Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Stories of our homeless friends in Pasadena after a City Council Meeting

Because some members of the City Council left early on Monday, there was no quorum and the Council did not consider the anti-camping and anti-aggressive panhandling ordinances that we came to discuss. Our presence wasn’t in vain, however.  Our homeless neighbors and their housed allies had an opportunity to get to know each other better. Many of the homeless people came from the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, where a service takes place every Sunday night that includes people who are homeless and those who are housed, coming together to sing praises to God, hear a inspiring message, have communion, and shared a delicious meal and fellowship. Around a dozen of us gathered outside the Council chambers to talk. Here are some highlights:
Kim and Jill shared about their survey of businesses in Old Pasadena, where the results were similar to our survey of the Playhouse District. Almost all those surveyed expressed compassion and sympathy for homeless people and did not feel additional police intervention was necessary. Only one complained that homeless people were a nuisance. No one complained about aggressive panhandling. They said that the “Yellow Shirts” are usually able to deescalate problems when they arise. If they can’t, the police are very occasionally summoned. One example given of this police intervention was that it led to further escalation. “The homeless person who acted out was probably mentally ill,” noted Kim. “A civilian woman intervened and calmed things down.”
I shared about a Quaker friend of mine named John who raised funds for homeless people the old-fashioned way, sitting in front of a grocery store with a table showing that he is representing a licensed charity. This mild-mannered 60-year old white male politely asked passersby for contributions. Most didn’t mind, but some complained bitterly and make outrageous claims to the managers. They said that John had harassed and cursed at them. The manager knew John very well and realizes these complaints are pure fabrication but he feels obliged to tell John about them.
This story illustrates the problem with the anti-aggressive panhandling ordinance. It is vague and subjective.  If a mild-mannered white male can be falsely accused of being aggressive and menacing, what would some people say about someone who homeless or dark-complexioned? And if a middle class person files a complaint against a homeless person, whose word would be believed? This could lead to fines, arrest, and even jail time.  No good would come of this approach.
“The mayor hears from the complainers,” I concluded. “But he doesn’t hear from the compassionate, caring members of our community, like the ones that Jill and Kim surveyed. We need to be the voice for the compassionate majority of Pasadenans.”
Our homeless friends shared their experiences.
“I never knew anybody cared about us homeless,” said Martin, “until I went to the City Hall a couple of weeks ago and saw all you guys speaking out on our behalf.”
A black man in his fifties named Melvin shared his story.  He receives SSI--$900 a month, not enough to pay for rent and food. Like many disabled homeless people, he panhandles to pay for rent and food.
“When I panhandle, I say, ‘Excuse me, mister, could you spare some change?’” Melvin explained. “I don’t say,  ‘Could you give me a dollar?’ Because, see [frowning and looking mean],  that’s aggressive.”
I asked Melvin how long he’d been on the street and he replied, “A couple of months.”
“How did you become homeless?” I asked.
“I got sick and had to go to the hospital,” he explained. “Had an infection and they drilled a hole in my back,” he said, pointing to his spine. “Was laid up for a couple of weeks and when the hospital released me, I was kicked out of the room where I was staying. That’s why I been sleeping on the street.”
Sometimes he sleeps on benches but when he does, he is told to move on. 
“They ain’t too nice about it either,” he told us.
Later we walked to our car with Martin and he shared his story.
A young, intense black man with a proud spirit, Martin told us that he is not like others on the street.
 “I’m a musician,” he explained. “They wouldn’t like it if I said this, but I don’t want handouts or GI or welfare or food stamps. I don’t want to be dependent, like my Mom.  I want a job and my own apartment. I want to be independent.”
We expressed appreciation for his integrity and told him that all of us need help sometime. Privileged and white as we are, we received help from our parents, as well as from government loans.  But we also understood and appreciated his need to feel independent. Jill recalled a time in college when she got a job and was able to pay for her room, board and tuition.

“It was wonderful not needing to take money from my parents,” she said. “But later I did take money from them, like when they gave me a down payment so I could buy my house. We all need help sometime.”

As we heard these stories of our homeless neighbors, we gave thanks to God that we can come together as a community and let those who are privileged know these stories. Stories of struggle and resilience, and ultimately of hope, when we recognize that we are all part of God’s family.

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