Underwood: Some New Year Thoughts on the Homeless

John Underwood

As a student of journalism, as working reporter looking at the world through the lens of a camera, I have been trained to stand apart and see the story I was covering from many sides, careful not to take sides. I approached the crisis of homelessness in Orange County just that way two years ago when I was invited by homeless activist Tim Houchen to cover his 2017 Longest Night Memorial to the homeless who passed away on the streets of Orange County in that year. Subsequently, and with the same methodical detachment, I tracked the momentous events leading up to the mass riverbed evictions and motel exodus of the homeless in 2018.

To be honest, in this age of so many refracted political perspectives to consider it can be comforting to fall back on so called journalistic objectivity, and just take a pass on having to take a position on many of the really thorny issues of our time. My job was to document, not decide. Not taking sides can be a convenient position to be in, during such tumultuous times.

But slowly, imperceptibly, as I looked deeper into the personal agonies and systemic failures around those we homogenize into a subclass called “the homeless”, that cloak of objectivity began to wear thin, a tattered blanket with too many holes in it, a luxury my moral center could no longer hide behind. As the sad and relentless parade of those without abode unfolded before my eyes, I began to realize the truth about this broad cross section of our society we call our homeless was rarely being told in a context of compassion or at least a level of complexity each story deserved. The voices of the homeless themselves, who they were, why they were homeless, what they needed most, so seldom rose to the surface of a public debate laden with ginned up statistics and dumbed down misconceptions about the homeless, that I felt a balance, even a reckoning, was needed to give them a voice that could compete with the politicos, the pundits, and the money men all jockeying for position on the back of this new  golden goose called the homeless crisis for which the floodgates of public dollars were about to flow.

When the well respected homeless crisis “fixer” from Salt Lake City Lloyd Pendleton, who reduced  homelessness in that town by 90% among the most chronic populations,  came to Chapman University in 2018 to present his fix to a hall full of movers and shakers, he squared off with OC leaders face to face, presenting what he called his “three Cs” as necessary conditions for resolving homelessness: first, he called for Champions, which he acknowledged, “Orange County has, particularly at the lower levels of advocacy.” Collaborations was his second C, that is a system of bridge building capable of fostering and administering care on a broad scale. This, he said, we also possessed. But it was the third C Lloyd warned OC leaders gathered in that conference room, without which, he predicted, Orange County would fail to adequately resolve its homeless crisis. . .. that third C was Compassion. “A high capacity for compassion,” he challenged them, “do you really care for your homeless, can you meet them, feed them, see them as a brother, a cousin, a nephew . . . listen to their stories . . . that’s when you learn,” he concluded, “When you reach out and become that caring person.”

Mr. Pendleton admitted he himself and his corps of the compassionate of Salt Lake made many mistakes and fostered many misconceptions about the homeless in the beginning, going after the easy converts first. But only after focusing on the most chronic homeless first did they begin to see striking and lasting successes in permanently housing their homeless. “It’s outcomes that matter most, not processes.” he told the Chapman audience of political leaders, health care and shelter officials. “Get over this judging. .  .They are not those people.”   He said, “they are our fellow citizens. . . . Go out and meet your homeless eyeball to eyeball. . . as human beings.”

When I consider my own misconceptions and cultural blind spots that have been part of my own learning curve through a series of reports I am producing called “No Fixed Abode”, I think of Lloyd and his painful path of discovery toward getting to know who the homeless really are as individuals, and   what it is they need most. You just can’t get this eye level understanding of the homeless from spread sheets and press releases and two- minute news segments.

I have come to know some of these individuals “eyeball to eyeball” through a number of homeless advocates, the ones Lloyd called Champions, who work directly with the homeless of Orange County at the street level. They see what I see- the consequences of a largely dispassionate and disconnected county response to homelessness. A growing subculture of castoffs we neither care for nor count. Out on the streets and in the darker corners of the county where no quarter is given, criminalization is often the only institutional response these homeless see. Federal Judge David Carter, who is busy brokering settlements with OC cities, presumably on behalf of the homeless, targets for shelter placements just 60% of the county’s already woeful homeless undercount, leaving  40% of them out in the cold, at the mercy of law enforcement and disenfranchised from healthcare services or contracted outreach. Ironically, these chronic homeless are the very ones Lloyd Pendleton sought compassionate relief for first and found his greatest successes with.

It is these other homeless I cannot disengage from with typical journalistic objectivity. Lately, I have joined a small core of advocates in Orange County who administer directly to these forgotten homeless, the shelter resistant, the service neglected, the fiercely independent, and yes the most medically depleted and sometimes drug compromised. I do so partly because I can no longer hang my humanity at the door when I enter their world. By offering something of value to them, a hot meal, dry socks in the winter, some cool water in the summer, I am showing respect to them in whatever condition I find them. In turn I am getting something of value too, their willingness to speak their truth to me, and in so doing peel away the layers of misconceptions I and the general public have about who these so called least of ours are. And every day I learn from them.

Case in point. Two days before Christmas I was offered through one of the advocates three large trays of warm food to disseminate among the homeless. This amounted to 40-50 hot meals, so I put everything else on hold and took my bounty to one of many park-based homeless gathering places I knew of. Upon arrival, I announced hot meals for all. Because they knew me, word got around and within a few minutes a crowd gathered even as the rain fell. I began to serve. Feeding folks who are cold and hungry and with no place to call home is reward enough. But as usual I benefitted from the encounter too, humbled and wiser from the experience as homeless once again disabused me of yet another misperception rolling around in my brain, namely that the homeless are by and large Godless.

After dishing out maybe a dozen or more plates of chicken Tandoori, beef and rice, I glanced up and noticed no one was eating. No one. Thinking the food might not be warm enough I chided a few with food, but not eating, that it wasn’t going to get any warmer. A young kid, Curt, who helped me carry the large warming box over to the picnic tables cleared his throat and informed me quietly so I would not be embarrassed in front of the other homeless now 15 to 20 deep, that it was their custom in a group to say grace before digging in. An elderly homeless man then stepped forward and recited a salutation of thanksgiving he had obviously uttered many times before and judging from the unanimity of responses from the bowed heads around the picnic tables, many had heard his prayer of thanks before.

I was embarrassed, but not for neglecting to say grace before serving a few dozen homeless folks. I would not presume to impose that precondition on anyone who was hungry and cold and destitute. My embarrassment was more internalized, in assuming these homeless individuals would be so hungry they would forego any formality or courtesy toward man or God to get at a warm meal. Angry at myself for assigning to an entire group of people a notion I had only concocted in my own brain. How many more casual misconceptions have I still to flush out of my brain about the homeless. And if I, who have spent the last couple of years around them, can still pass such easy judgement upon them, what of the other three million Orange Countians who rarely interact with a homeless person enough to even get beyond their own snap judgements and their fears?

In 2019 I took up Mr. Pendleton’s challenge “to meet the homeless eyeball to eyeball” because I sensed there was more to their stories than could be summed up in a news segment. So I went for a walk with my camera to the underside of Orange County where the homeless really live. Some were easy to find. Some, like chasing ghosts. Some only showed me what they wanted me to see. Some so traumatized they could share only their suffering. But some who shared their stories with me over time revealed a dignity, a humanity that only comes to those who have struggled and survived the worst the world can dish out, and still they find comfort in being human. Theirs are the stories that shake your assumptions, and compel you to care.

Even as I was learning from the homeless, I had to unlearn almost all of what I once thought I knew about them, burn away time taught prejudices, strip to the bone shallow thinking about who the homeless are. I’m still learning. Still on that long walk with the lost homeless of Orange County. Still seeking their stories. And hopefully still caring. It may not be the most clinical approach. It may not be the hands clean objective journalism I learned in grad school, but I’m sure Lloyd Pendleton would agree, making homelessness personal, taking the time to hear the truth in their stories, cuts to the heart of the matter, compels us to care, and reminds us those without abode are not “the homeless.” They are not “those people.” They are us. As Lloyd said it so simply, “They are our people, our fellow citizens.. . .they are human beings.” Only when we understand them that way, will compassion, caring and solutions come.

John Underwood is a working reporter and media producer in Orange County with extensive background in Orange County based news and public affairs in print, broadcast and online platforms. Past news organizations he has been affiliated with are National Public Radio, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly and various other OC based news publications. His current documentary series NO FIXED ABODE focuses on channeling the voices of the OC homeless and can be viewed on the website losaltv.org.

 

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