By Gloria Partida
In the late 90s when I was volunteering with STEAC, the number of homeless people in Davis was so minimal that the visibility was almost nonexistent. This is not to say the numbers were insignificant but rather that the detectability was within a level we deemed acceptable. They had little effect on the areas that determined our quality of life. They did not crowd downtown corners or doorways, setup camp in open spaces, sit all day in the library or coffee shops to keep cool in the summer or warm in the winter. They accessed the free community meals and came by to get a fresh set of clothes from the corner of 5th and C street where we handed out clothing or food. There were many other people that used these services as well. Families and individuals struggling with low wages, high housing cost and various personal traumas. One of the reasons I volunteered was my own personal experience with homelessness. My sister and I often found ourselves couch surfing when our mother couldn’t afford rent and later, escaping a violent environment, I spent a very brief period in my car with my three young children. I intimately understand how easily a path can change and how quickly you can lose direction. Then as now the attitudes of the community towards the homeless ran the gamut from those that supported them as full members of our community to those that felt that their problems were of their own doing and needed to be dealt with somewhere else.
Presently, while those two attitudes still exist it is the later that seems to be increasingly heard in our community; Not surprisingly in direct proportion to the rising explosion of homeless numbers. Those numbers make it difficult to not be aware of the homeless population among us. While there are varying degrees of needs among that population, from those that only need a little help with perhaps entry funds to housing, to those that need complete wrap around services, to those that are intractably homeless, it is the last population that draws the most concern. It is also this last population that we must work the hardest to keep people from slipping into.
Last year Mayor Brett Lee proposed a respite center pilot program. The idea being that we would give people exactly what the name implies respite. Respite from being in the elements. Respite from being consciously unwanted in spaces. Respite from the dehumanizing effects of being unhoused. While the merits of housing first have become evident in providing a platform to build success for people that have slipped out of housing, the stepping-stones to that platform are still missing for most. The longer people flounder in the culture of the unhoused the more difficult it is to come off the streets. The ability to sit in safe harbor for extended periods of time may be just enough for some to begin to contemplate the “what if?” of a better life. It may be long enough for people to find the lost path.
This effort will require resources of time and money. These resources are not insurmountable. What is disappointingly becoming the biggest barrier is the resource of human generosity of spirit. As we look in our community for a location for our unhoused to congregate and receive services and perhaps sleep without worry, the cry of not in my back yard rings loudly. Granted it is ringing with the qualifier that yes something must be done but not close to, fill in the blank. These concerns are not unwarranted, but we must remember that any concerns raised about what a respite center will harbor are already in our community.
Children are already riding past homeless residents on their way to and from school, we are already dealing with the effects of people living on our streets, off of our community gardens, outside of our businesses and setting up camps in our open spaces. The difference is that they are not supervised or having intervention delivered to them in these spaces. They are not in a defined area that can be patrolled with extra security. To the concern that having services will bring more people here, we need to remember that most of our surrounding communities have much more services to offer. Many of the people that are here are long-time residents. Many are native Davisites. Still, no matter how much information and outreach the community is given, fear wins out. It seems that the biggest fear is that if we have a location for the unhoused to congregate, they will become more visible. While It is natural for people to worry and to want the homeless issue to become invisible. The problem is that it has been invisible for a long time. The issues that caused homelessness festered behind closed doors for years. Low wages, high housing costs, the opioid crisis, unresolved traumas all quietly lived next door to us, until they didn’t. What we see now is the uncovered effects of communities not addressing the needs of their vulnerable citizens. The time to remedy this is now. We have an opportunity to do what is right, to improve the quality of life for those most in need and while doing so improve the quality of life for ourselves. No matter where we point to for placement of this center there will be someone that will find it disruptive. The question is, will it be more disruptive than what will come of doing nothing?