Responsible parenting and leadership are a start. In between reaching for the sky (Toy Story rocks).

Screw the darkness. I prefer the lightness of Pop.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Underbelly of Us

"Arrows in her eyes
Fear where her heart should be
War in her mind
Shame in her cries..."

-Foo Fighters, Arrows

I saw her in my periphery. She must've come from the 7-11 on the corner of Mission St. and Swift. At first, she stayed a few steps behind me on the sidewalk. I had been walking from home to my business mailbox to check for mail, just enjoying the walk with my AirPods pumping the Foo Fighters into my ears.

Then I sensed her coming up on my left. She reached me, step for step, and looked at me as we walked. At first I wouldn't look at her, not exactly sure if she was just passing me. When she didn't, I turned to see her, a white women in her late 50's or early 60's, blonde-gray hair, some makeup, fairly clean clothes. She smoked a cigarette and through the smoke was saying something to me.

With my Kidpower tingling, and not sure if this was a safety problem or not, I paused my music, but kept walking.

"Hey," she said. "Can you call me a taxi or an Uber?"

Without hesitation, I said, "No."

She mumbled something under her smoky breath and trekked on ahead. I watched her go, but waited to play my music again. She could've been homeless, I wasn't sure, and/or she could've been mentally ill or an addict. Or, she could've been none of those things, just someone who need a ride somewhere and didn't have the means to get there. She didn't seem agitated, just mad that I didn't help her with a ride.

I empathized, and yet I didn't do anything. The war inside me of "staying safe" and "it's not my problem" and "I'm just going to check my mail" and "she seems fine" and "someone else will help her" swirled inside my head, so I started up my music again and kept walking.

On the way back home, I struggled with the guilt of not helping the woman. Only a little guilt, but guilt nonetheless. I thought about the work I do with the Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, and the fact that, if this woman was homeless, the chances of her being harassed or sexually assaulted or worse climb exponentially.

California's homeless population is about 25 percent of the nation's in total -- 130,000+ people on any given night. Because of the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing in California, nearly 70 percent of the state's homeless are unsheltered. Meaning, living on the streets, or in parks, or in motorhomes and campers in and around town, like in Santa Cruz where we live. At any given time, low-income families are one paycheck away from being homeless; any of us could be them. In fact, California comprises 12 percent of the nation’s population of homeless families with children. From 2016 to 2017, the state experienced one of the largest increases of homeless families in the nation, leaving 1,000 more families on the streets.

Some communities do a better job of cobbling together resources that result in more shelters, mental health services and addiction medical services. The City of Santa Cruz right now is doing its best to provide services to well over 150 homeless tent campers behind a shopping center right as you come into Santa Cruz. You can't miss it because it's a major intersection in and out of downtown Santa Cruz, when Highways 1 and 17 meet.

This unsanctioned homeless encampment had been tucked away from major traffic and out of view, near one of the main family homeless shelters in town. But just like it always goes, the homeless campers were told to vacate to other shelters, shelters that get full quickly, especially during a winter with record cold and rain in our area. Plus, some of the shelters don't allow anyone using drugs or alcohol. Then the unsheltered homeless are shuffled to another location, like the one behind the shopping center. And now, the over 150 homeless are to vacate and find shelter elsewhere by the middle of March. Forty-two percent of homeless families with children in Santa Cruz are unsheltered (as of 2017).

Which brings me back to safety. I can't imagine being homeless with children, whether a woman or a man, but especially a woman -- according to multiple studies examining the causes of homelessness, among mothers with children experiencing homelessness, more than 80% had previously experienced domestic violence. And 38 percent of all domestic violence victims become homeless at some point in their lives.

And yet, we have a family like many other families in Santa Cruz that we want to keep safe as well, and with 39 percent of Santa Cruz homeless having psychiatric and emotional health issues, 38 percent suffering from drug and alcohol abuse, and nearly 30 percent being incarcerated for a night in the past year (again, as of 2017 local stats). Many of us struggle with "not in my backyard" syndrome. Because they are literally in our neighborhood backyards.

Besides the local shelter and homeless service programs doing their best, there are other programs like Downtown Streets Team in Santa Cruz and other California communities helping homeless people get back to work and eventually into more stable housing (one of my good friends who's also on the commission with me helps run the Downtown Streets Team in Santa Cruz).

We can't just look the other way and hope it goes away, because it's only getting worse. And again, some of us might struggle with mental health issues, addiction issues and could become homeless at any given time after being laid off, with no means of mobility and having limited housing options. I can't imagine being a family on the street today, but too many don't have to imagine.

This eyesore is the underbelly of us, and it's all our responsibility as empathic local communities to help each other, whether that's volunteering or donating money. Whatever it takes to help augment the already strained resources of local nonprofits, churches and government.

I should've called her a taxi, because nobody else was going to do it.

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