The pristine green space behind Safeway

This morning, at 7:00 am, there was a woman in a dark blue North Face jacket walking two fluffy white dogs in the pristine green space the neighborhood behind Safeway. I begin the story with her, because she must be more important than anyone else I encountered this morning. Otherwise, the story makes no sense.

I stopped by the green space yesterday afternoon. It was sunny then, and relatively pleasant. There were maybe thirty people on the south perimeter of the space. A member of my congregation had stopped by the day before to make some connections, and so, I was following up; looking vaguely official as I carried a clipboard and a bundle of business cards.

Hi, I’m Lindsey. I’m a United Methodist pastor. I wanted to check in, and see if I could help you think through tomorrow, I said, trying to seem both warm and compassionate, while also maintaining my physical distance. The distance wasn’t just for Covid protocols. Every time I approach a person who lives outside, I am mindful that walking up to their campsite is akin to walking into their home. Everyone should have the right to welcome someone in. I try to stand back to make sure that right is protected, and to at least grant the illusion of privacy.

A woman peeked her head out of the tent, and waved me over. She already knew that the police were coming the next day to bust up the campsite. She told me that she had been camping there for just a few weeks. She said she liked the spot, except for the fact that someone who lived in the house across the way had turned a garden hose on her. Like I was a rabid animal, she said. I listened to her. I believe her. But for all of the officialness of my clipboard, I had nothing much to offer. She doesn’t have a card, so she can’t utilize my church’s safe parking program. I give her the list of places where she can get food. I ask her what’s next.

We’re packing up, the woman said. But we don’t know where we’ll go. I don’t know either. She blesses me, and I do likewise.

She’s less kind to the journalist who showed up soon after. I am, too. He introduced himself to me simply by saying the name of his paper. He thought that I was a homeless teenager, and wanted to take my picture. He wanted to take everyone’s picture. And then he tried to find someone else who would let him take their picture. From the way he worked his camera angle, and from the look of the campsites he approached, it was clear what story he was telling. So such destitution! Right behind Safeway! It’s what some activists call Poverty Porn: The fascination with the tragic circumstances of others, divorced from an analysis of what led to and exacerbated the tragedy in the first place.

When I came back this morning, the journalist wasn’t there. That was probably for the best. Most of the unsheltered folks had moved along already. The ten who remained were the ones who needed the most support. Some were frantically at work trying to figure out what’s next. Some seemed to be frozen in time. It was simply too much of an emotional burden, on top of other emotional burdens, to figure otu where to go next.

Along with these unsheltered people, there were plenty of community activists and volunteers. The volunteers came with plastic gloves and garbage bags to help the few people who were left save their belongs from the massive backhoe that had already arrived to clear the space. These volunteers do the work of compassion, and also, like most charity, it collapses upon itself. Because, in the very near future, both the unsheltered people and the volunteers of this morning will be in the exact same situation again. They will simply be more depleted.

There was also a social work team from Catholic Charities who arrived before eight. They were required to be there. In light of a recent Supreme Court decision, the police cannot move unsheltered people along without offering them a place to go. And so, Catholic Charities offers unsheltered folks a spot in the one large homeless shelter in Santa Rosa. If half of what I’ve heard about living in the place is true, I wouldn’t go there myself. I don’t know anyone who can live just six feet apart in all directions from a myriad of strangers. At least long-term.

And long-term is the only option. Because there is such a shortage of affordable housing in Santa Rosa, an unsheltered person must enter a lottery just to get on the waiting list. Once a person is on the waiting list, they wait on that list for years. And because there is no real storage space afforded to people in the shelter system, unsheltered folks ostensibly must give up all of their camping equipment in order to get into a shelter. Which means, that if the situation in the shelter becomes untenable (as one could assume it might, living in one room with a massive group of strangers), they will have nothing between themselves and the elements.

So, if there’s no option, really, for these people except for camping, what do the cops keep busting up their campsites?

Because of the woman in the dark blue North Face jacket with the fluffy dogs. I don’t mean to shame her. I, too, was wearing a blue jacket, and I, too, have a fluffy dog (though my dog isn’t much for walking early in the morning). But I saw her stop and speak to the police officers, and point out an abandoned campsite on the other side of the field. And then she pointed to one unsheltered person and then to another. I don’t know what she was saying, but I could read her body language. She lives in that neighborhood, and I got the sense that she didn’t like the idea of sharing that massive green space with poor people. And so, she, or someone else from that neighborhood, had called the cops and/or their elected officials until the cops finally agreed to move these unsheltered people along to someone else’s neighborhood.

When I looked into a cop’s eyes this morning, and told him who I was and what I was doing there, he looked at me like I was crazy, as though the exercise of continuing to chase the same people from site to site around the county is perfectly sane. He thought the rest of the folks there were crazy, too: The unsheltered people in their camps, the volunteers with their garbage bags, and the activists with their signs, proclaiming that everyone is of equal value to those who can afford to buy houses in nice neighborhoods with green spaces where they can take their fluffy dogs.

Despite the expression on the officer’s face, we know that we weren’t crazy. We know that it is a multitude of structural failures, rather than individual moral failing, that leads to a person being homeless. We know that every time a cop busts up a person’s campsite, it exacerbates trauma. We know that Santa Rosa needs to create safe, organized, and accessible places for unsheltered people to camp now, because even if tomorrow, the powers-that-be in our community prioritized developing and allocating affordable housing, it will take years to making camping obsolete.

We know that what happened this morning isn’t the answer. Now, we just need to convince other people, like those who live in the neighborhood with the pristine green space behind Safeway.

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