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‘Good, Works’ or ‘Good Works’ – A Good Dream Either Way

Frank Treadway’s recent letter to the editor stirred up a fire-storm of conversation about Redding City Council member Missy McArthur’s idea to ticket transients who “Sit and Lie” on Redding sidewalks.

I’ve thought about this subject a lot since writing Redding’s Unsheltered Homeless series last year. I remain haunted by the people I see living on the streets, sleeping on concrete, subsisting in run-down hotels and pushing baby strollers through the pouring rain or blistering sun.

Though I’m haunted by them, I also fear some. This keeps me at arm’s length, even though I’ll never know if that person is someone to fear or not.

I’m an emotional yo-yo.  I feel sympathy for transients and homeless (there but for the grace of God go I). But I also resent feeling afraid.

My twin and I talk about these issues a lot. One day, we had a brain storm about a possible solution. We even named it: “Good Works.” We liked that title because it has double meanings. There’s “Good Works” the proclamation (yes it does!), and “Good Works” the adjective/noun description. 

I’ll go way out on a projected limb here: My deepest hunch is that one of the greatest causes of homelessness,  depression and a lot of substance abuse is a lack of productivity. With that comes a lack of a sense of purpose and anticipation, the lack of joy that comes when someone – anyone – counts on us.

Where’s the life incentive when there’s no compelling reason to haul your ass out of bed each day?

I heard a story on NPR recently about one of the world’s largest animal-rescue projects that involved thousands of volunteers washing toxic oil from penguins. These volunteers hand-fed these penguins, and then the penguins were eventually placed three-in-a box and transported to where they could be safely released.

I have no doubt that if there were a passed-out penguin on one downtown Redding corner and a passed-out transient on the other corner, people would step over the man in droves to line up and help the penguin.

Don’t get me wrong. I like penguins.

But what about our fellow human beings? What about these people we’ve conditioned ourselves to step over and look beyond and ignore their words, either spoken or written on a cardboard sign? They are somebody’s brother, sister, mother, father, son or daughter.

Shannon has been homeless “on and off” for 15 years. Photo by Doni Chamberlain.

It’s not enough to give food and even temporary shelter to the transients and homeless. It’s a short-sighted patronizing Band-Aid to hand them a sleeping bag, tent and food scraps and send them on their way in a city where homeless encampments are illegal. It’s offensive to treat them as if they have nothing to offer society, and as if we have zero expectations of them.

What if it turns out that many of the transients and homeless are literally dying to do something, to help, to be productive? But what if the only thing stopping them is they can’t figure out where to start, what to do or where to go?

I remember a few months ago I was behind a newish SUV that stalled at a green light. Just as the driver – wearing a suit – got out to push his vehicle, a young scruffy man passing by on his too-little bike (with a large plastic bag full of aluminum cans hanging from the handlebar), hopped off the bike, and jumped behind the SUV to help the man push.

The driver looked as surprised as I felt.

Until our society seeks and finds preventions and solutions for homelessness and its gate-way causes, we are just providing social-service life-support: Keep those tortured souls alive, but do nothing to encourage them to express their God-given talents and abilities.

Do not address joy or quality of life. Do nothing to help them feel worthwhile as a human being. Do nothing to provide opportunities to learn (or relearn) the skill of helping another. Do nothing to foster the feeling of pride that comes from earning what you’ve received. Do nothing to help spark the elation and satisfaction we know and crave that comes when someone looks us in the eye, puts a hand on shoulder and says, “Well done!”

Our Good Works idea would be a place, right in the middle of Redding. It would provide work, income and pride for the homeless veterans, the mentally ill, the addicted, the aged-out foster kids, transients, parolees and the chronically unemployed.

We envision a clean and almost militarily well-structured place, surrounded by fruit trees – a source of shade and beauty – but also a source of food for eating and canning and selling.

We pictured inside Good Works’ “walls” outdoor bread ovens and raised garden beds and pottery wheels and carpentry shops and industrial kitchens; all places that produce something sellable.

Imagine if our community’s citizens helped by dropping off at this place everything from clothes and appliances to old furniture and canning jars.

Imagine workers learning to recycle these things, turning them into something functional and good and sellable. Imagine if some people in the community felt led to teach classes, whether wood-working or carpentry or welding or sewing or cooking or canning or knitting or pruning or landscaping or appliance repair or mechanics.

This place could have a retail store where all items sold were the workers’ creations, whether jams, jellies, refinished furniture or rugs made from braided scraps of old clothes.

Almost everyone can do something. Almost everyone can excel at something. What if we worked at helping identify each person’s skills – no matter how basic – and created a place where those previously “discarded” and broken, seemingly hopeless and helpless people could succeed and be proud of a job well done?

Good Works could be a metaphor for the human beings who work there: Making something good from something disposed, whether a broken table or a broken spirit.

In exchange for transitional housing (drug-free, alcohol-free dorm-like shelters) and showers and food, the guests would be required to do something to support the facility, at whatever level matched their skills and talents.

As an aside, I remember when I was collecting materials for my dream home’s construction, and I wanted to be as “green” as possible. I was interested in using denim insulation in our walls and I wanted recycled polished glass counter tops. I opted against those because they were too expensive. What if our Redding place created materials like those, and others?

There would be plenty of work for everyone. Some people might work in gardens, or feed chickens or collect eggs or rip cloth for rugs or sand wood, or create product tags, or bake bread or chop wood or refurnish furniture or make bricks. Imagine if this facility took recycled glass, plastic, cardboard and metal and made something beautiful and functional.

What if – and this is radical – a portion of the these people’s disability payments helped fund and operate this place to cover the costs of food, shelter, education and employment?

Imagine if this facility allowed people to start at the bottom, and work their way up as far as they could go, and when they reached the top, then they could train others, and be a living, breathing testimony of rebirth and rebuilding.

No longer would they be charity cases, assumed helpless and hopeless, handed donated food like a dependent animal unprepared to live independently. Now, they’d be crucial members of a place that needed them. They’d feel respected and valued. And after learning these new skills, they could go out in the world, use their new skills and earn a living.

What if this place allowed people in their darkest hours to glimpse a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel? This place could offer those formerly discarded and dejected people a way through that tunnel and then far beyond it.

Into the light and on to life.

(Compassionate Hope Ministries is an excellent model for what I’m talking about: Guests are asked to help, whether it’s sweeping or cooking or helping in the bike shop. A story for another day. )

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.