Today I talk with Melinda Brown, director of People of Progress in Redding. Brown is a longtime Redding community participant. She has created coalitions and collaboratives and projects benefiting the community in the areas of the environment, the arts, community health, land-use planning, connectivity, public transportation, social services and safety-nets, and works to strengthen democracy and build an informed citizenry. In 1986, she co-founded the citizens group whose initiative shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. She has led People of Progress since 1992.
Q: Melinda, thanks so much for talking with me today. There’s no way to address this issue without getting your input. Can you briefly describe your position, and POP, and your organization’s mission?
I am the executive director. People of Progress’s mission is to strengthen individuals, families and the community with special emphasis on issues of concern for low income persons. Through our food bank and resource center we serve over 7,000 different people each year; 25 percent are homeless. Annually, we tend to serve 80 percent of the persons counted as homeless through the county-wide COC surveys which we conduct.
Q: So you deal a lot with the issue of homelessness. In fact, POP participates each year in a homeless count, which was just done the last week in January. Can you tell us how the count is conducted? Do you know the outcome of that count yet?
We’ve just released the results this week and they are also on our website. This is the Shasta Redding Homeless Continuum of Care Council’s yearlong and one-day point-in-time survey with generally over 20 organizations participating. Overall in 2011 – 2,213
people were counted who are considered homeless.
POP designs and distributes the survey and tabulates it. Surveys are conducted in camps, at agencies, at shelters, at food banks, etc. Overall, 2011’s yearlong numbers show very little difference from the prior year. The one-day Point-in-Time survey done on January 27th seemingly shows a large increase in numbers however, we had more organizations participating and when we separated out those surveys submitted from those new organizations, it was obvious that the entire increase came directly because of new sources – not an increase anywhere else.
However, we had more organizations participating and when we separated out those surveys submitted from those new organizations, it was obvious that the entire increase came directly because of new sources – not an increase anywhere else. We’ve administered the surveys since 2004 and follow the Federal definition of homeless and chronic homeless.
When we count 2,213 people as homeless in 2011, not all will be homeless all year and not all are unsheltered. Homeless categories include people living in cars or on the street, temporarily living with friends/family, in transitional housing and temporarily in motels. It is important for the community to know that overall from 200 to 300 identified in the yearlong survey would be characterized as long-term chronic homeless – but the other 2,000 are not. Most persons answering our survey report being homeless three months or less and 25% are homeless a year or more.
This is fairly standard year to year. At the time people answer the survey, generally 25 percent are unsheltered (camping, in a car or on the street), 30 percent are staying in shelters, 30 percent are temporarily staying with friends or family and most of the rest are in transitional housing, motels or programs. Anyone interested can check out our website for more in-depth local information.
Q: In the years you’ve been involved with this issue, have you noticed a change in the face of the homeless?
When we operated the winter Armory Shelter for five years in the early 1990’s, we relied upon people staying there for much of the setting up and cleaning, etc. I could count on one hand instances where anyone was out of control potentially posing a threat to anyone. If there were substance abuse issues, it was mainly alcohol. Now, there seems to be significantly more drug abuse along with alcohol abuse. When people are high they are much less predictable, more explosive and dangerous. People who are camping and in shelters seem more on an edge, desperate and discouraged. It’s harder to find small jobs and any jobs in this economy and it’s much more expensive to own a car which severely limits people’s options.
Surprisingly, according to our survey data, the numbers of women and children have decreased – unlike state and national figures. We don’t know why. We know that more families are renting housing together, doubling up and housing management companies
have verified this.
This may be occurring here more than elsewhere – perhaps there are more larger older homes available for rent here than in highly dense urban areas or more households have relatives living here that they are staying with. I’ve asked other service providers their thoughts and to sum it up: we really don’t know.
Q: Part 1 in our series featured many photos of land located far down in the ravine off Lake Boulevard. At the bottom of the hill it resembled a landfill. Have you ever visited some of the bigger encampments, and if so, what’s your personal reaction to them?
I have seen the camps with lots of garbage. Some other smaller camps do not have as much or any garbage and some are very hard to spot. Larger camps also tend to have more unsafe conditions with fights and resulting injuries. There is no excuse for any
camps loaded with garbage. Campers who do not have mental illnesses limiting their abilities to keep their camp clean should keep the camp clean for everyone else to the best of their abilities.
Doni, this is as good a time as any to make some more statements so I’ll just plunge in here: driving by the Battle Creek river access parking lot south of Cottonwood last Sunday, I saw six couches dumped in that one parking lot. Homeless persons did not dump them. There are hundreds of tons of illegally dumped washers, dryers, couches and trash on public and private lands every year in Shasta County that are not done by people who are homeless. Iron Mountain Mine has cost hundreds of millions of dollars to remediate tons of toxics that used to flow into the Sacramento River.
So the garbage in camps is not acceptable, but there is also some context to be considered as well. All this is not to say that nothing should be done about garbage and sanitation in camps and there should be some more ways to address it. I’ve been thinking on it and
talking with others.
Additionally, there is a tendency for the public and for news media to emphasize and remember crimes committed by persons who are homeless. I’m not diminishing these crimes in any way, however, there is a larger context here as well. Shasta County has
an extremely high rate of drunk drivers killing and maiming innocent people annually – most of these drunk drivers are not homeless.
RPD responds to hundreds of domestic violence calls at homes, hundreds of altercations at bars, again, this is not from homeless
persons camping on public land. Months ago a fight spilled outside a popular bar downtown, Johnny’s Cat House, and swelled to around 200 more unruly people from other surrounding establishments to the extent that responding officers called for major
back up and were in fear of their own and others’ safety — these were not homeless persons.
Many and most problems in our community are not resulting from people who are homeless or those who are homeless campers.
Q: When RPD and DFG and tag and dismantle camps, they throw away tents and sleeping bags, some of which are new. I’ve heard some talk about the organizations providing things like tents, sleeping bags and blankets on a lending basis, almost like a library, and those items would be marked with the organizations’ names, so they could get them back and give them to other homeless people. This would require organizations going with RPD to collect those items. Your thoughts about that suggestion?
I was in the meeting where this idea came up. Many times sleeping bags and tents are actually stolen. There were less than 10 tents taken by RPD for the entire year and those were held for a time for a time in case the owner wished to pick it up. When there is
a complaint about camping at a site, RPD visits a camp and will post a notice on tents and that camping area. If the camper(s) does not move within the days allocated, trash is removed, personal belongings are confiscated and the site posted as to where owners
can reclaim their property.
The lending library idea could be explored and it may have most usefulness when an organization who is actively providing casework or otherwise working with a person could lend that person a tent and sleeping bags. Another idea is to have social service providers who visit camps give a thank you card and a small useful gift only for campers who are keeping clean camps. I’ve given two dozen pairs of gloves for this purpose to see what the response is, if this is useful. Another idea being tried is to distribute trash bags to campers. I know the officer who is responsible for cleaning up camps and have found him to be unfailingly respectful and helpful to homeless campers and he works with the social service agencies when he can.
Q: I keep hearing about parolees who come to Shasta County, and Redding, because it has the amenities like fast-food, retail, and recycling centers. Has that population impacted your services?
The State directs parolees which county to locate in. POP is not being impacted significantly—at least not yet. Other programs are and will be.
Q: Is there a “typical” POP client?
Someone who comes in for emergency food or clothing or bus passes — and who is in need of information and a game plan and sometimes doesn’t even know it. 7,000 unduplicated people served is a lot of individual people with individual situations and
there are different opportunities for each of them.
Pretty much everyone coming in receives more than just food or clothing and encouragement, but also some additional idea or resource that will help them move forward.
People come to us facing hurdles and barriers and usually are in some sort of financial crisis: just lost their job and are not receiving benefits yet; insufficient monthly income for enough food; signed up for food stamps and not receiving yet; disabled receiving not food stamps; not eligible for some programs and not aware of others that they are eligible for emergencies happen to us all. We’re the only food bank and resource center open 6 days a week, through the lunch hour and even by appointment outside of office hours, so we are accessible to those who need us.
Q: What do you think are the biggest contributing factors that result in unsheltered homeless?
I’d say that winding up unsheltered is a result of a cumulative downward spiral of things happening and not happening over time. That, and losing connection with friends, family over time. The biggest barriers once a person is unsheltered is safety, health conditions that become exacerbated, getting transportation, a shower and clean clothes to get a job or access resources.
I thought I’d look at our survey data – sometimes data disabuses us of incorrect perceptions – well, if the data is correct and complete and our methodology and analysis is also correct (and assuming that data can ever be complete .. .) So, I looked at our data for just this population and compared it with data for the overall sheltered homeless population and most results are uncannily the same such as the length of time homeless; or being on parole/probation or not; or causes of becoming homeless (loss of job, for instance, as a factor was listed exactly equally in both groups).
I did find a couple very interesting things, though. It looks like people who are in the unsheltered homeless are half as likely to answer that they have had and/or have been treated for substance abuse than the overall group of people who are homeless. (overall
homeless: 9 percent said had substance abuse problems and 14percent been treated for it compared to the unsheltered group where 3 percent said they had this issue and 7 percent said they’d been treated).
Same went for answering if they experienced severe mental illness and had been treated for it. What are we to think of this? It goes against what I would have assumed however, it may mean that more actually have it than are saying or that less have it. OR that those out in camps and on the street were more likely to be interviewed rather than fill out a survey privately on their own and so tended to answer differently. Quite confusing. So I’ll go back to likely causes: the economy. mental illness, choice and behavior and policies and substance abuse.
The Good News Rescue Mission is not turning anyone away for lack of space. They do have a 30-day out policy for person not signing up for programs designed to help them move forward. Not everyone can follow rules all the time and not everyone wants to follow rules so some people choose not to stay there. And some refuse to stay because of the religious services before dinner, however, the Mission is what our community has supported to serve homeless persons and they have outstanding programs. The HOPE Van medical and social service team goes out into camps every week to connect people with services. There are many other effective programs, POP being one of them. We are very fortunate to have such a high quality programs in Redding. There are many success stories of people we have collectively helped.
Q: If money were no object, what would you see as the solutions to homelessness?
A thriving economy with living wages and more professional jobs. Universal healthcare. Complete knowledge of where to get ideas and help on any topic before anything swells into a bigger crisis. And a magic pill so everyone – housed or marginally housed or unhoused – would feel connected to their families and communities; would no longer have anger management issues; no family violence or substance abuse issues, no illness of any kind and most people could easily conduct most of their life’s errands using public
transportation; everyone would have great money management skills; and have healthy creative outlets and feel empowered and work together with their neighbors.
Oh, and no one would be victims of phone or investment scams. Our tax code would be fair and accountable.
Specifically, though, a fund for emergency rental assistance to prevent persons from becoming homeless when they experience an unusual and unavoidable crisis; a robust roommate match service to help renters find safe house-sharing arrangements; a deposit
loan guarantee program; more transitional housing for people that need that type of assistance; and a mystery idea I’m working on – so stay tuned…
Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Anything else you’d like us to know about this issue?
In the many years we have served people who are homeless, I see their needs and challenges and assets as a wide spectrum. Some have few barriers and can be helped relatively easily and quickly; some have many difficulties moving forward; some are
not likely to be able to be helped currently because they are not just not ready or ready enough at this moment.
This doesn’t mean they can never move forward, just that it’s not very likely at the moment. There are many services, many people working very hard together to help our community and we are helping people every day. It’s very rewarding and effective.
People are also helping each other every day at all levels in our community. Most are climbing out of homelessness largely or solely on their own by staying with friends and saving up money for their own place. People are deciding to share housing for the long term to have more stability.
Landlords are letting people pay deposits on a payment plan. And on the other hand, there are also people throwing mud and stones which is not helpful. Some are condemning current services as not adequate or too restrictive or RPD as uncaring or homeless persons as the cause of all their own problems. Differences of opinion are essential in making good decisions for everyone at every level when they are informed and respectful. This leads to common ground and progress.
I’m for progress.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.