Merced’s Homeless, Beyond the Veil

Homeless in park

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

__________________________________________________________________________

Homeless under MLK bridge

I was reminded of this admittedly ominous perspective while standing beside one of many dining tables within a large hall of the ‘D’ Street Homeless Shelter in Merced, California. Nearby, one of the volunteers looked across the room at those who opted to take shelter that evening. His comments suggested a slight annoyance at what he observed, and an attempt to reconcile what he considered contradictory behaviors. His running commentary reflected his thoughts, drifting between the activities of the shelter and an obvious deep-seated political philosophy. And as I’ve discovered over the course of these past several years, there is an ever-increasing movement in contemporary America to somehow link every situation and circumstance to a political philosophy. Typically used as a weapon for disparaging a political opponent or party, I fear the movement has left in its wake an obscuring of fact, evidence and reality. Consequently, we are slowly being paralyzed by an inability to be objective in our critical thinking.

So as residents debate and politicians grapple for position on resource allocations, community safety, environmental impact, city aesthetics and simply how best to deal with the homeless population in general, those living fluidly and on the fringes continue the task of staying alive while residing at the center of the issue and controversy.  Perhaps Gandhi’s perspective remains timeless, and, in the politically charged atmosphere of contemporary America, forever relevant.

Addressing any difficult or challenging situation requires either resolution or reconciliation.  The path taken is determined individually, and usually directed by the objective being sought.  Are we seeking truth, or evidence to support our predisposition?  Neither path should be dismissed as irrelevant.  Each of us may act individually, however through free association as a society we move collectively.  Individual thought and public opinion are not always synonimous, yet both affect how a situation is addressed and determine its final outcome.

Main St. homeless

Resolution seekers are motivated by and attracted to truth, often reveling in the details of supporting evidence and statistics.  They realize a story is found within the details, and subsequently explained through an exploration and discovery of individual components and inter-dependant association of each detail to the other.  Often but not necessarily motivated by the virtues of truth, they are fascinated by how a situation came to be, and the dynamics of how it has evolved or remained unchanged through time.

A desire to find peace or acceptance is a powerful motivator for many of us, pushing us to reconcile what we see or hear with that which we want to think.  Though it’s not always a comfortable realization for us to accept, this reconciling of two – sometimes conflicting – realities nevertheless becomes our perception on life. For the more noble among us, this reconciliation allows us to accept that some undesirable realities simply cannot be changed and will forever remain unresolved.  For those less noble, reconciliation simply allows us to remain complacent in our thoughts and unwilling to challenge our beliefs, stubbornly ignoring that which would otherwise free us of our ignorance.

Like many before me, I suppose, I had reservations about assisting the homeless in my community.  My reservations were not due to a lack of interest in helping out.  I did and still do have a strong desire to help in any way possible.  Instead, my hesitance was due to the realization that by becoming more involved I’d now have to see the homeless community face-to-face, and I didn’t have a solution for them, or the community.  I enjoy solving problems by peeling back the layers of underlying detail which direct an activity or thought process, and then analysing each detail for validity on its own merit.  Helping the homeless community would directly expose me to a problem I couldn’t solve, and to the cause-and-effect details too numerous to comprehend, much less find resolution for.V St. panhandler

Every community is unique, and most enjoy promoting ‘Community Pride’ for the qualities that seperate their community from every other.  As I walked between the tables of homeless who were eating at the ‘D’ Street Shelter I was struck by how similar my surroundings were to what I had become familiar with in my research.  Being only my second evening of providing assistance, this was still new and akward to me, yet at the same time it was strangely familiar.  Since then, after spending time walking and driving the streets of Merced and talking to the homeless in our community, I realize that resolution is possible, but still far away.

What is unique to the homeless community are the dynamics of the sub-culture found within the community itself.  In the story “Hedging Against Momentum” , I wrote that every community has an accepted standard of conduct, behavior and expectations, where parameters  are identified – whether implied or explicit – by virtue of the social structure and needs to ensure survival of its members.  In homeless communities a similar social structure exists, where experiences, challenges and resources can be shared, and where shelter and protection may be found against that, or those, considered a threat.  Viewed objectively, the same can be said for any social structure, group or community.  So is it possible for the homeless community to coexist within the larger community?

James says he has been in the Merced area “for about six months now.” Our conversation is frequenty interrupted by the noise of traffic resonating from all sides under the Martin Luther King Jr. overpass.  James does not speak to me in full sentences, and his responses are quick and matter-of-fact.  Claiming to have lived in Spokane Washington most of his life, James is now “trying to get south.  I have friends” he says.  This fluidity of movement, commonly referred to as ‘transient’, is something I hear rather consistantly from the people I talk to.  As I’m talking with James I wonder, like so many of us do I suppose, how many more like him are in the area?

13th St.

The most recent information I could find – we all like to see numbers, afterall – is from the Merced County 2012 Homeless Count and Survey .  A great deal of information is included in this report, and I encourage anyone interested in the topic to explore it at length.  Below I’ll share some of what I find most interesting.  First, there is of course the total population to consider, which as of January 2012 was counted at 502 homeless individuals living in the Merced area, including 13 children.  Of that total number, 338, or 67%, are on the streets or without shelter.  The remaining 164, or 33%, and including the 13 children, are in shelters or transitional homes.

The numbers provide valuable insight:

  • 61% are chronically homeless
  • 57% have a chronic health condition
  • 28% have a developmental disability
  • 42% have a mental illness
  • 43% have a physical disability
  • 43% are substance abusers
  • 31% are victimes of domestic violence
  • 31% are women
  • 13% are veterans

The prevailing opinion of those in our community whom I’ve spoken to about the homeless is that the vast majority are on the streets long term, if not permanently.  So I found the term ‘Chronically Homeless’ very interesting, and it is one I’ve heard repeatedly over the past several months.  The U.S, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines this as:

  • homeless and lives or resides in a place not meant for human habitation, a safe haven, or in an emergency shelter;
  • has been homeless and living in a place not meant for human habitation, a safe haven, or in an emergency shelter continuously for at least 1 year or on at least 4 separate occasions in the last three years; and
  • has an adult head of household (or a minor if no adult present) with a diagnosable substance use disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability, post traumatic stress disorder, cognitive impairments resulting from brain injury, or chronic physical illness or disability, including the co-occurrence of 2 or more of those conditions.

MLK sleeperAlso of interest to me, and revealing as well, are how the numbers for the Chronically Homeless differ from the homeless population in general:

  • 70% are men
  • 35% are White, 35% are Hispanic or Latino, 12% are African American or Black, 5% are Other, 10% are American Indian, and 2% are Asian.
  • 98% have been homeless for a year or more
  • 38% have been homeless at least four times in the last three years
  • 53% have a physical disability
  • 35% have a developmental disability
  • 62% have a chronic health condition such as diabetes, heart trouble, high blood pressure, seizures, hepatitis, respiratory problems, epilepsy, tuberculosis, or arthritis
  • 5% have been diagnosed with AIDS or tested positive for HIV
  • 54% felt that they had a mental health condition, are taking medication for mental health issues, and/or have been hospitalized for mental health issues.
  • 44% have or have had a drug or alcohol problem and/or are using drugs not prescribed by a doctor
  • 14% reported veteran status
  • 35% reported being a victim of domestic or intimate partner violence
  • 26% reported being released from a correctional institution after serving a court-order sentence during the 12 months prior to the survey

So where does James fit into this data base?  I can speculate but honestly don’t know, and it’s impossible to determine with only a brief conversation between us.  But what I do know is a little more about the community in which James lives.  Statistics are a wonderful data base for outlining, defining and measuring a topic of study, and when that topic is us and our behavior, it also adds color commentary.  But what do statistics say about us individually?

M St. park

The challenge we face as a community, and as arbitrators over that which lies beyond our driveways, is to associate individual need with individual identity.  Generalizations are easy, tidy and quick, but they are frequently inaccurate, lazy and typically serve no useful purpose.  Statistics are far better at defining population groups or communities than the individual within, yet we rarely bother to look beyond the numbers to recognize the person.

Gathering at the shelter
Gathering at the shelter

Entering the ‘D’ Street Shelter one evening, I stopped at the parking entrance and exited my car to open a large rolling gate.  A short distance away a line of people were gathering, waiting to enter the shelter.  Before I could reach the gate, a middle-aged looking man quickly walked to the gate and asked, “You goin’ in?”  “Yeah, I’m working here tonight” I answered.  “Then let me get that for you” he replied, undoing a chain looped between two posts so that he could push the gate open.  I parked and then walked back to him, wanting to know a little more about him and his story.

If Kenny emulates a behavioral characteristic identified on a rung of the statistics chart it remains undectable by me.  If ever there was a ‘regular guy’, Kenny would be him.  I barely have to press him for information before he starts sharing.  Kenny says it’s all about living up to God’s expectations.  “We’re not here to judge folks, we’re here to help ’em”, he says.  “I have a landscaping business now because God gave me another opportunity”.  Kenny points to an older, well kept Chevrolet pickup parked along a nearby curb, with a ladder rack and two gas-powered lawnmowers in the back.  With pride in his voice, he continues, “You see that truck right there?  I bought that with my business.  I also have a van that I use for the business.  I have a ways to go, but I’m getting closer all the time, you know?”

V street

It is obvious that Kenny believes in second chances, explaining how he is successfully working through a particularly rough period in his life.  He feels fortunate, and remains optimistic.  “But I used to be like these folks” he says, looking and leaning towards a dozen or so people lined up at the gate which enters the shelter, “so how can I judge them?  Who am I to judge them? I understand them”.  Recently homeless, for now Kenny is living in his vehicles or with friends, but is confident that some day soon he will again have his own apartment.

Humble Harv has his own website.  I’ve been monitoring it for several months now, my curiosity piqued as I check in from time-to-time hoping to see an update on his status.  Alas, none have been forthcoming during the time I’ve monitored the site.  So, who is Humble Harv and what has become of him?  According to his web-site, Harv is homeless and looking for an opportunity, not a hand-out, and for “a J-O-B.”  I’ve no way of validating Harv’s claim of being homeless, but the content of the site is consistent with the information I’ve gathered from interaction with the homeless and much of what has been documented on the subject.  What is unique about Harv and his site is the insight and first-hand perspective only someone living on the streets can provide, compiled as a “Homeless Handbook” and formatted in a manner befitting a survival guide for living on the streets. It’s a fascinating read.

D street shelter signHarv and Kenny appear to share a common challenge; securing the financial resources to remove themselves from the streets. Neither fit into the category of ‘Chronically Homeless’, both are capable of working, and both are actively engaged in the pursuit of work.  Both make it clear they are capable of providing for themselves, and simply want the opportunity to work and earn a living.  And both are openly critical of the modicum of opportunities available for securing employment and job training for those who find themselves homeless simply due to a lack of available work.  Kenny is perplexed and frustrated by his inability to obtain steady landscaping work.  And Harv writes on his home page:

“One ‘topic’ not listed that I will in time address, is what I believe is wrong with current ‘solutions’ to the homeless problem.  Of specific interest is the apparent fact that most homeless services are 1)  Far too centralized, and 2) geared almost exclusively for the chronic homeless while having next to nothing to offer the individual (like myself) who hit a deep pot hole in the road of life and wants to get back on the road.”

And Mark Horvath, founder of InvisiblePeople.tv, would probably agree.  I’ve read many articles and listened to several interviews produced by Mr. Horvath on the homeless, and my impression is that he does appreciate the services provided by homeless shelters.  Having experienced being homeless first-hand, Mr. Hovarth does have an insider’s knowledge on the subject.  But he does see inadequacies in the methodology employed to eradicate homelessness, including the use of shelters:

“For the most part, we are warehousing people and simply maintaining homelessness – not ending homelessness!”

“The model of kicking people out during the day does little to improve their chances of getting out of homelessness. In fact, I would say is actually hurts their chances.  A far better solution is to have life skills classes during the day to actually help people and motivate them. See, it’s not that these people are bad, it’s they have been conditioned by years of hurt and being told no, and they either have so low self- esteem they don’t care, or they really have never been given the skills and are scared to move forward.”

Main St.When speaking with staff and volunteers at the local Merced shelters, I do hear a measure of consensus on both the effectiveness of shelters and how best to utilize available resources.  Most agree that long-term housing will reduce the number of people living on the street, particularly the chronically homeless who are suffering from emotional trauma, mental illness or substance abuse.  Having this population accessible is critical to ensuring they receive proper medical care, something that is not possible once they are locked out of the shelter for the day.  Access to proper medical care, in conjunction with life-skill and jobs training, is what most agree will begin the transition to self sufficiency.

But in addition to long-term housing for the chronically homeless, there is a consensus that more than housing is needed to end homelessness.  Many of the homeless are capable of working and need jobs, yet lack the basic skill-sets needed for obtaining employment.  As we grind our way through the current recession and reflect upon the segment of the population most impacted, we are reminded of how vulnerable the under-skilled and difficult to employ truly are.  What we are witnessing in Merced is typical of that observed by Mr. Hovarth on a national level.

It was while visiting the Merced County Rescue Mission on Canal Street in downtown Merced that I found evidence supporting Mr. Hovarth’s proclamation, indicating he is not simply voicing a latent ideology. Relying almost entirely on financial contributions from individuals and organizations, The Mission provides shelter for approximately 15 homeless people per night and facilitates recovery programs for 21 residents struggling with addiction or re-entry into society after incarceration. The Mission also prepares and delivers approximately 100 meals a day to those in need in communities throughout Merced County.  It’s an amazing operation running on a lean budget, but great things are happening.  For me, one of the more interesting facets about The Mission is its “New Life Transformation Program”, a 12 to 18 month live-in recovery program for both men and women.

Merced Rescue Mission
Merced Rescue Mission

My interest was piqued not only by the idea that lives can be transformed, but that such a program has been attempted and proven successful in Merced.  Speaking with those who oversee operations and facilitate programs, I was fascinated to hear several of The Mission’s success stories.  Before leaving I was introduced to two individuals who have successfully completed the program. Their stories were interesting and telling, outlining the psychological and emotional battles we as humans are capable of waging upon ourselves.  But their stories were equally inspiring, revealing the unique and dynamic capacity of the human mind to heal itself and move beyond the debilitating grasp of self destruction.

The challenges faced when suffering from addiction and emotional trauma are difficult to measure, and are amplified when attempted as one who is burdened with homelessness. For these unfortunate folks the challenges are often insurmountable. These are the people who typically have nobody in their lives they can turn to for assistance, and perhaps just as often have no one they can reach out to for advice.  And this is where The Mission, and organizations like it, serve to fill the void. It’s a source of trust and stability, where information and resources for change are accessible. Those attending the New Life program do not leave for the day, only to roam the streets until they are allowed to return later that evening.  Instead, residents stay on grounds to attend life-skills and substance abuse training, and, being a Bible-based curriculum, ministry.  It’s amazing what can be done when a program takes a wholeistic approach, encompassing all 24 hours of the day.  For those dealing with homelessness in addition to other challenges, anything less than this wrap-around approach to treatment has proven to be entirely inadequate.

Homeless on park benchMerced shares a homeless problem not unfamiliar to the rest of the nation.  And contrary to the opinion of many in our community, Merced, and by extension California, does not have a homeless problem due to an over-abundance of resources to lavish upon the homeless.  Even within urban areas that provide little to no welfare assistance there resides a homeless population.  Listen to this story from Chicago, Illinois.  Yes folks, the homeless problem extends far beyond the borders of California.  Believe it.  Yet some local residents have actually suggested we eliminate all assistance and forcibly remove the homeless from Merced as a ‘solution’ to purging the problem from our society.  This strain of logic baffles me, and I wonder if these same people have considered an alternative solution to homelessness, that being to barricade themselves inside their homes.  And why not?  If creating an artificial reality is the solution to homelessness, then any method used to remove the population from our line of sight fulfills that requirement.  I suppose for these good folks the solution to any unsightly problem is to simply remove any evidence of it.

Canal homelessSo how does one become homeless?  The reasons are many, but to truly understand the causes of homelessness  we must first differentiate between the ‘how’ and ‘why’.  A simple example of this is to say that one becomes homeless because of job loss and a subsequent loss of income.  This statement may be entirely true, but at the same time remains entirely inadequate at explaining the root cause of homelessness.  If knowing the ‘how’ were sufficient, then we solve this problem by saying, ‘Well, then get another job.’ But as we’ve witnessed during the recent ‘Great Recession’ and resilience of the slowly declining unemployment registries, simply landing another job can be an evasive target.  And for a significant portion of the homeless – as we’ve read earlier – the challenge of securing employment is exacerbated by such issues as insufficient job skills, emotional trauma, lack of family support, mental illness, physical disabilities and substance abuse.  In just the relatively short time I’ve interacted with and studied our local homeless population, I’ve encountered at least someone from each of these categories. And these reasons are ‘why’ a segment of the homeless population remains chronically unemployed. The problems, and challenges, are very real.

Advocates for the homeless contend that other, external factors exist which artificially perpetuate and aggravate the underlying causes of homelessness. They point to a lack of affordable housing and rising housing costs, incomes that have failed to keep pace with the cost of living, and cuts in housing assistance programs. One of these individuals is Paul Boden, who has advocated on behalf of the homeless for 30 years.  In a recent interview  he outlines what he considers to be the cause of homelessness and its tenacity for resisting eradication.  He states:

“The massive $54 billion a year — a year! — in cuts in affordable housing programs; the 30,000 to 100,000 units a year of rural housing that are no longer being developed; the mortgaging off of our public housing stock; the demolition of our public housing stock; the 900,000 units of Section 8 housing that have disappeared. These are cause and effect. When you take funding away, when you take units off the market from people that are incredibly poor, you are going to create homelessness. It is as true as any recipe you could ever get from any cookbook. That’s the recipe for homelessness. That is cause and effect. This started in 1979 and the cuts really came in 1982, and the spring of 1983 is when we started building homeless shelters in this country. Cause and effect. It’s clear.”

When asked why there is a lack of focus on building or creating affordable housing, Boden replies:

 “You’ll hear: “Oh we can’t afford it, we can’t afford an entitlement.” But we’re allowing $120 billion a year in homeowner mortgage deductions. So we can afford it. We can make it equitable, we can make sure that we add housing as a right, and we choose not to do that.”

T streetDuring the 2012/2013 fiscal year Merced County will spend in the arena of $500,000 on managing and assisting its homeless population.  Funding is provided through a HUD grant of nearly $390,000 with an additional $90,000 contributed by both the City and County of Merced.

Here is a breakdown for distribution of HUD funding in Merced County:

Community Social Model Advocates, Rose Julia Riordan Tranquility House- $44,904

Atwater, CA

Merced County Office of Mental Health Project Home Start- $131,913

Merced County, CA

Merced County Office of Mental Health Turning Points Programs- $128,618

Merced County, CA

Merced County Community Action Agency- $82,709

Merced County, CA

Maintaining administrative oversight of HUD and local funding, ensuring HUD funding distribution guidelines are followed, setting goals, gathering data and measuring outcome is primarily the responsibility of Merced County Association of Government’s Continuum of Care.

Continuum of Care is:

“….a group of government agencies, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations that work to prevent and reduce homelessness.”

Source: MCAG web-site.                          Continuum of Care Homeless Resource Directory  pdf

A story recently appeared in the Merced Sun-Star, reporting that the future of Merced’s CoC may be in doubt.  The report indicates that the MCAG is looking for a non-profit to take over the duties of CoC, citing stricter regulations as an impediment to achieving the associations’ primary mission:

“………new federal regulations requiring increased oversight of grantees would “undermine” the associations’ primary mission of “building regional consensus in transportation, transit and regional waste.”

And how would this bode for Merced County?  Not well, according to quotes of MCAG board members, who indicated that eliminating the CoC without first having a replacement agency to take its place could possibly mean the end of HUD funding for Merced County homeless programs.

16th street campThe continued funding of homeless programs in Merced County may or may not matter to Lewis, whom I met while visiting the 16th Street homeless camp.  “Who are you?” I was asked as I walked into the camp on a windy Saturday afternoon.  Standing partially blocked behind the blue canvass of his temporary shelter, the tone of his voice was not rude or confrontational, but what I interpreted as being inquisitive.  “I live here, in Merced” I replied, trying to sound as though I had good reason to be wandering into what was, for all intents and purposes, Lewis’ front yard.  Perhaps the case of water I carried under my arm would not have set off an alarm, but the camera hanging from my shoulder obviously triggered suspicion of why I was there.  “I don’t want my picture taken” said Lewis.  “I’m not here to photograph anyone” I replied.  And I wasn’t, but I fully intended to capture a few images of the camp itself.

I asked where I should set down the case of water.  Lewis looked around the area near me and replied, “I don’t know, I guess right there”, motioning towards a fire pit by rocking his head back and leaning forward with his chin.  It was clear that engaging in a conversation with me was not something he intended to do. From near the creek bank a tall and slender man walked in our direction, wearing pants and boots but no shirt, his upper body and most of his face heavily tatooed.  He walked to within ten feet of where I was standing but never looked in my direction.  I noticed Lewis watching him, too, quietly, and within a few moments the man disappeared into the tall bamboo flanking the creek.

Along Bear Creek“So how many people are living out here?” I asked.  Lewis looked back in my direction but not directly at me, “I don’t know, maybe fifteen.”  I pressed on, “How long you been out here?”  Turning his gaze back towards the creek bank, Lewis replied, “About two months”, and with that he slipped back behind the blue canvass.  A few seconds later I overheard muffled conversation from Lewis’ shelter.  One of the voices was clearly that of a female.

Thinking that my luck was running out, or that I was just being rude, I began walking along the railroad tracks between the camp and 16th street, back to where I had parked perhaps only 30 minutes earlier.  The visit was much shorter than I had hoped it would be, but then I suppose I shouldn’t have expected much when considering I was an outsider.  And as I discussed earlier, this is their community, not mine, and just as our society may be cautious of these homeless strangers, they are in turn wary of us in their realm.  Whatever it was, I remember feeling like the enemy.  I remember wanting to help, but not knowing how to, or what to say.  Maybe it’s the order of things, and perhaps reflects the less noble disposition of human nature and our survival instinct.  Whatever it was, it didn’t feel good, or right.

Shelter Barracks
Shelter Barracks

A few nights earlier I was stirring spaghetti from atop a kitchen counter inside the ‘D’ Street homeless shelter. Though they didn’t need it, I was doing what I could to assist a group from Yosemite Church, of Merced. This is a terrific group of people; generous, good natured, caring, and happy to be doing what they consider God’s work. For the past 6 years they have been at the shelter on the second Wednesday of every month, carefully preparing a meal that would do any kitchen proud.  Tonight’s dinner was exceptional, spaghetti with hand-made seasoned meat-balls, sauce with a generous portion of Parmesan cheese, garlic bread, salad, ice cold soda, and the Yosemite Church ‘signature item’, ice cream.   These folks work the kitchen methodically and efficiently, then gather in the dining hall before the meal to offer a prayer of thanks. Throughout the evening I listened on as many of the diners shared their gratitude, frequently commenting on the quality of meals provided by these guys.

Shelter schedule
Shelter schedule

It was a good evening, with more than enough volunteers for the work at-hand. Nearby, resting against the back wall of the kitchen, was a dry-erase board with a monthly calender inked across its length, top to bottom. Each day of the calender was marked with names of the persons or group that will prepare the meal that evening. The majority of evenings are filled by volunteers, churches, couples, and community groups. For the evenings not filled by volunteers, the Merced County Community Action Agency provides coverage for preparing the meals.  It is not out of the ordinary for the shelter to feed as many as 60 people a night.  The MCCAA is responsible for running the shelter, in addition to a variety of other public assistance programs.  Those whom I met and run the shelter are terrific, passionate people, putting in long stretches of hours daily just to keep the doors open and people fed.  And the cycle repeats itself every night of the year.

Shelter dining hall
Shelter dining hall

With the meal prepared and volunteers serving trays of food, I walked from table to table greeting diners as I handed out napkins.  Most everyone replied with a “Thank you” and quietly resumed eating.  Several never looked up from their plates, and more than a few never made eye contact. Earlier, I handed out cold sodas to the diners as they walked from the serving line, observing their body language and frequency of engaging in verbal communication. Not a scientific analysis by any measure, yet by the end of the evening I would nevertheless walk away knowing more than when I had entered.  On a data sheet this may be a population group, a compilation of numbers that collectively generate a statistic, but interacting with them one-on-one, face-to-face, they are people.  And as I’m reminded whenever I return to the shelter, I don’t know that it’s possible to see these people as anything less than another human-being facing extreme challenges, for a variety of reasons, and living a reality few of us will ever understand, much less realize.

Shelter medical facility
Shelter medical facility

My first interaction with a volunteer was at the ‘D’ Street Shelter, talking with a gentleman named Larry.  Larry’s been helping the homeless in Merced for at least six years, and along with the Yosemite Church group appears ready to carry on the effort as long as it takes.  As a community we work and hope for a resolution, but the general consensus in my research is that the struggle to eliminate homelessness is nearing its 40th anniversary.  That seems not to matter to the Merced volunteers.  I sense that solutions are always welcome, yet having none readily available in no way diminishes the efforts by these people to assist in alleviating the symptoms of a much larger problem.

It was this same enthusiasm for doing whatever it takes that instilled in me the hope that perhaps solutions are forthcoming.  While at The Merced County Rescue Mission I learned of high-level discussions currently underway regarding the opening of a new homeless facility which will operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition to providing temporary shelter, it will facilitate medical treatment, health and mental care, life-skills education and job training. The idea is that putting everything under one roof will make it easier for the community to provide more effective homeless services.  And having the facility open 24 hours a day accomodates life-skills and jobs training on a scale currently not possible.  An additional upside is that having a larger facility open throughout the day gives the homeless somewhere to go, removing them from the streets and downtown area.  Operational costs will be funded through a variety of sources, but, with sustainability being key, will primarily come from businesses and individuals interested in removing the homeless from the streets and downtown area.

Helping Hand cards
Helping Hand cards

It was the idea that this population group, and more specifically the panhandlers, needed to be dealt with which lead to distribution of the “A Helping Hand” business-like cards. This is an effort intended to prevent the panhandling which has become so prevelant in Merced’s downtown area. The cards contain valuable information on where to find resources such as food and shelter. The idea is simple; when a panhandler asks for money they are handed a card instead of cash. If they truly need assistance then our community will provide for them.  If they are seeking money for other interests, then they will have to go somehwere other than Merced. Simple, compassionate, workable and brilliant. Again, good things are happening in our community. And with regard to citizens who remain cynical about a perceived lack of effort in addressing the homeless population in Merced, they clearly are not involved or informed. I say this not to be critical of anyone, but instead to encourage everyone to become involved at some level, and to be part of the solution.

It’s been a good experience, working with the homeless and community volunteers. Good enough that I’ll continue to volunteer, and work with the homeless to better understand their unique challenges and that of our community in effectively assisting them. I look upon this project as time well spent, and encourage those in the Merced community to become involved.  Trust that it is appreciated, and, like so many similar undertakings, you’ll gain more than you give. And it happens unexpectedly. Larry and I spoke at length that first evening, outlining challenges and identifying problems, concluding that for most we had no solution.  Resolving the homeless problem would have been monumental.  But we knew going into the conversation that by the end of the evening people would still be sleeping on the streets and in shelters. What I took away from that first evening was Larry’s closing statement, just before we began serving the meal, “I don’t know what the answer is, I just know that I should be doing something.”

And perhaps it is the resolve of this moment which will lead us to the final resolution. I don’t pretend to know.  But if so, then it is best that we keep moving forward.

~ Castaway

Veteran's Park homeless

                                                                                                                                                        

Thank You to everyone who assisted in this project.  Larry and his group from Yosemite Church, Renee of MCCAA at the ‘D’ St Shelter, and Dr. Metcalf, Phillip and staff at the Merced Rescue Mission.  Your generosity, time, input and willingness to share information and answer my endless questions made this project possible.  You’re awesome, and our community is so fortunate to call you one of us.  Thank you for what you do in the community every day.

Thank You to Building Healthy Communities of Merced, who provided financial assistance to expand this project beyond the scope of what I had originally envisioned. With this assistance, my goal was to create an accessible and useful source of information for the community, presented in a manner that is timely, current and relevent. Questions and comments are welcomed.

 Return to CastawayPlanet