Weekly Milpas on the Move Column By Sharon Byrne
Michael Merenda has long disagreed with the way we handle the working poor, the homeless, and the disabled. He jokes that people struggling economically but without addiction issues need to pour a bottle of whiskey over their head and check into the nearest homeless shelter to get on the fast track to housing and services. It’s a strange setup when those barely getting by must become destitute before they can get assistance through the revolving door here.
He refuses to lie down under the system run by the “poverty pimps”, as he calls it, but instead takes matters into his own hands and helps others in a sensible way. Michael distributes bread to the working poor to help them out.
How does he decide who’s working poor, when the County Supervisors are only just receiving a study on that? “If you live in Santa Barbara, and you’re working, you’re poor,” he says.
Well, there are people here with jobs that do fine, but I get it they’re not mostly working around State, where Michael does bread distribution. He wants to help those who are productive, yet struggling financially. So why not the homeless? Michael rolls his eyes. “Sure, give it to guys spending $30 a day on drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. They already get all the resources, courtesy of the Alcohol / Drug Failure Machine. That system is based on failure. More failure = more money for the machine. Why don’t we help those who need it, like seniors and the disabled, so they don’t become homeless? Why not support the people who are productive and don’t want to be in the revolving door?”
We’re at D’Angelo’s on a Friday afternoon. The staff is happy to see him, and likes his answer for their leftover bread rather than putting it on the compost pile. They’ve tried giving it to homeless shelters, but can’t deliver it, and it seems the shelters can’t arrange pick-up.
It’s a sad fact, but cheap food is primarily crap food. A box of highly processed and artificial ingredient-laden mac n’ cheese mix costs $.79, but it’s lousy nutrition. Same with mass-manufactured, highly processed breads.
D’Angelo’s breads are made from high quality ingredients, baked fresh daily, and are certainly not cheap. That takes them out of the budget of the average working class individual or family. You never think about how hard good nutrition is to come by, unless you can’t afford it.
Michael loads up the day’s leftovers in a giant duffel, and sets off on his delivery rounds. Robin Bread has taken to the street.
First stop: Marge, a senior citizen who says she was evicted from Laguna Cottages for making too many complaints on substandard conditions. She’s at the Sally, on a 2-6 year waitlist for housing. If she were drug or alcohol-addicted, the wait is supposed to be shorter. She’s been at the Sally for a year. The max stay is 2 years. If a housing slot doesn’t open up for her in the next year, then what?
Regarding Marge’s situation, Michael sighs.
You can’t escalate issues within the poverty industry in this town if you’re poor. They make you powerless.”
Next stop: the Greek place on the corner of Haley, a postage-stamp sized operation. The cook and owner are busting their behinds to stay afloat and welcome the bread deliveries. The restaurant business here is brutal, subject to peaks from tourists, and slumps otherwise. It’s also become victim to the capriciousness of Yelp and other online reviews, where anonymous posters can tank you, and you can’t do anything about it, but potential diners access those reviews off their smart phones to decide where to eat.
We then stopped at CHANCE, advocates for those with Autism and Down’s syndrome to find housing and supportive services. It is a particularly difficult challenge. Many are adults supported by aging family members. What happens when their caregiver, usually a parent, passes away? The answer often is to place them in the same facilities with those coping with addiction issues, coming out of homelessness, some with felony records, even sex-offenders. Shella, a CHANCE advocate, points out they’re not eligible for General Relief or food stamps. When contemplating placing them somewhere they’ll be co-mingled with a potentially more aggressive population, she frets over their safety. “They’re very vulnerable,” she says.
I had to leave Michael as he headed over to see the housekeepers at the Faulding. Michael makes many more stops on his distribution route, helping those struggling to make it here by giving them something perceived to have no value: leftover bread.
I admire those struggling to break out of poverty, and finding a way to help the community with their efforts. This is a great example of how a business can contribute to meeting a community need that benefits both parties, without taxpayer-funding. Michael and D’Angelo’s are doing something really good here, a great example of what’s right with Santa Barbara.