Janice O’Brien: An open letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom on homelessness
Dear Governor Newsom,
I applaud you for focusing exclusively on the housing crisis here in California in your State of the State address.
I also was impressed that you came to Grass Valley to look into our more innovative project called the “Home Team” and what these men and women are doing to reach out to our homeless folks here in Nevada City and Grass Valley. I was disappointed though, that you did not include Sierra Roots as one of your inquiries.
We understand the restrictions of such a visit, but you missed learning about a new paradigm of working with the homeless and what Sierra Roots, a local nonprofit who works exclusively with the chronically homeless in these two cities, is doing.
I see you as someone who likes to look forward and creatively about the challenges facing our state and our county. Homelessness is one very big challenge and we at Sierra Roots thinks the ways government and our political — even some of our service agencies, have been approaching this crisis in an old and outdated way. It is an old paradigm of charity instead of solidarity that is not going anywhere. In fact, the homeless crisis is growing.
Yes, it is because of many things — shortage of housing, cost of living, low wages, poverty, etc. But addressing the problem just with more housing and more and more money doesn’t seem to be helping either. Putting these people in warehousing situations where they have little privacy or sending them away on a Greyhound bus is certainly not the answer either. The logical response is, “They’re homeless so let’s give them homes. Housing first.” That seems to be our most creative solution. And yes, we all need a decent place to call home.
Sierra Roots brings a fresh and radical (roots) idea to the table. Including these people in problem solving and responsibility for their future with community, non-judgment, and person to person friendship — walking with them rather than doing for them seems to be a more humane and lasting way to help them help themselves.
We can point them to the help that agencies can provide, but first, they have to think about what they need and want with a desire and determination to follow through on that plan. With a friend’s encouragement and appreciation, they can and will work their way out of the isolation, depression and desperation they now feel. But the big plans of the government overlook the need to get to know these individuals to find out from them what will work.
There now is a growing sense of frustration and futility in the homeless community, because it seems it’s been a long time, a lot of talk, and little action. The political will is lacking, thinking that all will take care of itself somehow, if we just give them houses.
Because we have an emergency shelter called Hospitality House and we have a cold weather shelter run by Sierra Roots, our political leaders here think we’ve done enough. We haven’t even begun to really include and work with these individuals. We haven’t even asked them what they think would work for them.
Those of us who profess to work for them haven’t even included them in our planning and thinking. We approach the situation with a superior attitude and think we know best for them. We go about our plans for building while overlooking their real needs of inclusion, dignity, friendship and community.
We encourage you to find out more about how Sierra Roots is working to bring a new and more humane, if humble way, to bring these folks into new dignity, friendship and health. They hold the answer themselves, and are not the problem that we or they think we have to solve. While all we are doing for them now is still not addressing the root cause, which is isolation, breakdown of family, lack of community and human-to-human caring.
This idea of healing homelessness through community may be one very real solution and needs serious consideration. We ask you to include it in your plans.
Thank you for all you are trying to do to address this situation.
Until we come together with these folks in a serious and honest way in respect and community, we will not make any progress with our “Housing First” solution.
Janice O’Brien is the founder and president of Sierra Roots. Learn more at http://www.sierraroots.org.
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