It is a good thing when people of different ends of the social spectrum agree on something and get together over it. This past week, Pastor Brant Baker of Cambria Community Presbyterian Church coordinated a meeting of minds regarding our homeless population here in Cambria. No, we didn’t solve all the issues, but it was a very good starting point.
Baker invited Laurel Weir of Department of Social Services to begin by giving the three main definitions of homelessness. It was mentioned later that one could break these down into smaller subcategories, but these are accepted reference points.
First, there are the transitionally homeless, those who are suffering a short-term crisis such as a job loss, health problem, etc. that lands them on the street. When given assistance, they generally get back on their feet. They are a much easier population to engage with and to help.
Second, there are the chronically homeless, who stereotypically have a physical disability or mental health or addiction illnesses that challenge their abilities to live a full life. To be labeled as such, they must be homeless at least a year’s length of time over a three-year time span. Sometimes they may get help for a while, then land back on hard times. They do use more resources — jail, emergency rooms, etc. Initially, they may be difficult to have conversations with, but when things get bad enough, they will admit to needing services and accept them.
Finally, there are those who are classified as episodically homeless. They would be chronically homeless but for the fact they spend much time in jail or mental health facilities.
At some point later in the evening we tried to differentiate somewhat between homeless and transients. You can imagine it’s a blurry line. It’s also a difficult subgroup to survey.
Our meeting this day comprised representatives of other churches, the Cambria Connection, Chamber of Commerce, Cambria Community Services District, Cambria Community Healthcare District, Fire Department, a few local businesses, Cambria Anonymous Neighbors, service clubs, Social Services, Sheriff’s Department, a couple of caring citizens, Coast Unified School District Superintendent Vicki Shumacher and San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson. Most people seemed to be there out of genuine concern for the well-being of the people on whose behalf we had gathered.
Pastor Baker provided a list of questions to set the discussion on track:
▪ 1. Do you agree with the basic definitions of homelessness, why or why not?
▪ 2. On any given day, how many people from each group would you estimate are present in Cambria?
▪ 3. What are the best existing resources for dealing with the various types of homelessness?
▪ 4. What new resources do we need here in Cambria?
▪ 5. What are three specific “next steps” for Cambria leaders to take?
We broke up into six groups and dug in for half an hour. Good discussions, good ideas, good resources — just what was hoped for.
Social Services has a tri-fold list of resources in the county. Lo and behold, the Rev. Mark Stetz of the Santa Rosa Catholic Church showed us the list they themselves had put together of local and county services. It was generally agreed that a network of these resources would be extremely helpful, perhaps a website accessible to a number of folks to help others. Stetz offered monetary support for this. The Cambria Connection representative mentioned the organization would be a potential leader in the proposal for a “Homeless Response Team” in Cambria.
The county 211 phone line I wrote about last year was also brought up.
“This is a great resource funded by United Way that provides leads to everything from help with your electrical bill for elderly to warming centers for homeless folks,” Laurel Weir said. “But, it is only as good as the information given us. If you or your organization have a Cambria-specific resource, please call them and let them know.”
Deputies Toby Depew and Ron Slaughter enlightened us about their new roles (after only six weeks) on the SLO Sheriff’s Community Action Team. Their job is to answer calls by the general citizenry regarding homeless people or potential folks in need of help or also to simply approach this population, check on their well-being, get them dialed into resources and, most importantly, follow up with them, be it with doctors appointments or probation check-ins. They are building relationships and presenting options for them.
“If there is going to be a camp sweep by the Land Conservancy or someone, we go in and give them a warning to get their stuff and move,” Slaughter said. “Now, that needs to happen, but it’s a good thing and a bad thing. Sometimes they need to ‘acquire’ new things for their living spaces. It’s not against the law to be homeless or mentally ill.”
Some interesting facts came to light. For instance, hotels will not accept homeless people because they’ve had bad experiences with rooms getting trashed.
“There are no bad people,” Stetz said, “just bad experiences, and this is one of them. One gal was turning tricks out of the Blue Bird Inn … so, you can’t always blame these businesses, but it presents that problem of ‘where are these people to go?’ ”
Indeed, Shumacher stated that our Grammar School population has dropped by 90 kids over the past three years, a substantial number for a small district, because of a stated inability to pay for housing here. There are regularly friends here looking for that same thing: a place they can afford to live.
While showers, gas money, food money are all small Band-Aids, it was suggested that perhaps we need to start by educating the public at large about services that are available and then figure out how to get the two connected.
Weir mentioned work is in progress on a program, Prevention Diversion Screening, that could train folks willing to work with the homeless. It was agreed this would be huge in starting to make an impact and do so more efficiently. Weir also said there may be funding for homeless housing in the future (and then we’ll have to suffer with the not-in-my-backyard problem).
So, the final questions were: How are we going to start and how is the effort going to grow?
“It takes a commitment of time, money and effort from a community to make a positive change,” Baker said. “How can we turn a small gathering into a sustained plan of action, to learn what we need. We must be mindful of our ultimate goal: Is it to get people out of homelessness, or does this attract more of it? Will it be to help with case management, to follow up appointments? And more people need to understand the complexities of the situation. Offering food and shelter is great, but it won’t solve the issue.”
It was decided that we would all start by educating our constituents on resources available by passing out this list (which is being recompiled and will be available) and what we know so far of this segment of our population. DSS and the Sheriff’s Department are open to speaking at club/organization meetings.
While the whole meeting was encouraging, one of the best things I overheard afterward was from Gibson: “Nothing will change until we recognize that these issues grow from the top down. If we continue to think people with these problems and concerns are below us, then it will only continue to get worse. We are all part of the problem. We are all part of the solution. None of us are any better than the other. Their lives affect our lives — that is apparent every day. It’s time to take care of each other.”
For more information on social resources available for any and everybody, contact the Department of Social Services or the Sheriff’s Department Community Action Team and be looking locally for that printed list.