Last Sunday Robinson flung rhetorical acid at the Homeless (Lack of) Services Center [HLOSC] in a front-page story, attacking its funding, denouncing its management, and smearing its clientele.
For Robinson’s rattlebrained roarings go to http://www.santacruzsentinel.
Joining the gruesome chorus of bigotry orchestrated by Take Back Santa Cruz, Robinson championed further cutbacks in the vital needle exchange program and megaphoned the familiar right-wing merchant myth that Santa Cruz is a magnet for crime, violence, and danger because of its (alleged) tolerance of homeless people, drug abuse, poor people entitlements, and “weirdness”.
Santa Cruz, in fact, with the collusion of self-described “liberals” like Don Lane (and former Council member Katherine Beiers) pioneered California anti-homeless laws in 1994 including the Sitting Ban, the Sparechanging Ban, & the Street Performing Ban. (The word “ban” is meant to suggest that police are given such broad prohibition powers that they can restrict, bully, harass, ticket, or arrest whomever they choose doing these activities–which they do.)
Santa Cruz has also instituted Permit Parking, banning the very existence of homeless vehicles (even when homeless aren’t in them) during nighttime in hours in many neighborhoods. The City Council passed the notorious Parking Lot Panic law which bans anyone from reading a book, socializing, or–for that matter–changing a baby’s diapers in their car in any of the city-owned parking lots. In the last few years, it has leveled nighttime curfews all over the city establishing forbidden zones at such traditionally public areas as City Hall, the Library grounds, the River, the Parks, and elsewhere.
As far as “drug tolerance”, the City has crippled the voter-mandated Measure K, supposedly making recreational marijuana use in private for those over 21 the lowest priority, and its rates of marijuana arrests have been rising, not falling. The closed-door City Council putsch that shut down the effective and safe Needle Exchange program on Barson St. with no public debate or announcement was an abject surrender to the hysteria of the Take Back Santa Cruz/Clean Team crowd stoking rising hysteria over the needles found in their clean-up’s (a relatively small number–400 over several months compared to the several hundred thousand picked up each year).
Instead of calling for a changed policy that moves away from the useless, costly, crime-producing, and rights-wrecking Drug War, the policy of the City Council is to throw more money at the SCPD. Instead of opening up more needle exchange sites and increasing funding and staff for clean-up’s, City Council is buying into the absurd “Just Say No” stupidity once heralded by Nancy Reagan.
Now comes Vice-Mayor Lynn Robinson leading the pack of paranoids, denouncing the Homeless (Lack of) Services Center.
HUFF has harshly and persistently criticized abuses and leadership at the HLOSC. For not providing shelter other than for a fraction of the population. For not advocating for the rights of those outside. For not protecting disabled people from arbitrary decisions by their staff. For caving to anti-homeless bigotry of neighbors with their “no impact” zones (penalizing clients for simply seeking the right to use the public spaces as members of the public rather than as cringing abjects subject to the whims of neighborhood NIMBY’s. For closing the center during the day to those who they’re supposedly paid to serve. For refusing to replace vital storage lockers. And more.
But the HLOSC does provide two meals a day (unless they exclude you), does offer a (for-pay) mail service, and does provide a pick-up point for Armory Shelter in the winter as well as providing an entry point for other programs.
Council member Don Lane (whom I call satirically Gone Lame) has long been a booster and frequent Board of Directors member of the Homeless (Lack of) Services Center at 115 Coral St. He recently was Mayor and President of the Board of the HLOSC. And Robinson’s toxic venom has upset him.
What is his response? Not a forthright “homeless people have rights and needs” statement. It wouldn’t be credible to those who closely follow his record (and many don’t, because his rhetoric is often impressive). but more to the point, he would actually have to take an unpopular stand in a city where bigotry, bullying, and police-worship is on the rise. That’s something I don’t remember his ever doing.
So instead he tells nearby businesses that it’s their job to ramp up the war against the homeless in the nearby public spaces, not the HLOSC–which–get this–just doesn’t have the money. Instead of mobilizing people who have long objected to police, merchant, and resident abuses against poor people outside, instead of championing the obvious–emergency campgrounds, public bathrooms, trash collection, and reform of the HLOSC (to make it more accessible and less a prison camp), he defends the group he’s made his turf for the last decade. He attempts to “reason” with the wretched Robinson instead of exposing her libelous anecdotes and self-righteous bigotry. In essence, he is saying that he supports the war against the homeless, but they can’t blame the HLOSC for not pursuing it vigorously enough because they don’t have the money.
Aside from being fascistic and immoral, this tries to play pattycake with same unrealistic “drive the homeless away” approach. This approach targets the wrong people and institutions. It panders to “compassionate fatigue”, “homeless enabling”, “street culture = criminal behavior” “hyperpolice/vigilanteeism = increased security” and other all to familiar misleading stereotypes. it appears with the underlying phony distinctions between “our” homeless and the “other” homeless, between “the worthy poor” and “the crazies, druggies, criminals, and bums”. The phony focus on needles, the Drug War, homeless camps, trash, are an attempt to vilify the homeless community. Wild exaggerations of conditions that conditions that exist in every city don’t lead to more safety for the community and set the stage for an intensifying witchhunt against the homeless community–something Don Lane has watched without comment or objection for the last year.
Access to food, shelter, medical care, and equal treatment is a right we need to enforce. The reactionary fantasy that these exist in abundance in Santa Cruz is ridiculous to anyone who’s ever been poor here. In so far as the HLOSC meets these needs and secures these rights, it needs to be supported. In so far as it fails, it needs to be held accountable, reformed, and/or replaced.
Thoughts on my letter to Lynn Robinson concerning the Homeless Services Center
But I have been recently awakened from my slowdown — first by the horrifying deaths of city police Detectives Baker and Butler –and then further by some of the disturbing reactions that have surfaced in the past few weeks (alongside the amazingly generous outpouring of support for our fallen officers that showed up around our community) in the form of troubling proposals to change some of the community’s policies.
One of these proposals struck me particularly hard because it went right to heart of the primary volunteer work I do, which is to support policies and programs to successfully address homelessness and homeless issues in our community.
This proposal played itself out when the local daily paper got its hands on a letter that my city council colleague, Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson, wrote to the Executive Director of our local Homeless Services Center, Monica Martinez. As you will see below, her letter did not sit well with me. Though I originally saw the letter on February 27, I set it aside (in spite of my negative reaction to it) in recognition of our need to focus on mourning the deaths of Butch Baker and Elizabeth Butler. However, once the Sentinel reporter spoke to me about the letter (around March 13) and told me he was going to feature it in a newspaper story, I thought it was then appropriate to send a response to Lynn. It was also important for me to respond at that time because, that same week, Lynn also made a formal motion to cut funding for the Homeless Services Center at our city council meeting. And it lso appears that she quietly triggered a document search to see if she could find other ways to do things that I saw as undermining the work of HSC. In other words, Lynn did not just write a letter, she appeared to me to have begun a three-pronged “campaign” against HSC.
I’m sharing it here because many people communicated with me that my letter was referred to in a Sentinel article but it was not printed. They said they wanted to see it.
I don’t often send letters like the one below. It is strongly worded and takes a very firm position on the issues involved. For people who know my work in the community, they will recognize that it takes a different tone than my typical tone. I normally try to work in the middle ground of controversial local issues. Though I am not trying to fool myself into believing I am always a neutral player, I usually try to quickly move past my own views to embrace the “controversy” and try to be a voice for bringing the divided participants together. This works for me most of the time. But not always.
There are some issues that cut deeper for me and then I discover my limits. One of those issues is immigration. My only daughter, who my wife and I adopted when she was 10, was born in Mexico and brought to the United States without proper immigration documents when she was a very young child. The rest of her life story is irrelevant to this essay, but the fact that the “group” she belongs to is regularly under attack in the politcal discourse of this country makes me very sensitive on these issues. I want to seek middle ground on immigration issues but I have especially little tolerance for hateful language around immigration issues. So my public comments and actions on this issue tend to be less measured.
My journey into the issue of homeless is a bit less personal but that journey has still been long and deep. I actually got involved about 25 years ago when I was invited to help resolve a conflict between the Downtown community and the City government on one side and a group of good samaritans and political advocates on the other side who were serving a daily meal to homeless individuals in a public space Downtown. (There’s a bit more about this story in the letter below.) Suffice it to say that my mediation in this situation led to my assisting the meal-serving group to relocate away from Downtown and to a place where the meal could be served in a more orderly and safe situation.
Through that episode, I met some very caring and committed people and I started to learn more about the lives of local people living on the streets of our community. I got involved in starting the Homeless Community Resource Center and continue to this day in work that brings me into contact with homeless individuals and families and with those who work with those difficult-to-serve populations.
So the issue of homelessness is a big deal for me. I will not pretend that it is not personal after those many years of work. But its not just “personal.” It is also something I have spent a lot of time learning about and working on as a community problem in the context of being a city councilmember. It is a problem that everyone in the community recognizes. As an aside, I should note here that I encounter many people who say two things almost simultaneously that I find very puzzling. First they say something like: “Don, why do you spend so much time focusing on homelessness and not focus enough on the rest of us taxpayers who are not homeless and who have important needs, too?” Then they say: “I am so upset about all the problems homelessness and homeless people cause in our community. Why don’t you do something about it?” I’m not sure they see the contradiction but I certainly do. And so I continue to work on the issue of homelessness.
And I do it for the entire community- not just for those who are on the street. I do it because my compassion (which has oddly become a bad word among some people in Santa Cruz lately) includes concern for everyone who suffers from the existence of homelessness. That includes just about everyone. Obviously this includes people living in a variety of very difficult situations that share the label “homelessness.” And it includes compassion for housed people who have to deal with a variety of challenges including public expense, business disruption, dirtying of public spaces and a variety of things that the legal world euphemistically calls “nuisance” behavior.
The reason I “take sides” at certain moments on this issue is that I have a visceral reaction to scapegoating groups that are vulnerable and groups that do not have much political influence. Since I deal with a lot of people dealing with homelessness, I am particularly senstive when I see them under attack. This does not mean I embrace or excuse bad things that homeless individuals do. And it does not mean that I believe every homeless service program is perfect. It means that I will resist efforts to punish a group for the bad acts of particular individuals in that group. And I will resist efforst to blame people who are making the community better simply because those people are not making the community perfect. And thus I wrote the letter below…
Thanks for your call on Thursday night… I appreciate that you let me know about your letter to Monica Martinez. As I mentioned, I had asked Monica to forward it to me a couple of weeks ago (soon after you told me about it) and I’ve had a chance to review it quite carefully. I especially appreciated the letter’s clarity expressing your specific concerns… because our recent meeting about these issues did not get to as much specificity as I had hoped.
As I mentioned to you in our phone call, I stepped down from the Board of Directors of HSC in February. I did that in large part because I have been working on a few different projects related to homeless issues and I was spreading myself too thin, especially in combination with my City work and my other employment. I also think it’s important for the community to know that when I speak about issues of homelessness in our community, I am not speaking on behalf of HSC. My focus is moving more and more to larger policy issues and I want to work primarily in that mode.
Having said that, I want to respond to the content of your letter and acknowledge that some of my response is informed by my knowledge about the work of HSC and its neighbor agencies stemming from my past work there.
In your letter, I found it particularly notable how authoritatively you spoke about HSC. This surprised me because of your statements to me at our meeting a couple of weeks ago where you specifically told me that it has been a very long time since you’ve actually visited the homeless programs located on Coral Street. I think this fact is indicates how your strong feelings about HSC are informed more by your personal perspective as to what is going on at the Coral Street “campus” rather than on a truly thorough examination of homelessness and homeless programs in Santa Cruz.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is your apparent assumption the Homeless Services Center organization is solely responsible for the Coral Street campus. I think you are aware but failed to acknowledge that the Coral Street campus is shared by three organizations: the County Health Department’s Homeless Persons Health Project (HPHP); the Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center’s River Street Shelter; and the Homeless Services Center. Did you know this and chose to single out HSC… or did you forget to include the other organizations in your communications about the Coral Street area? It was particularly noteworthy that your letter described how Paul from HPHP was working with one of the people you had concerns about… and then blamed Monica and HSC (an organization completely separate from HPHP) for the alleged failure of Paul to solve the problem you wish he could solve. (I should also note here that there is probably no single individual in this community who has more constructively addressed the health issues of homeless individuals than Paul, who is a public health nurse with HPHP. You could not have picked a poorer person to single out. His work is exemplary by any standard and until you’ve learned more about the work he does and tried to do the kind of work he does, you would be well-advised to steer clear of mentioning his work in the negative way that you mentioned it.)
Next, I wonder if you are aware of the functions and activities of the Homeless Persons Health Project in general. More than 100 individuals drop into HPHP on a typical day. Did you know, for instance, that if a homeless person in the Santa Cruz area is interested in receiving help with their substance abuse problems, HPHP is the most appropriate place for that person to go for assistance? Since there is no other similar drop-in program designed for homeless persons with this problem, do you have a suggestion for where these persons should be going instead? I understand that you would like these folks to go to some other place in the county for assistance but there is no other such place right now. Soon there will be a new facility for HPHP in South County (which I think we agree will be a positive thing) and there will more of the jurisdictional sharing that you seek. But there will still be many homeless IV drug users in the Santa Cruz area (until there is a sea-change in funding for treatment and a dramatic reduction in the flow of heroin and meth into this area) and they will continue to seek help at the Coral Street clinic of HPHP.
Perhaps the most alarming assumption contained in your letter is the idea that HSC is primarily responsible for every homeless person in the vicinity of Coral Street. I believe this is based on the idea that HSC staff have tried to create a no-impact zone near its Coral Street location. I believe HSC staff has worked seriously toward this within the limited resources it has… because you and others have demanded that HSC take responsibility for this. I have always supported HSC’s effort to do this even though it pulls staff resources away from their primary function of safely serving homeless persons who come to HSC itself for services. However, I have also had reservations about your demand because, though the demand came from representatives from the City, it did not come with any new dollars from any funding source including the City. In fact, HSC’s funding from the City has fallen by about $100,000 during your time on the city council and you have supported that reduction. So, in other words, you want HSC to use funds the City Council has designated for meeting the basic needs of low-income people to patrol city streets and sidewalks and other people’s private property… and you want HSC to take on that extra burden with a lot less money.
I should also note that I had reservations about HSC taking on your demand for a no impact zone because I suspected that HSC did not have the legal authority and powerful tools that would be required to make it effective… thereby setting up HSC for failure and your subsequent criticism. That suspicion was certainly borne out by your letter. And, to add insult to injury, now you have randomly expanded the zone you expect HSC to “police” to an even greater area by throwing in a business on the other side of the Highway and a Costco driveway. I dare say that your placing expectations on locations so detached from the HSC campus made what was originally a dubious demand into an unreasonable one.
Even more to the point, since the “no impact” effort began, HSC staff members have been working very closely with the SCPD to protect the safety of both clients at the Coral Street property and in immediately adjacent areas. I am not aware of any way HSC has not cooperated fully with SCPD. HSC has also worked closely with the First Alarm security staff and, again, I’m not aware of any situation where HSC has not worked cooperatively with First Alarm. I am also not aware of any action you or other city officials have taken to deputize HSC staff to enforce local nuisance behavior and drug laws. If a person outside the property of the homeless programs at Coral Street is seen violating laws, what tools have you provided HSC staff to enforce those laws? I’m pretty sure the answer is that you (and the City in general) have provided the same tool to HSC staff that you have provided to every other community resident… you have given them the phone number to call the police. HSC staff does this on a regular basis just as you have asked. HSC has also continued to deny access to its programs by people who have violated the rules of HSC. (This has been HSC’s practice since long before you got involved.)
I’d like to go a bit further with you on the question of who is responsible for all the problematic behavior that some homeless individuals are involved in around the Harvey West district and the city in general. I’ll start with a bit of history… on two separate occasions I have been approached by key people dealing with Downtown issues asking me to encourage volunteers serving meals on the streets Downtown to stop doing this Downtown. On both occasions, I was able to get those volunteer groups to re-locate their meal programs to the Coral Street facility. This was applauded by both city officials and representatives of private businesses Downtown. In other words, HSC and its partners took on an extra burden at the request of the City because it knew that THE CITY ITSELF HAD THE RESPONSIBILITY TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH THE CONGREGATION OF HOMELESS PEOPLE IN PUBLIC LOCATIONS. That is still the case. Only City officials have the legal responsibility and authority to do this. HSC cannot walk Downtown and do anything to address problematic behavior of homeless persons. This is true in every public location in the city… the river levee, the parks, the Pogonip.
My point here (in the form of a question) is simply this: what are you, Lynn, doing to FULLY address this behavior in public spaces? I know you have tried different approaches and made some inroads but all the things you have proposed and supported have not eliminated this problematic behavior in these public places. Shall we cut funding from the Parks and Rec budget because there are still some homeless individuals perpetrating illegal and problematic behavior in Parks facilities? Shall we cut the Public Works budget because they cannot ensure that there are no homeless people gathering on their sidewalks? Shall we cut the Police budget because they have not eliminated crime among the homeless population? I think you know that we should not…and will not…make these cuts. The only question that remains unclear is this: Shall we cut our salaries because we have not eliminated problem behavior and illegal behavior in public locations entrusted to our care as City Councilmembers? I suspect the answer is “no” because we are both working pretty damned hard on a lot of difficult issues… and we don’t believe in punishing ourselves for our imperfect records… because we are still doing some good work.
I’d like to pose another question on a related topic: Have you been consistent with private property owners who have ongoing behavior problems related to homelessness? The first property that comes to mind is the rail line that runs through Harvey West and the Pogonip. Have you placed expectations on Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railway similar those placed on HSC? You specifically noted problems along the railroad tracks…yet you target HSC for responsibility when problems on the tracks have existed for decades… long before HSC existed. Is there a different standard? If so, what is the basis for that double standard? And if you do contact Roaring Camp in the future and they successfully cleared their railway property of problem behavior by nudging it to the nearby sidewalk, would you then approach them again to demand more because there is a problem NEAR their property? This seem to be how you have treated HSC… will you be taking the same approach with others?
There are properties all around Harvey West and other locations in Santa Cruz that have persistent overnight camping and gatherings of people who are behaving in ways similar to those described in your letter. Have you been putting the same pressure on these businesses and property owners to address these problems? If so, I hope you can fill me on how you are applying that same pressure. (Perhaps you could show me the letters you’ve sent them.) Of course, we all know that those property owners might try to rely on the currently favored approach of blaming HSC for everything (simply because it exists and is doing its job) and using that as an excuse for avoiding their share of responsibility. But legally, that is not how it works. If any property owner is allowing nuisance behavior to persist on his/her property, they are responsible for addressing it. HSC is meeting its responsibility by excluding people who break the rules or the law while on its property—and by calling the police as needed. That is what the City and police have expected of HSC. Now shall we penalize them for doing what we have asked?
At this point, I feel compelled to address the anecdote in your letter that demonstrates how far off the mark I think your entire message is. I refer to your recounting of the tale of the woman with prosthetic legs. Your city government, with your strong support (and my support, as well) has undertaken an ongoing program of cleaning out and removing encampments occupied by homeless individuals in and around our community. This woman was one of the homeless individuals living in that kind of situation who was displaced in one of those cleanups. So an action that you vigorously supported drove this woman into a more visible place in our community (and a more vulnerable situation). It is very troubling that you are blaming HSC because you are now seeing her out there in a visible location. The real question is what are YOU doing to help this woman who you have made more vulnerable by your actions? The answer appears to be that you are demanding that someone else deal with her—while at the same time consistently moving to reduce funding for one of the principal organizations that is trying mightily with limited resources to help her. Since you are a person of great compassion, how do you justify this?
Some of us have been working without any financial support from the City to expedite the 180-180 project in Santa Cruz. The woman with prosthetic legs has been surveyed by the 180-180 project and could possibly be housed through that project. But she won’t be housed sooner because your City (and mine) pushed her into an even more vulnerable situation. She will be housed because HSC and its partners and volunteers and supporters put together the resources – without your help – to make it possible. It is so disappointing to me that you would play the role you have played in making her more vulnerable and then expect someone else to clean up a problem you helped create.
It appears to be less than constructive that you would poke around these issues and these programs with such a lack of information and understanding. Do you really think that programs whose funding you have voted to cut should now be taking care of every needy person you see just because you make a phone call? Is this a responsible approach for an elected leader of this community? If and when the woman with prosthetic legs is housed and taken off the street safely, it will be because HSC has been working on this for months and it will happen in spite of your actions.
Your letter and your approach to these issues may end up impressing some people in the community with its “get tough” language and demands now that it seems to be coming to light. However, it will not impress many of us actually trying to help the most vulnerable and impoverished people in our community. If you want to dig in, as you said you will do in your “gardener” mode, I want to encourage you to plant some seeds of intelligent solutions rather than throwing around “enough is enough” language. Anyone in the community can express frustration and say “I’ve had it.” There are plenty of things that I can list around the community that I could say “I’ve had it” about. My view is that leaders move quickly past their frustration to identify thoughtful solutions based on good information. I know you have shown this kind of good leadership on other issues. So I’m looking forward to your thoughtful answers and suggestions that go beyond what I see right now as unfair and misdirected complaints on these Coral Street area issues.
Finally, despite the criticisms contained in this letter, I want to acknowledge how hard you are working on a range of important community safety issues. The community is definitely benefitting by much of your work. I hope you will recognize that I share your desire for a safe community. I simply cannot support particular approaches that are off-target and unfair and inadvertently play into the fear-based demands of some frustrated community members.
I respectfully request that you take the next step in your Coral Street efforts by answering the questions I raised in this letter. The questions may seem rhetorical in nature… but every one of them needs and has a real answer. I hope you will take the time to thoughtfully answer each one. In turn, I would be happy to answer any questions you have for me– to the best of my ability — about homeless issues and homeless services.
Thank you for considering my request…and for your continued service to Santa Cruz.