Homelessness and Hand-to-Hand Combat

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Violence.  We all know that some housed people fight with each other in physical, hand-to-hand combat.  But why do some homeless people, living bereft of everything, fight?

To find out why some homeless people fight, I interviewed a 48-year-old man who lives in the streets.  I thank him for his candor.

Q:  From time to time you fight with people.  Why do you fight?

Man:  “Mostly I fight because people disrespect me.”

Q:  What do you mean by disrespect?

Man:  “It’s when someone slanders me, slanders my name, says things that aren’t true in a public forum where everyone else can hear them.”

Q:  Can you describe your last fight?

Man: “My last fight was caused when someone was standing outside a business and disrupting the community.  Certain business people asked me to remove him.

“I tried to remove him nicely.  I knew that if he went with me that things would go better for him than if he continued to stay and annoy the business people.

“But he wouldn’t listen to my multiple requests for him to leave, so I had to fight him.  I had to take him out — that’s the only way I know how — that’s how I fight.”

Q:  During the fight, what happened?

Man: “The fight?  I hit him.  He didn’t hit me one time.  I hit him a couple of times until bystanders broke us up.”

Q:  When you were young, what were you taught about fighting?

Man:  “I was brought up being told that if I let one person disrespect me, then everyone will.  It’s all about your elders — you respect your elders.  And you don’t disrespect anyone.”

Q:  Are there other examples of when you feel disrespected?

Man: “It’s like letting someone steal something from you.  If you let one person do it, everyone will do it.”

Q:  What happens if someone steals from you?

Man:  “You take care of it.  Otherwise you’re ‘easy game,’ an easy target.  Everyone will take advantage of you, if you let them.”

Q:  You were housed and now you are homeless.  Does that make a difference in how you react when you feel are you being disrespected?

Man:  “When you’re in ‘the middle of the road,’ people steal things all the time.  Homeless people get their stuff stolen all the time.  It sucks.”

Q:  Who steals homeless people’s belongings?

Man:  “Anyone who wants to.  Both housed and unhoused people steal from homeless people. Ha!  Homeless people are easy targets.”

Q:  Have people stolen from you?

Man: “Housed people stole my wheelchair — twice.  They’ll steal anything because of their addictions.  Everyone has vices.   Stealing is just another way of surviving.  It is what it is.

“It’s just like the cops stealing homeless people’s cars — their homes — by impounding them.

“But not everyone steals.  I was taught not to steal.  I don’t steal from anyone.”

Q:  Do you have a general philosophy about life?

Man: “You have to prepare for the worse, expect the best and accept what’s in between.”

Homelessness Myth #23: They Have Too Much Food to Eat

Also published on The Huffington Post. 

Really?  Do some housed people really believe that homeless people have too much food to eat?  Actually, yes.  And they provide what they consider the evidence, “Of course they have too much food to eat. See how fat they are!”

This myth leaves me stunned because I believe its falsehood is obvious. I’ve had the privilege to work with people in need for over 20 years.  Sadly, in all of that time, I have never known a homeless person who was able to eat three healthy meals a day. Really.

As we all know, obesity is an American epidemic. Whether we are housed or homeless, many authorities agree that our diet of high-calorie, unhealthy foods contributes to our obesity.  It would appear that many housed people are neither utilizing their kitchens to prepare nutritious foods, nor making healthy food choices at restaurants. Homeless people may have similar nutritional challenges, but for different reasons.

On May 25, 2012, the San Diego County Regional Task Force on the Homeless reported in “A Point-In-Time Assessment of Homelessness In San Diego County — 2012,” that there are a total of 9,641 homeless people within the county.  Of this total, 4,374 homeless people are sheltered and often receive their meals from their residential facilities.  However, there are at least 5,267 homeless people who are unsheltered and generally live without their own cooking facilities.

Unsheltered homeless people generally eat prepared food that they get from Good Samaritans, at group food service opportunities and, when they have money, from fast food restaurants and/or grocery stores.  Pasta, bread and pastries are in abundance.  Organic foods as well as raw fruits and vegetables are seldom available. Without healthful foods to eat, homeless people have very few chances of avoiding obesity.

I’m grateful to the following homeless people and service provider for sharing whether they feel that homeless people have too much food to eat.

Annie, an unsheltered homeless person, 45-years-old:  “I don’t think that homeless people have too much food.  We need more fresh veggies, not canned.  But that’s not easy to get.

“There are a lot of church services, but maybe having food every day would be good. But, we don’t have food every day.  We’re blessed to have what we get.”

Jon, 49-years-old, lives in his van: “We never have too much food.”

Glyn Franks, a housed person, 62-years-old, founder and president of Second Chances, Bread of Life, and self-described “San Diego’s biggest sinner saved by the grace of God:”

“Our goal is to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, visit prisoners and clothe the naked. We feed the hungry… We fulfill the great commission to share the good news by doing the four things I’ve said to serve the God of love.

“Homeless people don’t have enough food.  I believe that homeless people don’t have proper nutrition because they can’t cook.  Without cooking facilities, it is difficult to get proper nutrition.  Proper nutrition promotes good mental health and the ability to make good decisions.

“I believe that there are also people with roofs that don’t have enough food.

“We serve food to homeless people and housed people Saturday mornings, Thursday at high noon and holidays [in and near Ocean Beach].”

Grace, a vegetarian, almost 53-years-old, lives in her van:  “Because I have celiac sprue disease, I cannot eat anything that has gluten grains in it — wheat, rye, oats, barley, spelt.  And I’m dairy intolerant… Consequently, most of my money goes to food and dietary supplements.

“Although I have a very limited income, I still feel that it is important to give food to others who need it.  Because I’m aware of the need for healthy food and because I’m aware of how little healthy food there is ‘out there,’ I cook and prepare my meals.  Because it is hard to make food for one person, I prepare a lot of food and share it with people who need food.  Many homeless people who come to me are vegetarians or need healthy food.  So, they are very happy to have this food.

“Most homeless people are suffering from malnutrition because of not eating healthy food… I feel that one of the most important things in life is what we ingest, our food.”

John, an unsheltered homeless person, 50-years-old:  “For each community, the situation is different.  For example, in downtown San Diego, there are limited opportunities to eat indoors.  It took me two years to learn where to get food.  Several hundred homeless people are usually served at each of the following meals:

• Mondays The Lutheran Church serves a meal. Father Joe [St. Vincent de Paul] serves lunch. God’s Extended Hand serves dinner.

• Tuesdays Father Joe [St. Vincent de Paul] serves lunch. God’s Extended Hand serves dinner. The Salvation Army serves dinner.

• Wednesdays Father Joe [St. Vincent de Paul] serves lunch. God’s Extended Hand serves dinner.

• Thursdays Father Joe [St. Vincent de Paul] serves lunch. God’s Extended Hand serves dinner. The Horizon Church serves dinner.

• Fridays Father Joe [St. Vincent de Paul] serves lunch. The Lutheran Church serves a meal. God’s Extended Hand serves dinner. The Salvation Army serves dinner.

• Saturdays Father Joe [St. Vincent de Paul] serves lunch.

• Sundays Father Joe [St. Vincent de Paul] serves brunch. Presbyterian Soup Ladle serves a meal.

“It’s hard to remember all of this.  If you don’t know where these meals are, it’s difficult.  And just to get to some of these places is an effort without a bus pass.  It can take an hour to get to a scheduled meal.

“Sometimes you have to stand in line for hours before a meal, after which there is a religious service for an hour or two and then you get to eat.  That means it could take a total of 4 to 5 hours out of your day before you can get a meal indoors.

“I don’t think homeless people are overfed.  My opinion is that there is enough food for some of them to survive.  Homeless people are more on the hungrier side than the full side.  Going to bed hungry is not a nice thing.”

Justin, an unsheltered homeless person, 25-years-old:  “This morning I woke up and I didn’t know where I was going to eat.  I was hungry.  I often get hungry.  Everyone gets hungry.  We, homeless people, are just like everyone else.”

Homelessness Myth #22: They Have Enough Money

Also post on The Huffington Post.

Do homeless people need money? Of course, housed or unhoused, we all need money. Some housed people believe that homeless people have enough money to get what they need.

However, do homeless people really have enough money to get what they need? I think not. For example, one of the most important things that any person needs is government-issued identification. People need this ID for many reasons, including to get a job, housing, food stamps (after the first month), healthcare, a bank account as well as to get married.

In California, there is a schedule of fees for DMV-issued photo ID cards. There is no fee for senior citizens (age 62 or older) to get these IDs. For everyone else, the fee for California photo ID cards is $26. However, this fee can be reduced to $7 when people meet the income requirements of a public assistance program and complete the ferification for Reduced Fee Identification Card form (DL 937) available from a host of governmental or nonprofit programs.

Homeless people under 62 years of age generally qualify for this $7 California reduced-fee photo ID card.

But do homeless people have $7?  And if they need to get $7, how do they get it?

Some homeless people work, indeed, sometimes at more than one job.  They may  “can,” meaning they recycle. Some homeless people, including unaccompanied youth, go “spanging,” that is, they ask strangers for spare change.

Often they “go signing” or “fly a sign” which means they use a sign indicating their need and request for money. Some musically talented homeless people raise funds by “busking,” a term used for playing music for donations.

Homeless artists sometimes solicit donations for their creations.  Some homeless people suffering from disabilities may receive money from government programs.  And many homeless people involve themselves in any combination of these efforts to raise funds.

I asked the following people whether they had $7 and, if they didn’t, how they would raise $7.  I am grateful to them for their answers to these questions.

Grace, age 52, lives in her RV “I have $7.  I am frugal.  I get disability and supplement it by making jewelry when I can. These are the two ways I get income.

“$7 is very important.  You can do a lot of things with $7.  To me, $7 means a meal, gas to move the RV, toilet paper or loads of laundry.

“$7 is a new wardrobe for a homeless person. Recently at the $2 Store, I bought a young homeless woman a dress, a pair of shorts, jeans, a T-shirt — three changes of clothing — all the clothing that you can carry.”

Eric, age 35, homeless “I don’t have $7. To get $7, I have to beg practically all day. I don’t ‘can’ because of germs, it’s dirty.

“Also, I make roses and angelfish that I give out for donations. Sometimes I make money, sometimes I don’t.”

OB Dillon, age “pushing 69,” homeless “I have $7.  People give me gifts because they like my guitar playing. That makes me a professional.”

Jon, age 49, lives in his van “I do have $7. To make money, I spange.”

Justin, age 25, homeless “I don’t have $7.  What I do and what I’d like to do is different.  It’s really demeaning for me.  I have to swallow my pride… It would be nice if there were part-time jobs for the homeless to do.”

Manuel, age 30, homeless “I have no money.  I’m just looking for work.”

“What would I have to do to get $7? Whatever it takes. I ask around for work. I do yard work.  Whatever it takes.”

Anonymous, age 40, homeless “I don’t have $7. What would I have to do to get $7?  I’d ask someone — probably have to ask several people. I don’t like to do that. I’d rather do some kind of work.

“How long would it take to get $7?  It took me one hour to get $12 to go to a Christian rock concert. I had $13, but I didn’t realize that the ticket was $25. I just told people why I needed the money and I got it right away.

“Getting money can take a dollar an hour, if you’re lucky.”

Bobby, age 41, lives in his car “I always have $7.  To get money, I go to work or to the bank. I work for a living, you know.”

J.D., age “almost 39,” homeless “Nope, I don’t have $7.  I make hacky-sacks and in four years [displaying his creation] this is the first one I’ve made.  I haven’t eaten for a while so I’m hungry.”

Ethan, age 18, homeless “I do have $7.  To get $7 I sit around and make jewelry out of bamboo and sell it.  It’s pretty much my life right now.”

Oasis, age 49, homeless “I don’t have $7.  I make a product out of scrap metal.  I take the casings of old 50 caliber bullets and 20-millimeter bullets and I make ‘peaceful pipes.’  I sell them to the public as they walk by.  I’m self-employed.”

Christiana, age 26, homeless “I don’t have $7.  I manage a band named, ‘Welcome.’  We have our first gig this Thursday at 8pm at Bar 11…  It’s $5 to get in.  We get a split of the door.”

Jay, age 25, homeless “I don’t have $7.  I’m unemployed.  In order to get $7, I’d have to get employed.”

Sandy, age 49, homeless “I have $7 now, but I may not have it by tomorrow.  I didn’t have a cent to my name yesterday.  I was starving.  I just asked people on the street for money.

“I get social security but I can’t live on that.  I was a homeowner.  I left my husband.”

Erick, age 40, homeless “I do not have $7.  The $7 itself doesn’t mean anything to me – it’s what I can buy for myself that matters.”

Lena, age 29, housed “I don’t have $7. I have $2 in my guitar case.

“To get $7, I would either clean houses or I play the guitar. Most of my income comes from cleaning other people’s houses. I stay with my husband in a motel that charges $175 a week for our room.”

I look forward to your comments.

Thank you, Christine

Unsung Hero, Sally Dunn, M.S., LMFT

“Have you met Sally… Sally Dunn?  You’ve got to meet her.  Sally’s amazing,” said Ed.

“Yeah, she’s helping so many of us homeless people living in the riverbed that we call her, ‘Saint Sally,'” chimed in his pal, Lane.

I was immediately intrigued by the enthusiastic heart-felt respect that my homeless clients felt for Sally Dunn, licensed mental health clinician for the San Diego County Homeless Team.  In the world of homelessness, relationships built on trust and respect are few and far between. Yet, often these relationships are vital for homeless people’s recoveries.  When homeless people trust service providers, they can make real progress quickly.  When their respect is reciprocated, they usually know it.

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I was delighted to met Sally Dunn, the woman who was providing such invaluable assistance to people living outside and in shelters.  I felt and feel that there are not enough superlatives to describe Sally and her work.  However, I can say unequivocally that Sally’s clients are sincerely grateful for the help she gives them. They trust her and feel that their respect is reciprocated. They genuinely love “Saint Sally.”

Born July 14, 1956, in Rangely Colorado, Sally and her family moved to Palo Alto, California when she was just six months old.  Her father had just gotten out of the Navy and had become an aerospace engineer. Her mother was one of the first female stockbrokers and wanted Sally to follow in her footsteps.  Eventually, Sally chose quite a different career path from those chosen by her parents.

After graduating from high school in Coronado in 1974, she attended one year at Oregon State University where she played volleyball. She continued her participation in volleyball during her second year of college at the College of San Mateo (CSM).  It was at CSM, that Sally became so inspired by her psychology professor, who happened to be a quadriplegic, that she became a psychology major.

Her remaining years of college were spent at San Diego State University (SDSU) from which she graduated in 1979. Later, Sally received her master’s degree in psychology from Texas A & M.

At twenty years old, Sally had her first job in the mental health field when she worked in a locked psych ward — a challenging job because there were so few medications available that could help the mentally ill patients.  Married in 1983 to a Navy pilot, Sally moved with her husband to Guam where she worked in special education.  Upon their return to the San Francisco Bay Area, Sally became employed with child protective services.

Sally has three adult children: her eldest son is a Japanese major at SDSU;  her second son lives in Idaho near his father’s family; and her daughter is a physics and math major at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD).

For the past twelve years, Sally has provided counseling and support to thousands of homeless people in the County of San Diego.  I once asked Sally exactly how many clients did she have?

“Well in response to your question,” she replied, “I can only tell you how much geography is involved — an area larger than downtown San Diego. I used to supervise a team of seven people, but due to cut-backs, I’m now the only San Diego County mental health clinician for all of the homeless people living in this area.”

Besides being a natural beauty, Sally is brilliant, knowledgeable and extremely practical.  She helps homeless people match their needs and goals with existing opportunities and services.  Sally continues her relationship with her clients, supporting them through their initial referrals and guiding their next steps to achieve self-sufficiency.

In addition, Sally facilitates group sessions.  Her clients find her assistance invaluable as can be seen by the following comments.

Henry, one of Sally’s clients, says, “Sally’s great.  She’s great.  Astounding. I’ve been with Sally for three years.  When you deal with Sally once a week, it takes away the urge to use drugs.  I know to keep sober and straight.  I couldn’t face her if I messed up.  You don’t want to see Sally if you mess up.  I’m afraid to mess up because I know I have to see her.

“She’s my good friend.  I love her.”

Linda, another client of Sally, shares, “She’s done a whole lot for me.  Sally’s opened up a new world.  She’s always positive.  We just connect.  Our group is wonderful.  She knows her stuff.  I don’t like phonies.  Sally knows where it’s at.  She tells it like it is… She’s the best counselor I’ve ever had.  Sally talks from the heart.”

Sally is also much admired by her fellow professionals as shown in the following examples.

Kelley J. Gebbie, Resource Specialist, Rachel’s Women Center,
Homeless Women’s Services for Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, relates,

Sally has never failed to come to the table with her vast knowledge of mental illness in the homeless. Her passion is readily shown when she finds a much-needed bed for those that have [nothing], either financially or physically. Sally has gone out of her way to find the right solution for someone. That solution could be weeks away, yet she continues to find it.An example of this came about when a mentally ill participant needed help. When the police were not the answer, she responded with a courier to transport this woman to a much-needed mental health facility. There was follow up when she walked away, never forgetting that this woman was in need. The saying, “no one left behind” finds itself on Sally’s shoulders often. She continues to help those that cannot help themselves who find their way to her doorstep.

 

Lucky Michael, Caseworker, Rachel’s Women’s Center, Homeless Women’s Services for Catholic Charities, Diocese of San Diego, says,

Once in a while we get to meet people who make an art out of service.  At Rachel’s Center, Sally is an artist. 

Sally comes in as the statuesque blond wheeling her black briefcase with a world of information. All the women know who she is and know that they will receive a valuable answer even if it’s not a permanent solution, at minimum it’s a safety plan.

I have so much respect for Sally.  [T]o me she is more than a social worker but a leader and mentor. Sally is Picasso in her ability to think outside the box and Rembrandt paying close attention to details. The canvas is painted with pain and in the picture is a group of women validated, not necessarily healed but definitely heard.

We love Sally and our program wouldn’t be what it is without her valuable art!

 

Sally’s colleagues recognize her ongoing efforts to help people in need.  Homeless people trust and know that Sally will do her best to help them.  In the words of her client Susan, “Sally has helped me perform miracles.  She’s an angel!”

In Celebration of Larry Milligan, Champion for Homeless People

Also published on The Huffington Post

It has been said that “a man is known by the company he keeps.” And Larry Dean Milligan (September 23, 1946 – July 14, 2011) kept excellent company — from his dear friends who are lawyers, business people and advocates, to the homeless men, women and children whom he befriended and championed, to his partner, Johanna Argoud, and their family whom he loved with all his heart.

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For over 20 years, Larry worked tirelessly with Johanna and wonderful colleagues in San Diego to help homeless people in many ways, including giving food to satisfy their hunger, fighting for shelter to protect them from the elements and working for public toilets for their personal hygiene and dignity.

Larry made his causes visible by making himself visible. He tabled his opinions on the San Diego Concourse. He wrote articles and lobbied policy makers. But perhaps the most influential thing that Larry did was that he sacrificed his own health through hunger strikes to bring awareness about the plight of homeless people.

He thought that homelessness should not be criminalized. To this end, he fought the imposition of illegal lodging tickets upon homeless people who were sleeping on public sidewalks in the City of San Diego because there was not enough space in the local homeless shelters.

In 2004, largely through Larry’s efforts, the lawsuit, Spencer v. San Diego, was filed to protect homeless people from illegal lodging tickets. Larry was victorious when this lawsuit was settled in 2006 and homeless people were allowed to sleep outside on public areas in the City of San Diego from 9pm to 5:30 am without being ticketed by the police.

He felt that the November 2010 modification to this settlement was unfortunate because under this modified settlement the police are allowed to ticket a homeless person who is sleeping outside in the City of San Diego if there is an available shelter bed; if the police offer the homeless person the bed; and if the homeless person refuses the bed.

Larry took great pains to avoid confronting people. He used temperance, kindness and truth to bring about peaceful change. He was a true humanitarian.

And now a few words from some of the members of the excellent company that Larry kept.

• Judge Robert C. Coates, retired Superior Court judge, author of A Street Is Not A Home, remembers Larry for his positive influence on unhoused people and among housed people: “He was very constructive and respectful. The homeless community desperately needs people who are articulate and Larry was articulate.”

• Liza Elliott writes, “Johanna and Larry ran a weekly feeding program for the homeless in Balboa Park. I worked with them there as well as at the TACO Feeding program at the Lutheran Church. We did sit-ins at City Hall, served pizza, beans and rice to the homeless and had lots of fun.”

“Larry and Johanna were tireless advocates for the homeless, and it was my pleasure and honor to have served with them. The World will miss Larry. And so will I.”

• Scott Dreher, Esq., Dreher Law Firm, co-counsel in Spencer v. San Diego feels “Larry was the last of the true Hippies with all their altruistic, idealistic spirit, and he never lost sight of our society’s potential.”

“Indeed, Larry promised to give up his Hunger Strike only if we agreed to file the Spencer case (which resulted in voiding the City of San Diego’s policy of issuing “sleeping tickets” to homeless people in violation of the state and US Constitutions). His organizing skills were invaluable in convincing the court and city to resolve it in favor of homeless people! He was a vigorous advisor and a loving voice for the homeless to the end.”

“He called me a couple weeks ago, and his voice was filled with enthusiasm, energy and readiness as he put forth more ideas on trying to fix the social imbalance that allows people in our country to lack basics such as food, a place to sleep, and shoes.”

“I joked with him and told him we’d carry on as long as he promised not to go on another hunger strike.”

“He said ‘OK, I’m taking you at your word!”

“I loved him and miss him.”

• Timothy D. Cohelan, Esq., Cohelan Khoury & Singer, co-counsel in Spencer v. San Diegoshares, “Larry was a great spirit whom I first met in the mid 90’s when we were handling a case against the city of San Diego for failure to designate or site emergency shelters and transitional housing (Hoffmaster vs City of San Diego) — he kept me and others informed of the conditions as he saw them on the street.”

“At one point he went on a hunger strike and some believe this contributed to his later health problems.”

“Larry acted like a cheerleader on the Spencer case, always calling Scott [Dreher] or me to say how he appreciated our efforts, and how the homeless with whom he always talked, felt like someone cared. He will be missed.”

• Steve Binder, Esq., San Diego Deputy Public Defender says, “Larry had the unique capability to bridge the discussion between the police and people on the streets and to help people realize that citations alone are a simple solution to a complex problem that continues to frustrate police and the people who receive the citations, alike.”

“Larry had the ability to look past the shortcomings and problems that the police presented to the people on the streets and to look past the shortcomings and problems that the people on the streets presented to the police so that he could improve everyone’s situation.”

“Larry was a builder. He built community.”

• Dr. Ellen Beck, M.D. supervisor of The UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project at TACO (The Third Ave Coalition Organization) adds, “Larry was a remarkable person, a truly passionate change agent, who lived what he believed and helped to change laws and policy. He will be missed!”

• Jim Lovell, Executive Director, Third Avenue Charitable Organization, Inc. (TACO) notes, “Larry was an amazing force brought to bear on San Diego. His faith seemed to be what drew him to need to call those in power to act to treat all who live in their city with the same dignity that those who were wealthy and who had power were treated.”

“When Larry fasted in order to get the city to open the winter shelter early, he was quick to point out that it was a “fast, not a hunger strike.”

“When Larry would come to see me, I quickly learned that I should hold on tight because things would move very fast, and we may go to see a council member or we could be at the mayor’s desk with signatures to record turning in or we may be in the office of the Chief of Police.”

“Larry often verbally argued and pushed those in power, though he was always so quick to forgive and call them again and ask to meet. That was one of the most amazing parts of Larry. I will miss him deeply.”

Not only will Larry be remembered for the excellent company he kept, but by the passion and devotion he exhibited as an outstanding leader, as an effective advocate for homeless people and as a genuine human being.

A week before his passing, Larry told Johanna’s daughter, Ninon, about his personal philosophy. He said, “The most important thing to remember is that we are all equal.”

Homelessness Myth #20: They Make Millions

Also published on The Huffington Post

The myth that homeless people make millions or thousands of dollars is a myth of gigantic proportions. This myth incorporates the mistaken belief that homeless people make big money by trading on their homelessness, which is simply not true.

Panhandling is one of the primary ways a homeless person can raise funds. In today’s parlance “begging” is called “panhandling.”

I learned a great deal about the nature and necessity of panhandling from a young homeless woman I met outside a theater in Los Angeles. It was 9:30 p.m. on a cool winter’s night when I walked by her as she stood by a shopping cart that held her young child and her infant.

“Can you spare some change?” she asked.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out two $1 bills. As I handed these singles to the young mother, she pulled out a wad of bills from her pocket. She proceeded to place my bills on top of the high stack that she already had.

I began to walk away when I thought I would talk to the young mother.

“May I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“I’m wondering about something. It’s late at night, you have two young children and you have a lot of money. Why are you and your children outside in the cold?”

“Well, you don’t understand.”

She pulled out all of her money from her pocket. For the first time I noticed that the high stack of bills was actually a bunch of crinkled one dollar bills stacked one on top of another.

“Before you came along, I had $26 here. Now, with your two dollars, I have $28. I’ll be out here until I get $36 for a motel room for me and my babies.”

I was silent. I had no more cash to give her. So, I wished the young mother well and left with a heavy heart.

Obviously, panhandling is not as lucrative as some of us think. This young mother taught me that appearances can be deceiving.

Recycling is another way a homeless person can make money. We’ve all seen a homeless person pushing a cart filled to overflowing with cans and bottles. Sometimes there are even plastic bags bulging with recyclables tied to the sides of the cart.

Can a homeless person “get rich quick” by recycling? Not really. Working from dawn to dust, a homeless person may gather as much as $40 in recyclables. Just enough for a motel room and perhaps one meal.

Also, recycling is not easy work. It requires some mental ability and more than a little physical strength. Certainly, this method of pursuing an income is not available to the elderly or infirm.

My homeless friend Danny recycled cans and bottles every day for years. Each morning Danny would follow the same route, visiting the same locations searching for discarded recyclables. He considered recycling his job and he was devoted to his work.

A lovely, responsible person, Danny was hired not long ago by the City to do part time maintenance work. Although he enjoys his new job, Danny says that he misses his old job of recycling and the places he would visit every day.

Government benefits are another way that a homeless person can acquire funds to live. In California general relief (GR), also known as “welfare,” is a program funded by the county. Although each of the 58 California counties sets its own amount of benefits, San Diego County provides $234 as a loan to a single qualifying adult.

A $234 loan per month is a far cry from riches. Often a homeless person will use some of his or her GR to rent a motel room for several nights and to pay for food during this same period of time. His or her goal is to clean up, rest, and possibly remember what it is like to be housed once again. This brief respite gives the homeless person an opportunity to leave the harsh conditions living on the streets.

A homeless person may also qualify for Social Security benefits. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is available to assist the elderly, blind, or disabled person who has low or no income. In the year 2000, SSI’s maximum monthly benefit was $512.


Social Security Disability Insurance
 is a monthly benefit for disabled people who have worked within 10 years of the disability and paid Social Security taxes. In the year 2000, the average benefit was about $750.

The monthly benefits available to a qualifying adult through SSI or SSDI will not make a homeless person rich. The goal of these programs is to provide a safety net for those who do qualify. These funds may be sufficient for a homeless person to secure housing.

People are homeless for a host of reasons, but they are not pretending to be poor. They do not have the funds for three meals a day and a roof over their heads every night.

No homeless person is getting rich through panhandling, recycling or any government program.

Why Do We Discriminate Against Homeless People?

Also published on The Huffington Post

My homeless friend, Larry, was upset as he recounted his recent experience: “The other day I went to a fast food store, bought a coffee and went outside to sit, drink my coffee and have a cigarette. But, they wouldn’t let me. ‘Move along,’ they said, ‘You can’t stay here.’ All I wanted to do was sit and have my coffee and a cigarette. And I had bought their coffee!”

What could I say to Larry? I have heard this before — presumably-housed people treating a homeless person differently than they would a housed person. For example, when housed people buy items at a fast food restaurant, we expect to be able to sit in the restaurant or on its patio and enjoy our food. It goes without saying. It’s what we expect and it’s what we get.

What are we talking about here? Fears. Fear of people we don’t know. We’ve been taught since childhood not to talk to strangers. But we’re adults now. We can introduce ourselves to anyone and thereby meet a neighbor and potential friend.

Fear of economic loss by having homeless people on the premises is a concern for any business. Everyone needs a home. But, until everyone has a home, we will have homeless people among us. What is a business to do?

I wonder if when a business accepts the patronage of a homeless person, whether that business has any responsibility to the homeless person. My homeless friend, Jimmy, was involved in a situation lately that gave me pause to think about this.

For over 10 years, Jimmy and his wheelchair-bound wife, Ellen, were homeless. When Ellen died nearly six years ago, Jimmy could not contain his grief and drank to try to literally drown his sorrows. Every day, Jimmy would visit his local convenience store and buy his morning paper and breakfast beer. During the day, as his finances would allow, Jimmy made as many trips to buy beer to the same convenience store. Needless to say, Jimmy has been a consistent customer for many years.

But his last trip to his convenience store was different. As Jimmy tells it, when selecting his morning newspaper, he thought he had paid for it and put it in his bag. Jimmy was still in the store when the owner of the convenience store approached Jimmy and told him that because he had tried to steal the newspaper, Jimmy was henceforth barred from shopping in his convenience store.

The day after this incident, Jimmy told me that he felt terrible about being barred from his convenience store.

Please know that I am not condoning theft by any means by any person, housed or unhoused. However, misunderstandings do arise.

So, I offered to speak to the owner of the convenience store on Jimmy’s behalf. Jimmy said that he would apologize to the management for the incident.

Unfortunately, the owner of the convenience store was not present when I went there, so I left my phone number with the manager and asked that owner call me so we could discuss the incident. [Note: the owner never called me.]

I shared Jimmy’s feelings about the incident with the manager. She was not interested in anything I had to say on Jimmy’s behalf. She did tell me repeatedly and with feeling that “they” are always standing outside the store and that “once ‘they’ steal from us, ‘they’ can never come back.”

I said that there was only one person involved in this incident and it was Jimmy. The manager did not know Jimmy’s name, but said that she did know that he had been coming to the store for years. She said that since he had stolen from the convenience store, he was barred from shopping there in the future.

I said that I understood her position, but that Jimmy felt terrible about the incident and would like to come in and apologize to her. She said that she was not interested in his apology.

“Please,” I entreated, “Allow Jimmy to come and apologize to you because it would be good for him to do so.”

“No, I’m just not interested,” she repeated.

This incident is an example of how some businesses regard homeless patrons as different from their housed patrons. I can use myself as an example. Every day for over two years, I have been walking several miles in the morning. On my way home from my exercise route, I always reward myself for my efforts by buying a cup of coffee in my local convenience store.

At my convenience store, the manager often greets me by name when I enter and the sales people are always friendly to me during my stay in their store. I am treated with respect and as an individual. I don’t feel like a “they.”

Could it be that homeless people, as was the case for Jimmy, are not seen as individuals? I guess I’ve written this piece in hopes of reminding all of us that homeless people are people, too.