In the communities I move in and around through, there is diversity in the opinion and attitudes toward the increasing homeless situation. San Diego is increasingly defined by the haves and the have-nots. This discussion would take more pages and experience than you or I have. Many of us want to help yet feel powerless. I was interested in the community of homeless advocates, how they mobilize, communicate and congregate around the issues that they are trying to highlight and address.
A friend of mine spent his high school years sleeping on a pile of clean clothes in his father’s car while his his father slept on the dirty clothes. He is now a homeless advocate who was really trying to effect change. His ideas came from a place of knowing.
“I went to the pavement after I was busted and my car was impounded, I had no idea how to do it,” he said. “I thought I had found a place to curl up unseen at night. It was someone else’s space. I just got there earlier. He quickly looked me over and said, need a blanket? [He] tossed me a blanket. Then proceeded to shoot some meth. One thing surprised me. The other shocked me. But no one else offered to help me. It taught me to not be so judgmental. He showed me some of the ropes in that neighborhood. So, I was able to survive better than I could have without. I began to realize that certain behaviors on the street are all about surviving.”
While these experiences have been imprinted on his life (he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder), it has also given himself a drive and focus on helping others living on the street and those who are interested in helping. That’s not everyone. Many in this struggle, while well-meaning, have no real understanding.
“We are failing as the system and not [as] homeless San Diegans,” he said. He explained that we have to be realistic and understand who we are talking with. Where did they come from? One remedy cannot fit every circumstance.
He continued, “And so now another message I carry is that the city, the county, service providers, and others think that placement is the be all to end all. No, it is not! We are now seeing a system that churns people into and out of placements and hopes that no one notices. If persons are not placed in permanent housing successfully, then we need to start holding the system responsible for its failings. The program in New York that Housing First is based upon placed its hardest to house consumers [not clients]. Almost 250 individuals [were placed] in housing [scattered site, even] in 1995. In 2015, every single one was still successfully housed in those same units!”
In my attempt to steer the conversation in the direction of community, which is what this article deals with but to also understand the issue more, I asked about homeless communities. My interview continues with someone who identifies as formerly homeless, and who represents homeless and formerly homeless San Diegans.
“I never use ‘homeless’ as a noun. I use it as an adjective,” he said.
Make note: Homeless San Diegans are not things. They are San Diegans who are in a current circumstance.
He continued talking about the homeless populations.
“So, there are very real homeless communities [plural]. Because our homelessness defines how we interact,” he said. “There are communities based upon where and how we sleep, eat, etc. They can be based upon our geographical locations or how we have met each other. And they constantly shift … in my experience. One form of community has been on the internet. And so I am connected to homeless Americans in Seattle, in California cities, and elsewhere. A good example of all that I have said are RV dwellers. I have slept in my car, in the pavement, in shelters, and couch surfed and hotel hopped. But I have never used an oversized vehicle or RV. But by being the only one talking with RV dwellers, I knew that the safe parking site at SDCCU stadium would be a failure for them. And it has been a failure because it fails to meet their needs because no one sought them and their input out.”
Where there was an intention to address the needs of and the opportunity for success with RV dwellers, the project at the stadium failed. Attorney Ann Menasche, with Disability Rights California, said, “They didn’t do their homework. As far as I can tell, they didn’t talk to RV people. Community requires communication!”
With that understanding and illumination, I asked about homeless advocates and how they meet, communicate, and coalesce around an issue. There is a San Diego task force on this issue with 31 seats and only three are held by advocates who once slept on the streets.
Earlier it was just one amongst 31 who said, “That decision to include one ‘token’ was based on supposed consideration. It is way out of line with the true Housing First best practice of inclusion. More realistic inclusion would be 10 or 11 seats at least in my opinion. But all of the seat holders don’t want to give up their seats, of course. There is a sense of being important and expert by virtue of their seats even if they contribute little in the way of discussion or otherwise.”
There is also a breakfast put on by a local charity that operates out of a church, meeting the needs of homeless people on their terms. Aside from providing two meals a week to about 100, they also help by providing other services and remain committed to making a difference. These meals give people a chance to interact.
“Going back to communities, shelters foster a very fluid sense of community. Fluid because people enter and leave them for various reasons,” he said.
Perhaps people who are homeless have the best way forward to a more stable life. They’ve lived it and are doing for themselves. The best way we can help is to support them.
“I know of a homeless man and his girlfriend who feed over 70-80 others a nutritious meal every week,” he said. “It meets health code standards. And as a street preacher, he gave an invocation before a meal that made me literally cry. Only one other prayer has done that for me in my entire life.”
During this interview I was moved to tears and understanding. I felt shook to my core. “It always comes back to community. No man is an island.” I haven’t identified our homeless advocate’s name until now as I wanted to really lay out the issue. Let me introduce you to Ellis Rose, whose unfiltered words and passion can help us help each other.
“The worst thing any community can do to a person is exile someone, cast someone out,” Rose said. “Contemporary homelessness has become a large-scale casting out of individuals simply for reasons of lacking property. Casting out traditionally was done because of serious crimes like murder and rape. This says such awful things about our morality as communities. Very awful.”
Rose grew up in central Illinois and moved here for a love relationship.
“One last thought,” Rose said. “People don’t really become homeless because they run out of money. They become homeless because they run out of relationships. No matter the cause, ultimately they have no more relationships to rescue them. Our communities need to focus on and work upon restoring or replacing relationships.”
The simplest thing you can do daily is say hello. If you want to do more in addition, donate to these charities who are meeting people on their own terms and providing for their needs and advocate, speak out on supporting people who have a history of being displaced to be at the table and in decision making for their own community and our collective future together.”
Ellis Rose: Well, first of all, “homeless activist” I pretty undefined. So, I make sure to identify myself.
Ellis Rose: I am formerly homeless. And I represent homeless and formerly homeless San Diegans.
Tootie: I was wondering if I was using the right term what is a better term someone who advocates for the homeless and homeless issues do you know Shane Parmely. I consider her a homeless advocate also
Ellis Rose: I never use ‘homeless’ as a noun. I use it as an adjective. (I know Shane! We’re good FB friends).
Tootie: She is friends with my best friend Michelle and have the honor of having her come to an installation for my drag persona at the history museum then invited to her house for brunch a couple times she’s lovely.
Ellis Rose: So, to prevent othering, I represent homeless people or San Diegans.
Tootie: OK, that’s good clarification I appreciate that.
Ellis Rose: And she is a hell of an activist in general.
Tootie: OK that’s good clarification I appreciate that And please if I used the wrong term or term that you know that there is a better term for please make me aware so I can let the readers be aware also.
Ellis Rose: People tend to say ‘homeless’ in the third person. We are here too. Don’t talk about us like we are not. (That’s not directed at you).
Tootie: Yes that’s very good.
Ellis Rose: My latest mantra is “About us without us”. Don’t! LOL.
Ellis Rose: So, there are very real homeless communities (plural).
Ellis Rose: Because our homelessness defines how we interact. There are communities based upon where and how we sleep, eat, etc.
Ellis Rose: They can be based upon our geographical locations or how we have met each other. And they constantly shift … in my experience.
Ellis Rose: One form of community has been on the internet. And so I am connected to homeless Americans in Seattle, in California cities, and elsewhere.
Tootie: Interesting. The other part of my article I intend to interview a girl who loves on El Cajon boulevard that does these very profound chalk writings and intend to delve into the community side of it with her.
Tootie: With you I want the joined hands activism part of it.
Ellis Rose: And it important to me and to other homeless/formerly homeless San Diegans that others who try to represent us talk to us or else represent their opinions as representing just that, their opinions.
Tootie: You and Shane and others who mobilize (and how) on homeless issues.
Ellis Rose: And a good example of all that I have said are RV dwellers.
Ellis Rose: I have slept in my car, in the pavement, in shelters, and couch surfed and hotel hopped. But I have never used an oversized vehicle or RV.
Ellis Rose: But by being the only one talking with RV dwellers, I knew that the Safe Parking site at SDCCU stadium would be a failure for them. And it has been a failure because it fails to meet their needs because no one sought them and their input out. So, once again the City fails on homelessness issues.
Ellis Rose: Community requires communication!
Tootie: I love that Ellis!
Ellis Rose: Even other so-called advocates failed to represent them because no one sought them out. I did the hard work of outreach and asking and talking and understanding their perspectives.
Tootie: And then do you communicate with other advocates and try to get them to understand to help you make your point to the city or to charitable groups?
Ellis Rose: But everybody else – everybody – failed on that point
Tootie: Or are their meetings that you guys have a homeless commission or a … I don’t know.
Ellis Rose: To be honest, sometimes I put them in their place.
Tootie: Well that is part of it.
Tootie: Facebook is a tool and then discussion ensues.
Ellis Rose: There is no viable homeless community meeting yet. Some may try to claim that, but I know their limitations. They are what they are, by they are not representative. Representative requires representing more than one’s experiences and even opinions one would not normally hold.
Ellis Rose: There are some groups elsewhere, but SD resists true communities in general in my experience.
Ellis Rose: The community meeting that was called years ago regarding Pride was a true community meeting because there was much diversity including politically.
Ellis Rose: It was a tough meeting. I attended it. And I worked it my way. I lobbied a few individuals because the moment called for that. And I believe it resulted in the actions that resolved that crisis. You and I should talk about that some other time.
Tootie: Yes that sounds fascinating I love that.
Ellis Rose: But true community has to deal with accepting our differences and working through them to accomplish greater good.
Tootie: Yup, yup I’m totally into that.
Ellis Rose: And San Diego hates to do that, LOL.
Ellis Rose: It’s a learned skill, no doubt.
Tootie: Truth. They like one idea and go for that whether it’s going to serve anybody or not.
Ellis Rose: Yup.
Tootie: So because some of my readers and myself we’ve never been homeless how would we get involved how do we become a part of community and work towards a solution.
Ellis Rose: It’s like the liquor Scotch. It’s an acquired taste, an acquired skill.
Ellis Rose: Start talking to homeless San Diegans without a required outcome.