Saturday, August 05, 2006

Stood-up by the mayor.

But he had a date with Bill Clinton so I guess it is ok.

One afternoon last week, Sam and I went into the city to meet Cam and attend the San Francisco Connect Launch Party. Because of the volunteering I did with Hands-On Bay Area at the Edible Schoolyard, I was invited and encouraged to bring friends.

You may remember me mentioning SF Connect before. It is an initiative our mayor, Gavin Newsom, started as Project Homeless Connect back in 2004. Last week, they had a party to announce the Launch of San Francisco Connect. This initiative will continue to address homelessness but will now also include three other initiatives, Project Green Connect, Project Youth Connect and Project Tech Connect.

The event was near Mission and Market Streets (basically downtown). We found affordable parking a couple of blocks from the event. As we were pulling into the lot, I slowed down thinking the person sitting near the entrance of the parking lot was the person I was supposed to pay to park there. From the vacant look he gave me, I figured out he was not an employee but a homeless person using the shade on this side street to rest. I guess that was an appropriate illustration of one of the reason we were there.

I paid the parking lot attendant and Sam and I headed out. I have to admit that upon leaving the lot, I crossed the street with Sam to give the homeless guy a wide berth. (I am not yet trained or equipped to be able to help him.) From our side of the street, Sam noticed another homeless guy who was sleeping on the ground near where our friend had been sitting. He asked me why the man was sleeping on the ground. I said that maybe he didn't have a bedroom. In the meantime, it looked like the first guy was urinating on a nearby tree. Lovely.

I don't know if I would have gone to a party for Project Homeless Connect. Generally, Homeless people make me uncomfortable. I remember being bothered by them as a child when my family would vacation. Once, when I was about 12, we were in Washington D.C walking down the sidewalk, minding our own business. My brother, who was about 9, was wearing a shirt that said, "Yes." I don't know why his shirt said, "yes" but it did. What makes this memorable is that John's shirt caught the eye of a homeless person who decided to yell, "No" at my little brother several times while we passed.

When I was 16 or 17, my dad had a conference in Puerto Rico. Our family decided to turn it into a vacation and tag along. While I loved snorkeling and being in a new area, I remember being bothered by the poverty I witnessed there.

The first time I faced homelessness on a daily basis was when Sam and I moved to St. Louis. Our first day there, some guy in the park next to Sam's daycare got $5 from me, "for gas." He had a good story about how he had been stranded and didn't have a way to get home.

Our apartment in St. Louis was in the Shaw neighborhood, within walking distance of the 40 acre Missouri Botanical Garden. The neighborhood had once been very nice, and then had once been very run-down. When we lived there, they were trying to revitalize the area. We met wonderful people there. We held Sam's fourth birthday party in historic Tower Grove Park. Our street, Russell Blvd., was one block from the really nice street, Flora Place.

But across the street from our apartment were some really sketchy apartments. Once, we heard a gunshot and found out later from the police that a guy there had accidentally shot himself while sitting on the porch. "What else could he have accidentally shot?" I wondered.

Normally, we just parked our car on our side of the street, walked up our steps, locked our door and didn't pay the low-income housing much mind. Occasionally, however, I was approached by someone looking for a hand-out or help. One woman had such a good story that I actually drove her to an ATM and pulled out $40 which she promised to pay back. Of course, I never saw the woman or that money again.

At some point, I realized I was broke and that the money I was giving these people was money I was taking away from my son. I decided I had to stop and from that point on, nearly never gave money to anyone on the street. I gave to the United Way through payroll deduction when that was offered and tried to assure myself that there were resources available to help people in need. After less than a year in St. Louis, Sam and I moved back to the Des Moines area. There are homeless people in Des Moines but they are not as noticeable as they are in the big cities.

When we moved to Chicago, Sam was six, old enough to notice, ask about and want to help people there who appear to be in trouble, needing and asking for help. I tried to explain to him that we couldn't help them by giving them money but just ignoring them and turning our back on them seemed pretty hollow to both of us.

Part of why I started volunteering at the National Runaway Switchboard, whose mission is "keeping at-risk youth safe and off the streets," was to learn more about the resources available to all people on the streets. I did learn and interact directly with people who needed help and was thrilled to actually be able to help them. I learned there are shelters where people can go if they are in a desperate situation (sometimes).

While Cam wasn't volunteering personally, his support and willingness to spend time with Sam so I could spend time answering phones at 1-800-RUNAWAY, made it possible for me to help others. Often, after a shift, I would tell them about the people I was able to help that week. We all felt good about it.

I've been looking for something similar to do here. Project Homeless Connect provides a direct service opportunity to help people who are on the streets. Cam, Sam and I went to the Launch Party to learn more about it. Honestly, we were a bit disappointed in the party. I guess for a party it was ok, there was wine, veggies, crackers, fruit, pasta salad, music, mingling, etc.

We had just gotten situated with our snacks. Sam was dancing. Then we were ambushed by a really off-putting, aggressive, Chicago-bashing, volunteer. We made small talk for a bit, explaning that while we were happy to be here, we really liked Chicago an awful lot, etc. When we were able to ditch him, things were better but we didn't really mingle much more. Shortly, the music started.

Unfortunately, it was way too loud. Many people in-line with the speakers were covering their ears. One older couple appeared to be physically in pain from the volume of the people singing, "Ain't My God Good?" The Runaway Switchboard is non-sectarian and I liked that. It was a bit weird to have a religious organization associated with a government-sponsored initiative but I guess the church whose choir we were listening to is an instrumental part of SF Connect. Still learning.

After the Glide Gospel Chior finished singing, the speakers started presenting. The first guy, I can't find his name, was pretty good. He seemed genuine and shared things from his personal life that illustrated why he was personally motivated to be involved with SF Connect. Next was the pastor of that church who was ok but not great.

We were waiting in anticipation of the mayor. The pastor from the Glide church gave a big introduction then explained that the mayor wasn't able to be there today. Apparently, Bill Clinton had called and asked him to attend a summit on global warming in LA. There was a short video address from the mayor. It was pretty anti-climatic. One more guy spoke but none of them were really inspiring.

They didn't talk much about the work or the people we were working to help. There wasn't anywhere to actually sign-up for or talk to people involved with a particular project. They did tell us to go to their website; it was launched that day too. Today, I went to the website and signed up to help with a Project Homeless Connect event next Thursday, August 10th, my dad's birthday. I signed up to help with Check-in.

I think in this role, I will be talking with homeless people, who come to the event, to asses their needs. During my volunteering for the Runaway Switchboard, I learned that because I genuinely care, am non-threatening, try to be non-judgmental and supportive, I was best at doing this part. Of course, those were usually teens and they were on the phone. This will be different. I hope I will be able to help someone. If so, it will be worth it. Wish me luck.


Carma said...

Well, if the mayor had a signed note...or a really good excuse. LOL

When we were with the church before the one we go to at this time, we worked with the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Most homeless shelters split up men from women, though woman can have their boy children with them up until the child is like 15 or 16. The tragic part is that many homeless are working poor families. So basically the family is forced to split up. Gives a good example of how it works.
Brian and I helped at the one that is set up here in Des Moines. It was so sad to see these people really trying to raise their family and just having something(lost of a job, medical bills, car expenses) knocked them off course. They worked hard at getting back into the swing of things.
I do know that people have been kicked out of the program for breaking rules like using drugs or not trying to find housing. I think here the IHN has the program set up for a 12-week cycle.

Be glad you aren't trying to help the homeless in Las Vegas.
People are just mean some days.

marymaddux6272 said...

Yeah. It is a sticky situation. I've never heard of a city making it a crime to give food to a homeless person like they are doing in Las Vegas. Thanks for the interesting info.

Although, I think in Chicago they recently made panhandling illegal. Which I thought was a bummer for people who need help but might be a bit of a relief from people who can be really aggressive and belligerent.

If those things actually encourage people to get help through the proper channels and help is available then maybe. I sure don't have the answer.

Cool that you and Brian were involved with IHN in Des Moines. Sounds like they are doing great things.