Need Housing? Enter Purgatory.

At 7 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, I logged onto Facebook to find personal messages from five frantic teenagers all pleading for help.

“I have nowhere to go, have you heard back from Sacramento Steps Forward about housing?” one asked.

“Grace I’m desperate, please help me find somewhere to go TONIGHT!” wrote another.

As a direct service provider and advocate for homeless youth, I know these anxious requests are not atypical. What is uncommon is not having the answers to respond to these questions.

I still haven’t found the right way to tell a young person sleeping outside in the rain that I have no idea whether or when housing will come through. I still don’t know how to tell them that the people whom they are supposed to trust the most—case managers, advocates, program directors, executive directors, even myself—are just as lost as they are in this process.

Not too long ago, our city had a vision of streamlining people experiencing homelessness into one coordinated system. Instead of calling every program in town separately, a person could walk into one center, complete one intake evaluation and be immediately placed on every housing list for which they were eligible. This was and still is an indefectible dream, but our reality today looks nothing like this picture.

Today, Sacramento attempts to manage a centralized intake system through a process called “coordinated entry,” recommended for use by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It’s a widely used method across America, though HUD gives each community quite a bit of autonomy in deciding how it runs this system.

As a front-line observer, I can attest to the fact that Sacramento’s implementation, well-intentioned as it may be, is flat-out not working. Here are six reasons why:

1. Sacramento lacks the necessary resources.

Through the coordinated entry process, an individual experiencing homelessness must meet with a navigator from Sacramento Steps Forward, the county’s lead agency combating homelessness, to be assessed and entered onto a massive waitlist for housing called the “community queue.”

Almost every local housing program mandates that a person be referred through the community queue. But, as of now, there is no way to get onto it. There’s no hotline to call or office to walk into.

Even if a homeless person stumbles into a navigator by luck, the navigators are so strapped for resources that most have stopped adding any more persons to the list.

2. The wait is interminible.

For those lucky enough to get on the list, the result is often a one-way ticket to purgatory where they never seem to progress.

One of the most disturbing things about Sacramento’s coordinated entry system is its lack of transparency. Nobody outside of Steps Forward has access to the queue. This means that, as a provider, when someone asks me what their wait for housing looks like, I have no idea whether they are number 5 on the list or number 205.

Furthermore, your position isn’t based on how long you’ve been homeless, but the date of your most recent incident of homelessness.

This means that, if one has been homeless for three years, then crashes on a friend’s couch for a week, the clock starts all over again.

3. The system is too complicated.

As a result, local affordable housing slots are being given away to Bay Area residents.

Most affordable housing programs that use coordinated entry apply what’s called a “scattered site” housing model, meaning that assistance agencies will partner with local apartment complexes to reserve units for individuals in their programs.

Due to the slow-moving nature of our coordinated entry process, some local property managers report that they have begun accepting persons from San Francisco’s community queue because it’s faster and more efficient than Sacramento’s process.

4. The coordinated entry program is strangled by red tape.

Even agencies willing and able to accommodate a homeless person can be stymied in their efforts.

Let me give an example: For six weeks, I have been working with a young couple sleeping on the streets. The day we met, I had an open unit for them in our program. I requested a referral from the coordinated entry specialist and was told that the couple would be referred immediately. After three follow-up emails and a month of waiting, I was informed that they were not, in fact, going to be referred after all.

Now it is my job to tell them that the city moved the goal posts and, as a result, they will remain homeless for an indefinite period of time.

5. People are slipping through the cracks.

Unlike agencies that independently manage their own waitlists—that have relationships with people on the list and continue to stay in close contact—Steps Forward’s navigator position is not designed to be a case manager role.

Navigators and their contacts often do not see each other between the initial meeting and the time their names come up, which can be well over a year. We’re talking about people who are forced to live a transient lifestyle outdoors, with no permanent address and limited access to cellphones and email. This means that if your name does come up on the queue, navigators are left looking for a polar bear in a snowstorm.

6. Nobody will talk about it.

All of the above shortfalls could be mitigated if coordinated entry leads acknowledged the current system’s shortcomings and were actively engaged in working to create a better system.

Maybe somewhere, someone is sitting in a cubicle working on this system, but homeless advocates, providers and the homeless themselves are left out of the conversation.

One of my colleagues recently issued a “call to arms” with an email to providers and Steps Forward staff exclaiming, “Let’s harness our collective strength and tackle this list. … I am happy to coordinate a fierce and impactful effort.”

Providers and advocates responded with an enthusiastic willingness to do this, but Steps Forward never acknowledged this email in any way.

But there are some early signs that Steps Forward might be hearing this feedback. And that’s way better than the potential alternative of turning this process over to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency—starting yet another disorienting attempt to house exclusively chronically homeless individuals—which experts fear could result from the mayor’s plan to reprioritize housing vouchers.

Despite its shortfalls, coordinated entry is only a year old and can be fixed. If not, or if we start from scratch with SHRA, this game of pingpong that we call “coordinated entry” will continue to corrode our homeless population’s faith in the system and in those working with it.

As a service provider, it’s hard enough to gain trust from individuals with a lifetime of experience being let down. I grimace to think of how many more days are to come where I am tasked with admitting this uncertainty to an 18-year-old still desperately clinging to the hope that Sacramento has a safety net ready to catch her.

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Housing First Philosophy Vs. Practice

Sacramento prides itself on taking the compassionate “Housing First” approach to tackling our city’s ever increasing problem of homelessness. But I fear that the definition has shifted from a liberal thought form representing the belief that all individuals deserve no-barrier housing to code speak for a narrowly defined program that has the potential to ultimately perpetuate the cycle of homelessness.

Under this implementation of the Housing First model, prioritization for housing is determined by a survey that assigns each individual a score corresponding to his or her level of vulnerability. Those with the highest vulnerability scores are placed in Permanent Supportive Housing, long-term community-based housing that provides comprehensive support services. Those lacking enough factors to deem them highly vulnerable are moved into Rapid Re-Housing, a short-term assistance program that usually offers a few months of financial rent assistance and minimal support services.

This is a great plan in theory, but when we prioritize housing needs strictly by federally-defined criteria and a survey that aims to quantify vulnerability, we end up leaving our homeless youth out of the picture

Most homeless youth do not have lifelong disabling conditions. They are simply young, lacking support, and too often bear the trauma of childhood and adolescent abuse. They don’t fit the definition of chronic homelessness, but they need far more support than a few months of rent relief to achieve self-sufficiency.

I recently reconnected with a youth I worked with nearly two years ago back when she was homeless. Through the Housing First model—and here I mean the specific HUD implementation and not the root philosophy—she was deemed highly vulnerable and transitioned into Permanent Supportive Housing.

After a few months in her permanent supportive housing unit, she was evicted because her partner inflicted violence upon her, causing fear and uproar in housing community. She was evicted and is now back at square one, homeless and further traumatized. How can this be “Housing First” if there are no “Services Second”? A bi-weekly check in from a case manager and a few optional support groups are not going to heal a lifetime of trauma and myriad other struggles. But when our federal dollars are not going to service providers managing the housing, but rather private investors and landlords who need to protect their units at any cost, it’s no surprise that our youth get thrown back onto the streets after being promised “permanent” housing and support.

I don’t blame Sacramento for taking this approach—it’s where the HUD dollars are flowing—but I do challenge us to be the city that thinks more critically about the problem of homelessness. This youth that I just referenced will be painted as a success story when it comes to the “data” we are collecting—after all, she got into housing, right? Who cares what happens next?

Sacramento needs to be the city that doesn’t turn a blind eye to the gaping holes in this system.

We have a duty to ensure that our services include enough programs tailored to the unique and specific needs of our homeless youth population. We need programs that don’t pull the plug after six months, just when the real growth is beginning to take effect, and that don’t present a minimum-wage job and lifelong dependency on government assistance as the epitome of their dreams and ambitions.

Early and meaningful intervention is the key to sending youth the message that our community believes in them and is investing in them so that they don’t wind up so traumatized by the cycle of homelessness that they end up becoming our next generation of chronically homeless.

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What Does A Homeless Person Look Like?

To many of us, when we think of homelessness, we think of gray haired senior citizen pushing a shopping cart and talking to her ill fitting tattered scarf. Do some folks experiencing homelessness look like this? Sure. But do all? Do most? I argue that they don’t. I say that we see the homeless we allow ourselves to see, that society has conditioned ourselves to see, but don’t always open our eyes to the rest.

 

To me, a homeless person looks like a mother teaching her baby boy to crawl. A homeless person looks like a neighbor making sure the community garden doesn’t dry out. A seven-year old girl finding sailboats in the clouds. A second-semester college student balancing four classes, a newborn baby, and finding a place to sleep at night. The woman checking out at Foods-Co hoping you don’t notice her paying in food stamps. The chubby faced little boy playing pirate ship on the playground with your son. A father, showing up for his kid, like his father never did for him.

 

What does a homeless person look like? You and me. Look around you. Homelessness is not the crux of one’s identity. It is just one of the many musical notes making us the melody of life. A lack of housing presents many unfathamobale obsticles, but it does not, as Thoroue would say, “suck the marrow out of life”. The afternoon soda-pop, the twang of guitar strings, the warmth of puppy kisses, the crunch of autum leaves, or the first rainfall in an endless drought—it is these moments that momentarily thwart the inequality of life. It is these moments that define the joy of living. 

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The Job Description of A Social Worker-- Or Really Any Decent Human Being

In a world where it is better to have measles than to act with a little compassion, our job is not easy.

Our job is to make "hope" graspable. To liberate the thing with feathers from it’s esoteric and untouchable void. To bring it into this world in the form of a cup of coffee, an answered phone call, a picked open lock.

 

Our job is to never say "OK" to the shut door. Our job is to pick the rusty lock with our teeth if we have to. And when that doesn't work, our job is to rip the closed door from its holy hinges. Our job is to place all "realistic" options into a choke hold and beat low expectations to a bloody pulp until they transform between our very eyes into dreams. Our job is to represent relentless and ferocious unconditional love that will live within those we serve long after our time.

 

Sometimes we will appear in the form of rush hour traffic or jury duty as a reminder that evil in the world does exist. But we will also slip our way into the kindness of a stranger’s smile and the melty sherbet sunset you needed to see the night you lost everything.

 

We are the 50th chance. We are the porch light left on. We are the email list with no "unsubscribe" button. We are always and unapologetically here.

 

It is our job to shine the headlights of our beat up Hondas on all the ugly truths we find. Push ourselves to the edges of our morality. Knowing that reality is hardly black and white.

 

Sometimes the truth is mixed up in a laundry load with a lie. Sometimes love is disguised as a seemingly cruel act. Sometimes dignity looks more like dirty underwear strewn about the neighbors lawn than a chin held high. Sometimes professionalism sounds like volcanic sobbing and battle cries more than it looks like a tucked in shirt and a Linked In profile. Sometimes hope, real and unadulterated hope, feels like giving up on a world that we've clung to for so long.

 

If we look closely, we are sure to find ecstasy in ordinary life. Profound wisdom in a kitten batting a ball of worn red yarn. Untenable tragedy in a crumb too large for an ant to carry alone. Great courage in a lone dandelion seed braving the air currents independently for the first time. We may choose to see infinite winds of human emotion pouring out of our rusted teakettle. Or we may choose to simply see an anecdote to a sore throat. All seeing is a choice. But once opening our eyes to the irreverent and perplexing flakes of life, shutting them and returning to our hobbit holes of comfort and conformity will no longer be an option. Our prescription for acceptance will be expired. Our eyelids permanently held open by generations of thunderous fists that came before us. May we be forever brave enough to point our compass in the direction of compassion. May we be permanently loud enough to wake the village from its trance. May we be infinitely strong enough to not only look, but to see. 

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A Letter to City Council on the Problem of Evil

This morning as I was preparing for another long day of staring into an endless void of Sacramento’s housing waitlists willing them to winnow away into thin air, a local coffee shop patron asked me if I was going to the City Council meeting held later that evening, to which I of course answered yes. She asks me how I can have any faith in our council ever taking a stand for the oppressed when they are so mean and ignorant to the issues affecting our homeless community. I replied, almost defensively, that our city council member are not mean nor are they ignorant to the perils existing right outside these glass windows.

 

We’ve all heard of and likely wrestled with the problem of evil. How can we have a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent and still have evil exist in the world? I would never say that City Council, or any form of government for that matter, is akin to a deity. But in this particular case, the question fits. If council has the power to overturn cruel laws such as the anti-camping ordinance, they are good-hearted people, and they know of the evil it creates, how can this grave form of injustice still exist?

 

I belong to a school of though in which we, as a community, have a duty to believe the best in one another. So believing the best in each of my elected officials, while also accessing a logical understanding of the situation at hand, the answer is pretty simple. I believe, and this I told my fellow coffee shop patron, that our council has fallen victim to the ever enticing and even seductive void of indifference. Though we do not mean to, we train our minds to look away from human suffering, how else can we stand to see it? Poverty, oppression, homelessness sitting right outside of these white white walls are all such unwelcome interruptions to our every day lives. Indifference allows us to reduce the anguished to an abstraction. So we tell ourselves, we tell our children, and we tell our community that it is better to do nothing than to do anything at all.

 

Once a member of council gave me the advice of not being so angry, trying to play a little nicer. But I won’t apologize for disagreeing with indignity too loudly. I wont apologize for treating an unjust society with irreverence and distain. I am unapologetic in my anger. I am an angry, council member. You too, should be angry. We are facing a grave injustice in our own beloved city that cannot be solved by turning a blind eye and playing nice. Covering a gaping wound with a smiley face band-aid has never created change. But anger, my friends, has a long history of smothering injustice. While indifference has a long history of perpetuating suffering.

 

Eli Wiesel, a holocaust survivor said when asked about former President Rosevelt’s inaction said. “I don't understand. Roosevelt was a good man, with a heart. He understood those who needed help. Why did he let the suffering go on? What happened? Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of the victims?”

 

What a tragedy to have your legacy be the actions you never took, the cries you never answered, and the evil you ignored. Let that not be the legacy of Sacramento City leadership. Let us be remembered by the lives we honored rather than the lives we ignored.

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How to Actually Help the Homeless

Stop knitting scarves: Before anything else you do, before doling out one more can of non-perishable string beans to the soup kitchen, before donating one more scrappy cardigan that even Mother Theresa wouldn’t be caught dead in, before putting one more sympathetic smile in the proverbial collection plate—please, for the love of God, stop knitting scarves. And hats. And socks. And Mittens. And all other woven goods that you might find tucked deep within the pages of a Landsend catalog. “But what’s wrong with knitting scarves?” You might ask yourself. “They are warm and fuzzy and I can put little pom pom tassels on mine!” The problem does not lie in the scarf or even in the pom pom tassel, the problem lies in the why behind the scarf. Why are you knitting the scarf? To help the homeless of course is the bumper sticker answer behind your yarn infused frenzy. But the real reason, the reason lying behind the bumper sticker, deep within the car, inside the overstuffed glove box, sandwiched between your over due library book and last month’s parking ticket, is you. As much as you want to believe the scarves, mittens, hats, and all knitting paraphernalia of the like is a selfless act filling a much needed void, it’s actually about you and your own inner craving to feel warm and good inside. This is not necessarily a bad thing, that hunger is innately human and by all means feed it, but we must think more critically about how and what we are using to fill in that void.

 

Open your eyes to the truth: There is a false narrative that has been floating around the United States for decades. A narrative created to ease our conscious and make charity more graspable and bite sized for even the laziest of couch-philanthropists. That narrative is telling us that homelessness is caused by a lack of food, clothes and blankets. Politicians, preachers, every guest at your grandmother’s dinner party loves to spin this narrative, because it makes for an easy solution—just knit some shit and donate the expired soup cans that have been sitting in the back of your cupboard since you moved in. As a full time homeless advocate, I only wish that solving centuries of systemic oppression, racism, and the marginalization of minority communities could be done with a heap of yarn and a can of corn, but alas the issue goes so much deeper than this. To perpetuate this narrative is to further instill the belief that no real change needs to be done.

 

Do your homework and ask questions: Eradicating the crisis of homelessness, and it is in fact an urgent crisis, takes critical thinking and a much deeper look into the issue. It takes talking to local homeless service providers and asking what is most needed. It takes self-education and coming to an understanding of the cycle of poverty that continues to cause and perpetuate homelessness. But mostly, it takes an authentic look inside yourself and ultimately making the decision that “charity” is not always glamorous. Sometimes it’s a humble monetary donation to an agency that has extensive experience in knowing exactly where to invest every dollar given. Sometimes it’s a few hours volunteering to organize the facility or woman the donations table at a fundraiser. It all starts with asking the question, “how can I best serve the community in need?” instead of “I need to serve myself by deciding a convenient way to save the community.”

 

Use Your Resources: Agencies and organizations serving the homeless community can spend insurmountable chunks of their budget each year on vehicle breakdowns, electric shortages, construction projects, and just about every odd job in the books. If you’re a mechanic, donate a few hours of car maintenance. If you’re a lawyer, offer to consult a family in need for free. If you’re a musician, offer to donate old instruments and throw in a few music lessons. Not only will it fill much needed voids, but using your own passions and gifts will improve your overall experience and bring a greater sense of satisfaction and self worth.

 

Invest in One: Perhaps the most powerful form of service, if you really must call it that, is investing your time, energy, and resources wholly and completely in one individual. You alone cannot end homelessness for our entire nation, but you can truly end homelessness for one person. This takes hard work and relentless dedication. It takes hiring the kid with no job skills at your company and investing in his training so you can ultimately hire him on. It takes becoming a Host Home for a someone in need of immediate respite and support. It takes unconditional commitment so when the kid is late for work every other day, you don’t give up on him. When someone steals $5 from your wallet, you don’t give up on her. You answer the phone at 3AM. You show up for the hard conversations and the hard moments. You relentlessly advocate even when your own friends tell you to quiet down. You show up day after day after day with unwavering love and ferocious hope. 

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An Open Letter to City Council On Why We’re Still Here

I can’t imagine what you must think of us. After months of protests, sit ins, arrests, speeches, and presentations made by every agency in town all culminating in a Porto-potty and heavy sense of defeat, we are still here.  We are still speaking out. We are still asking you to reconsider the criminalization of our homeless brothers and sisters.

 

You may think that we are just rebels who sleep under bypasses and don’t shave our legs to stick it to the neoliberal, hegemonic, patriarchy, and though you may be right in that assumption, this is not why we are here. We show up here, wave our signs in the window as you close the curtain, scream at the top of our lungs against injustice, and surely give you something entertaining to talk about at dinner parties because we love this City. Sacramento—home of Molly Ringwald and Tom Hanks. Sacramento birthplace of the Pony Express and the very first tracks of the transcontinental railroad. Sacramento—city of trees and home of the world’s largest almond processing plant. Sacramento is a remarkable city.

 

I am a native Washingtonian who grew up in the outskirts of DC where even the anarchists are politicians. Two years ago I made a transient move to Sacramento, but I stayed because I love this city. And I believe in this city. And when you believe in something as tenaciously as I believe that Sacramento can and will be the city that overcomes homelessness, you fight for it. And I will continue to unabatedly fight for our community to unite and break the toxic choke chains of human instrumentality and the militarization of our society. Sacramento is bursting at the seams with emancipatory potential. This is not out of reach.

 

When I call my friends back home in DC, they tell me that I’m wasting my time in Sacramento. The homeless will always be arrested and treated with indignity. The activists will always be at heads with city officials. The people will never have a victory. And though, these are typical cynical remarks of a Washingtonian that I too may have shared at one point. Sacramento is my home now. This is the city I choose to invest in. And as a Sacramenten I believe in never accepting the status quo as good enough. I can’t imagine what you must think of us. But we think of you as holding the wellbeing of our precious community, our family, our comrades in your hands. Please don’t take that responsibility lightly.

 

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How to Move from NIMBY to YIMBY: An Open Letter to Anyone Willing to Take A Step Forward in the Direction of a Better World

 In the wake of even the most horrific tragedies in human history, we can find evidence of a palpable silver lining. That silver lining is a brief period where the ever-increasing disease of apathy is replaced by a fervent compassion for those suffering and a deep yearning to add some good to the world. Just when we think that all people are permanently hardened, we see the human race snap out of its complacency and become galvanized into action when disaster strikes. Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haitian Earthquake, 9/11, in the weeks following these infamous crisis, everywhere you look you see resilient communities taking in strangers, individual-based programs popping out of nowhere, churches opening their doors for food and shelter, and grass roots efforts to raise awareness around the larger systemic issues that are further magnified in these concentrated moments of fear and anguish. All we need to do is study the 72 hours after any tragedy to see that Americans have displayed and continue to display signs of self-reliance and innovation at every corner. So if we have hard evidence that this ingenuity and compassion for human suffering can be harnessed, we must ask ourselves, why is our country still plagued with the century long societal crisis of homelessness?

 

I’m sure that all sorts of immediate excuses come to mind. Maybe it’s a form of empathy fatigue, or the result of watching decades of tax dollars and failed initiatives funneled into the effort to end homelessness only to watch the number of individuals experiencing homelessness seem to rise each year. Maybe we’re all playing hot potato with who’s really at fault, each finding it easier to point a finger than to lift a finger in the direction of progress. Or most dangerously of all, perhaps we’re finding ourselves facing a universal attitude of defeat. As any good mathematician will tell you, some problems have no solution, and a wise man will at some point come to realize this and move on with the rest of life.

 

As for me, I’ve always blamed the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) culture that says “ending homelessness is great…until it effects my life” that keeps us from ever catching glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. But after working in homeless services, occupying stretches of City Hall, battling over oppressive legislature, and reading every book on societal problems I can get my hands on, I’ve come to take a different view. I have spent far too much of my advocacy energy trying to persuade the powerful policy makers in charge that their oppressive legislature and complex housing plans are not, in actuality, working. But where I haven’t focused enough energy, is on the other type of NIMBY, the one where that “NO” becomes a “NUETRAL”. It is this “Neutral in my Backyard” group, the ones who don’t see homelessness as their problem, who are the ones most responsible for our lack of progress in this movement. We have a global crisis and a grave injustice staring us in the face and we need all hands on deck if we want a shot at creating change. Policymaking meetings are always filled to the brim with activists on both sides of this divisive issue, service providers, individuals experiencing homelessness, and all the other stakeholders on this issue. That is all good and necessary and important, but homelessness does not just affect the homeless community. We need the teachers from local elementary schools to march their housed students to city council. We need the entire community of baristas at Starbucks to refuse to pour another latte until every person sitting on their stoop is housed. We need the high school football team organize a sit in on the half yard line to get the medias attention. We need every business to invest in hiring one homeless youth and stick through the hard moments. We need every empty-nest set of parents to make their house into a host home. We need doctors, lawyers, baseball players, artists, taxi drivers, electricians, college professors, you! We need YOU to stand up and say nothing other than, “I refuse to accept the reality that I am housed when my neighbor cannot be”. “No” is not good enough. “Neutral” is not good enough. The answer has to be a holy YES!

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