging his finger at me, accusing me of reporting him for a crime he hadn’t committed, I knew I was face-to-face with one of the free-range crazy people I had been reading about on the McKinleyville Community Watch Facebook Page. Dumbfounded, I just handed the man a bottle of water I happened to have in my hand. He took it, sighed deeply, and thanked me over his shoulder as he peddled away.
At that point, I went home and started to look into homelessness. What I’m finding isn’t pretty: the speed at which people are becoming homeless—especially on the west coast– has outstripped our collective ability to keep up, to formulate an appropriate response, or even imagine what a long-term solution might look like. We can’t even agree on the cause of the worsening crisis. Is it a question of character, poor choices, addiction, a lack of determination, loss of the work ethic, government programs that enable anti-social lifestyles, etc.? Or, is it environmental, a worsening economy, the disappearance of well-paying jobs, rising costs, the lack of access to education and training, the inability of our political-economic system to adjust zoning laws and building codes, which would lead to the construction of and access to housing and shelter that low-wage earners can actually afford? Is it a matter of bad choices, or the absence of good ones?
With the current shortage of affordable housing, people can’t find places to rent now, even when they have a county rent-voucher in hand; nor can they find a temporary shelter, or even a safe place to pitch a tent. Without a flexible plan to address current needs, what will the future look like? Here’s how I’ve come to see it: it’s as if we are all living on an uneven playing field that’s tipping. Those with the fewest resources live on the edge, and they are in the most danger of falling into the abyss of homelessness. From there, things get worse. I suspect if being crazy didn’t make me homeless, being homeless probably would.
I’m hoping this column can be a place to expand a conversation that began on the McKinleyville Community Watch Facebook Page, with an invitation to join in a “fireside chat” about homelessness? As we went deeper into the underlying causes of homelessness the conversation began to raise our awareness about a complicated set of problems, while reducing stigma, and, hopefully, paving the way for a significant reduction of suffering and an improvement in the general welfare.
Rocked by the gas station incident, I came away from this bizarre incident with the impression that our little town is in danger of becoming an outdoor asylum. It was one of those moments when you actually see something for the first time that’s been hiding right there in front of you in plain sight. I got it. Maybe we really are living in a war zone…. I wonder, has anyone noticed that there are far more American casualties on the streets of our country these days than there are in the Middle East? Spending billions on foreign wars to keep us safe at home makes less and less sense to me. Even from a strategic military point of view, if the objective is peace, wouldn’t it make more sense to build houses here rather than blow them up over there?
Turns out the face of the man at the gas station represents only one of the subgroups within the growing homeless population of America. For example, I’m haunted by the story of a local woman who grabbed her children and left in the night to escape the brutality of her drunken husband, only to find there was no place for her to go. She couldn’t stay at the shelter. Traumatized, she was terrified of men. Or there’s the story of the woman coming out of a mini-mart after buying a chocolate bar. A barefooted woman, dressed in a red sweatshirt, standing shoeless in the rain, told the local woman that she was hitchhiking to Oregon, and had become stranded in McKinleyville.
“Do you have an extra pair of shoes,” she asked. “No” was the answer, as the local lady pushed on. Later, she said, I wanted to take that poor woman home with me, let her take a warm shower, and give her some dry clothes. “I didn’t,” she said, I was afraid.”
A week ago Saturday I sat down with a man who has been homeless for five years because of an accident. Recently he moved back to McKinleyville from Eureka despite the lack of shelters here. He said there’s less drama here, and he wants to be closer to his son, who lives with his mom and stepdad.
Every Saturday the Church of the Joyful Healer opens its doors to the homeless. On the day I visited, five members of the congregation hosted fifteen homeless people, five of whom were women. What struck me was how ordinary they seemed. Turns out it’s often hard to recognize the homeless amongst us. They just don’t stand out like the guy at the gas station. It’s the ordinary appearance that hides them. Given the shame and stigma associated with homelessness, it’s hardly surprising, then, that “normal” people would prefer the middle of the heard, which is part of the reason why it’s so difficult to get an accurate count of the homeless. But to give you some idea of the skyrocketing numbers in California, consider this: the total count of homeless people in Los Angeles this year is 58,000, which represents a 28% increase over last year. The most recent count for Humboldt county I could find pegged the number at 1,330. Rents on the West Coast have soared, one reporter notes. Many of those who are homeless now could have found a place to stay just a couple of years ago. “Now, even a temporary setback can be enough to leave them out on the streets.”