David Lambert’s popular Facebook page, “Homelessness and Poverty in Stanislaus,” has over 1200 members and is growing every day. Lambert gets lots of on-the-ground experience in the Valley as a Guardian Angel, and he is one of the best listeners anywhere to people experiencing homeless. He realized we’re facing a national crisis long ago, and is increasingly frustrated by the failure to offer practical solutions to a national emergency.
Look around! There are more homeless people all the time. You may have heard that there are about 2,000 people without a place of their own in Stanislaus County. Given the impossibility of accounting for every homeless person on any given day, there are actually many more than that.
We can all learn more about homelessness, and we should, because if we don’t take some real action, it will overwhelm places like Modesto.
If you learn nothing else here, remember this: what we are seeing all around us is mass homelessness. It isn’t Modesto homelessness, it’s part of a phenomenon that is in every corner of the US. These people are refugees in the surest sense. You don’t see it when you watch one woman twitch and shout in an alley, but you see it clearly when you realize it’s happening across America. And it should scare the crap out of you.
Do you really think millions of Americans appeared out of nowhere, on drugs, with mental problems, because they chose to be? Do you have any idea how many moms with kids sleep restlessly in their cars at night, how many teens sleep in bus stations and under bushes, how many couch-surfers there are, and how many homeless people actually have jobs? Open your eyes.
You could put every homeless man, woman and child in the entire county on a rocket and send them to Mars, and it would not stem the rising tide of homelessness across America. We’d have the same problem, only worse, by next Tuesday.
Worse how? For one thing, the majority of homeless people in Modesto are from Modesto. Try going to Redding, where the state drops off Prop 47 parolees and the streets are not only unsafe but dirty, littered with needles, old condoms, trash of every kind, including piles of shit—you get the picture. (Part of Redding’s response has been the formation of one of the largest Guardian Angels Chapter in California—and yes, those men and women make a difference in their community).
Conditions are much better here, and I believe that’s partly because so many homeless folks have roots here. There’s a sadness that sort of overrides a lot of the outright hostility you see in other places—which doesn’t make the streets, bridges and parks of Modesto any more pleasant or safe than they are anywhere else. The stress, worry, fear, desperation and eventual resignation in many cases are the same everywhere. And while Modesto may be calmer and less violent (!!!!!), the lack of housing makes the situation desperate for many.
Forget the stories you’ve heard, the stereotypes you’ve unconsciously adopted, and get past the fear. These are our neighbors, and there are millions of such neighbors in every city in America. These people are homegrown refugees, ignored at almost every level.
There are things that can be done, but it takes a village and more. One of the most effective things YOU can do is be kind. Get to know a few homeless people that you see regularly. Learn some names. Take them some water (and Ramen!) now and then. That’s how you start.
I’m sometimes accused of being too negative or impatient or something, too critical of the area’s efforts to address homelessness in a meaningful way; to the extent that that’s true, I think it’s because I frame the problem differently.
First of all, if we don’t confront the forces driving mass homelessness in America, we’re limited to Band-Aid solutions that everyone knows are not effective. And second, we don’t need ten-year studies and expensive, short-term measures nearly as much as we need dramatic, creative and proactive investment in the good of the community—EXACTLY the kind of action that local politicians are incapable of taking. They don’t think that way. They don’t have the imagination. They can’t do anything without scrutiny of liability, insurance, accountability (they don’t like that), etc. etc.
Our actual need in Stanislaus County is for approximately 2,000 housing units, NOW. Obviously that many houses are not going to magically appear, nor will that many motel rooms, trailers and studios combined be found to meet that kind of need. They don’t exist because they aren’t profitable. REALITY: in the next few years it will be 2500 units, and then 3,000 unless we do something now. It not only needs to happen fast, it needs to happen cheap.
The only way I can think of to begin to address this basic human need—never mind the other pressing issues such as mental health, getting sober/clean, regaining some dignity, getting a job— is by establishing camping grounds and cheap, durable, movable units, for example, shipping containers.
It’s not like there isn’t land to do it. Even if land was being considered, the process of establishing liability and accountability could drag on for years while any budget would go to speakers and PowerPoint shows, all to the accompaniment of howls of protest from nearby neighborhoods and shopping areas.
What are needed instantly is, “You Can Camp Here” ordinances. Such ordinances would actually have a number of benefits, making it easier to bring services to people as well as easier to police than the widespread dispersal of homeless people everywhere. If someone doesn’t have a tent, the city should give them one. There should be sanitary facilities—porta-potties that are kept clean and well-stocked, handwashing stations, and access to showers and laundry.
What’s needed next is a pilot project using shipping containers which can be bought for as little as $1000. A shipping container can easily house a couple or even a small family, and they can be combined by stacking or linking, or they can be split into two very tiny studios. Shipping containers are incredibly versatile. They are the cardboard boxes of international shipping and rail, and there are literally millions of them stacked up empty in cities around the world.
I am betting that there are homeless people out there who would be willing to do much, if not virtually all, of the labor needed to convert these units to habitable shelters, in return for getting to move into them. Containers could be laid out in a neighborhood fashion. They could be painted or covered with vines and trellises. There could be community gardens. It could be pretty attractive, actually. The adaptability of the steel containers lends them perfectly to communal spaces such as meeting and eating facilities. Another couple units could be converted to offices or a dispensary or even a store, as needed.
But for people to live there, code variances would have to be declared. None of this meets current building codes, nor will it ever. This requires out-of-the-box thinking that has nothing to do with business as usual. Are our local public servants even capable of that kind of approach? If not, what can be done about it?
All we know for sure is today’s leaders aren’t willing to lead. What we really need is a grass roots movement to reduce the harms of homelessness, and that means we all need to get involved and focused on making the social and political changes necessary to bring about real and lasting improvements in our own communities.