Cambrian: Opinion

Homelessness is a personal disaster

Cambria resident Juanita Poff helps clean out an illegal encampment at the north end of Trenton Avenue in this photo from July 2015.
Cambria resident Juanita Poff helps clean out an illegal encampment at the north end of Trenton Avenue in this photo from July 2015. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

We first met Howard — a churlish, mid-40s fellow who had been working for the Cookie Crock as a box boy — when he answered an ad for an apartment we had for rent.

Howard was well-known by many, and officials from a local church where he was receiving free staples testified to his character. Few probably knew he was living in a tent in Lodge Hill and couldn’t afford a place on his limited income of about $500 a month.

At least he had a job, we figured, and so we took a chance with him.

After about six months, Howard went back to living in sporadic housing, and the last time I saw him, he wanted help in moving to a local campground. He was trying to save money for a musical career. (I’ll always remember when he said he felt he needed to sell his guitar when he was in a tight spot — thankfully, he didn’t).

I’m no saint, but for whatever reasons, I’ve been involved with homeless issues periodically — first as a job couselor for a church-sponsored “socialization” program in Pasadena, a paid position.

(I used to take homeless clients to Dodgers games.)

Then, locally, I helped raise several thousand dollars for Dan Devaul’s sober living facility on Los Osos Valley Road. Most recently, I assisted Becky Jorgeson in developing her Tiny Home program in San Luis Obispo (recently featured on the Tribune’s front page).

Truly lower-cost housing needed

There are no easy answers, locally or nationally. SLO’s new mayor emailed me the other day to get my input. I suggested that, in lieu of enough so-called “affordable” housing being subsidized/built, officials should look into supporting truly lower-cost housing like tiny homes, mobile homes and even the secondhand RV donations program Jorgeson started with some success.

Shelters are just stopgaps, but thank goodness the new 40 Prado homeless services center is finally being built. And there is a trend toward less policing (and citing) of homeless people, who sleep wherever they can, as long as they are not erecting illegal structures.

I was nearly homeless once, so I know how it can happen. I had enough funds to build a house in the woods of Washington state (and even had paying “house raisers”), but officials disapproved of my housing “style,” despite architectural assistance. I ended up living in a motor home in Mexico for a while, later a youth hostel in Nipomo, and even, clandestinely, in a small office.

Obviously, this is not a CCSD issue. It is an issue for fire personnel when homeless encampments are found. Local churches can help greatly.

Learn the homeless person’s story

I’m not suggesting you do what my wife and I did in housing a homeless person.

I might suggest that compassion could lead you to learn a homeless person’s story and find out whether there is a specific way you can help (such as give him/her a part-time job.)

There’s no question housing should be a right, but that’s probably not going to happen in Trump’s America. What people need to be reminded about is that once a person becomes homeless, it is an absolute personal disaster. Think of the Aleppo victims or those who lost their homes in Tennessee recently. Dolly Parton’s donations notwithstanding, some may even end up here.

William L. Seavey’s book “AmeriCanada” (americanada.us) discusses how Canadians and Americans can work better together. A Victoria, Canada initiative resulted in 150 small apartments being converted for the homeless within an old hotel building.

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