“The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between.
Forever dwells in that moment,
Hope is what remains to be seen…”
—Rush, The Garden
homeless encampment outside city hall was bigger than ever and it had nearly blocked the entrance to the conference room where we met.
It was our planning retreat for the prevention of violence against women city commission. At one point an especially loud but indecipherable argument outside the door silenced us. One of our city advisors broke our silence.
"It's sad and ironic that only this wall separates us from where we could be. Many of us today are still only a paycheck away from being out there; we could be them."
I nodded and said, "I know. We're still crawling out of our last economic crater from what seems like a lifetime ago. But it was only a few years ago."
The painful memory of that distress welled in my throat like bile. What I didn't share is that we almost walked away from our home and our community back then. While I wasn't one of millions laid off from their jobs during the great recession -- one poor business decision by me, followed by a severely compromised income, and with two very young daughters in tow, we had to make some very difficult decisions.
Over 9 million people lost their homes in the U.S. during the great recession. In the development of 15 homes where we bought in 2006 near the height of the housing bubble, one-third either went through a short sale or foreclosed. At the time we could afford it until we nearly couldn't, and so we weighed our options on what to do next: either stick it out and work on keeping the house, or walk away and move to the midwest to be close to extended family. We didn't qualify for any of the public assistance plans at the time and our mortgage lender would not work with us at all. Even our accountant recommended we walk from the house, to get out and start over. Many economists echoed that sentiment for those of us underwater at the time.
But in the end, we never missed a mortgage payment, and we were never late with a payment. The unrelenting stress at the time of keeping a roof over my family's head motivated me to hustle, hustle and hustle some more. Both my wife and I hustled. Apocalyptic visions of living on the street were enough to keep us inspired to stay off it.
Of course homelessness is much more complex than that and a recent Santa Cruz City Council subcommittee analysis highlights just how complex it gets on a local level. And although homelessness is down today overall where we live, we're still living in a community with 60 percent of the homeless population living unsheltered within the city limits. Also, over half have been homeless for a year or more and also suffer from one or more disabling conditions like substance abuse, psychiatric conditions, physical disabilities and more. Sadly one in three have been in jail within the past year as well. Then there's the harsh reality for too many homeless is that there is a potential violence and sexual abuse that comes from living on the street.
The noise quieted a bit outside and we continued with our commission meeting. Afterwards we went went home and went on with our lives. The city of Santa Cruz has since converted the public spaces around City Hall from an open-access “park” to more restrictive office grounds, citing a purported escalation of homeless use and aggression. Which has certainly been the case. But everyday we witness the plight of what any of us could become at any time. We empathize and count on the fact that assistance from local organizations and countless volunteers, family and friends can and will help, along with sound public policy empowering safety nets from all levels of government that includes a continuous investment in public safety.
And the argument that dismantling most business and financial regulations today will free up the economy to keep us all employed, our savings intact and safe from being decimated by the greed of a few, and ultimately to keep us all off the streets, is simply ludicrous and ignorant.
Again, it's really complex and I don't know what the answers are. I only know that ignoring it, chastising it or criminalizing it won't solve the long-term homeless problem.
Because we could be them. And then what?