Learning about the homeless, August 2, 2010

For people reading this blog entry that have not read my previous entries on the homeless, I encourage you to read Homeless Project Background. It will give you some background on my project. Briefly, I have made a commitment to give $20 each week to a homeless person and minimally ask their name and where they are from.

I have been meaning to summarize my thoughts on the homeless project since Dec 31st. After the year ended, it was strange for me not to have a $20 in my pocket at all times just in case I came upon a homeless person who I think would be interesting to talk to. I am saddened by the plight of the homeless. My views of the homeless have changed from a year ago and they also changed during the year long project. My conclusions follow.

I ended the year with $540 I did not give away. My goal was to give away $20 per week if an only if I could have a conversation with the recipient. So over the course of the year, I had twenty five conversations with the homeless. The homeless I spoke to had the following profile. They all live in La Jolla, California, an affluent area in San Diego County. They are the chronic homeless, men and women, and fifty years old or more. They are generally alcoholics. Some are mentally unstable, but stable enough that I did not feel threatened. They are nice, polite and gracious. They are filthy, weathered and wear pitiful clothes. They smell like alcohol at times. At other times, they smell nauseating.

And of course, they are real people. They are our brothers and sisters, our nephews and nieces. They are our moms and dads, our aunts and uncles. They are our children. They are our neighbors. They laugh. They cry. They bleed. They die. They are you and me.

Over the year as people have followed this project, some have told me that the homeless don’t deserve compassion or help. They tell me that the homeless are lazy. They are drunks and drug addicts. They tell me that to help a lazy drunk drug addict only perpetuates that lifestyle. I can certainly understand that point of view. Clearly there are many homeless who are alcoholics and drug addicts and some forms of help do perpetuate their lifestyle. However, what I found in my year long project is that these chronic homeless, these substance abusers are real people with life stories. So to not help them in inhumane. Please note here that there are many categories of homeless and I am dealing with just one category, the chronic homeless and substance abuser. An often misunderstood category are the homeless who just can’t afford rent for a few months and are evicted. These are often families.

Back to the chronic, substance abuse category, where we are faced with a dilemma. Help them and potentially perpetuate their behavior or don’t help them and loose a bit of our humanity.

How do we show our humanity and help them? I believe the best way is to support homeless is to support the charities that serve them. The homeless need professional help. They need medical attention, substance abuse counseling, job training, food, shelter, legal help and countless other services. If you are in San Diego, I would suggest you donate money to Community Resource Center or Corporation for Supportive Housing. San Diego Social Venture Partners (SDSVP) has vetted and supported both these non-profits. SDSVP considers them top notch organizations that help the homeless. Since I am Chairman of the Board of SDSVP, I decided to give my extra $540 to SDSVP. I like leveraging my charity donations and SDSVP has leveraged my gift for help for the homeless.

I would suggest two other things we can do for the homeless. If you feel safe, say hello to a homeless person. Again, if you feel safe, engage in a conversation. Ask them where they were born. Ask them what their favorite food is. Ask them about their family or where they went to high school. Help them feel like a human being. Be their friend just for the moment. That does not perpetuate an addictive behavior. That perpetuates love and kindness.

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5 Responses to Learning about the homeless, August 2, 2010

  1. Mike Stevens says:

    Mark, Just finished reading your blog on the homeless. It brought up a lot of past memories and experiences. As you know I owned a business in that Von’s (formally Safeway) shopping center for 23 years. I had more then my share of dealings with the homeless. For myself and other merchants in the area it started in the late 80’s or early 90’s with a particularly violent homeless man named Willy that was a downright drunk, violent asshole. No other way to put it. The fact that he was homeless didn’t matter. He was unapproachable, had obviously been mistreated to a point he hated people and did not care. The last straw for him was one day he was walking out of Safeway with some beer and a pregnant checker said, “Hey you have to pay for those” He pushed her down to the ground. The word was he went to jail for awhile on that one and was never seen again.

    We often got to talk to many of the homeless. The comedy stores back door was across from our back door. After Friday and Saturday nights the homeless would dumpster dive to get the bottles out to recycle, often working in teams of two. When they got enough bottles, they would take the money, get booze and go back to the alley and get ripped. It was harmless, they were recycling and we left them alone. But there were also problems associated with this. Often fights would break out on who get’s the bottles. Also we did not want our alley to start smelling like a sewer. It was not enjoyable to show up for work on Monday morning and see a big pile of human shit sitting by your back door. The natural reaction is to say, you have overstayed your welcome and you kick them out.

    This also happened in the front of the businesses. The health store at the end of the strip was covered an somewhat protected from the elements so it was a good place to sleep. The homeless would bring their cardboard and food and camp out. The problem is they would not pick anything up, the cement would start getting grease spots on it from fried chicken and such and then it would all start to smell. When you begin your day cleaning up after others it does not make for a good start. I knew many of them by name. I would always call them by name and tell them they could not sleep here because they did not clean up after them selves. Usually it was verbal abuse I got back.

    I always tried to show them respect but I also felt I had to create a safe environment for my customers because they are the ones who paid me and allowed me to support my family. We had a couple different homeless men come into my store to do copies. The smell drove most of our customers away but I gave them the opportunity to conduct their business. When it got to the point that I could no longer breath in my own business, I would tell them that they are welcome to come in and make copies but that they would have to shower or do something because others could not tolerate their strong order in a small space. I wanted to allow them the same service of any other customer but it is hard when your eyes are watering and you have a shirt over your mouth to breath. Of course I did not do this when talking to them. Of course all I got in response was verbal abuse which got them banned from the store.

    I talked about the homeless to my rotary club one day and said, much like you have, to not just give them money because it goes to drugs and alcohol. One member was going into Von’s one day and an homeless man was out front with a sign asking for money for food. When they got in the store her teenage daughter said “mom, how could you not give him money” She has listened to me and said let’s buy him a sandwich. One the way out they handed it to the homeless person who shouted back, I don’t want this sandwich, I want money.

  2. Mark, what a wonderful project you had. And, I applaud Mike for trying to be helpful. Clearly, people being on the street is not good for anyone and certainly not good for business.

    I’m learning a great deal about homelessness by working on Common Ground. It is an initiative to house 100,000 chronically homeless people throughout the U.S. They successfully placed every homeless person in Times Square in a home, but one. That one refused to go.

    Using social workers to prod them to take their medicine, these previously homeless people continue to pay their rent (usually 30% of social security or veterans benefits) and remain good neighbors; so they are not kicked out of their apartments. Is this perpetuating a bad lifestyle? Maybe, but if they are getting benefits that, under the law, they qualify for; and they are not bothering me, taking up space in the emergency room or prison, and not bothering small businesses, I’m all for it.

    I’m hopeful that the Common Ground initiative in downtown San Diego will be successful and house 100 people or more. Then, we can replicate it throughout the county. Check out http://www.sdcleanandsafe.org/node/38 for more info.

  3. Mark says:

    Mike – Your story illustrates a tough problem. Businesses can only do so much and can only be so tolerant.

    Karen – Your project looks fantastic!

  4. Mark,

    I just have a brief story dealing with one of my experiences with the homeless. A year ago I went out on Christmas Eve with a group who makes up meals to give to the homeless. We put together meals in styrofoam clamshells and went out walking the streets of downtown San Diego just north of Horton Plaza. I must admit that I am not really a downtown dweller and only really go down there for a game at Petco or perhaps something at the convention center. One of the first things that I discovered was that as soon as you walk around a little bit down there, you’ll notice that there are a lot of people living on the streets. There are far more than I ever realized while driving my car to a game at Petco. Some have been on the streets for a long time and some are newly homeless. The newly homeless look just like you and me. Some are individuals and others are entire families. I found the plight of the families to be most gut wrenching. When I first started handing out meals, my first impressions were that it would be all about having a nice hot meal on Christmas eve. For some of the homeless people that I ran into, I think that this might have been the case. What I did not expect was that for most of the people that I ran into, it was more about another person stopping to say hello and talking to them as a fellow human being. I think for alot of them, they are invisible. People walk by and pretend not to see them. It seemed to me that for 75-80% of them, it was more about someone taking he time to stop and ask how they were doing and treating them like a fellow human being. One of the things that sticks with me, was the conversation I had with three homeless guys. We chatted about the Chargers. It was no different than a conversation that I might have with a friend or a colleague at work. I could tell that something as simple as that really meant a lot to them. After our brief “Charger talk”, I could see tears welling up in each of their eyes. I think its easy to forget that the homeless are people. I don’t deny that some may have serious problems and perhaps real issues with drugs, alcohol, and mental illness, but even with all of that we shouldn’t forget that they are also people.

    • Mark says:

      So very true Raland. I heart goes out to all the homeless including the recent and the chronic. I still see my friend Ron from time to time. I it hard for me to deal with the fact that he will most likely die on the streets.

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