This column is a follow-up to one I wrote two weeks ago, where the responses made clear the issue is one that’s on the hearts and minds of many. Ideally I hope we ask more questions, get more information, and open the window wide to let in as much info as possible. With that…
Tuesday was a study in seemingly random events that provided some startling contrasts. At 10:00 AM was the monthly Milpas Action Task Force meeting. The MATF came out of a city council directive, issue in 2004, that the shelter, with city staff and an expanded neighborhood advisory council, create a comprehensive plan to address the problems in the area. At this session, we asked the police about early prison release, and jail overcrowding. They reported there is some effect from early releases on the South County area as parolees are released back to the area where they were arrested. We were also tasked with gathering data on panhandling in the Milpas area, to define the scope of the problem.
At 1:30 PM, I saw a Roger (Edhat) alert that Tri-County Produce had a shoplifting turned assault. John Dixon, the owner, had been at the MATF meeting. He had intercepted a group of three leaving the store: two were shoplifting, one using a brand new Tri-County Produce reusable bag. The male became aggressive when John tried to detain him. It took 4 male employees to subdue the assault. One of the Tri-County employees got a bloody nose, and John sustained some cuts. Customer witnesses phoned it in to SBPD. The female shoplifter was apprehended down at the beach. The third in the party, another female, told John they’d just had lunch at the shelter.
One hour later, the Board of Supervisors met on the fate of the Bridgehouse Shelter, recently shut down as a result of the Lompoc Housing Community Development Corporation’s bankruptcy. I watched some of the public comment portion online, prominent speakers advocating for the care of Lompoc’s homeless, now without shelter.
At the same time, Eastside resident Robin Unander wrote a powerful first-hand account of transients drinking on the sidewalk in front of her home, while her toddler watched through the window. It was published in Wednesday’s Daily Sound.
At 3:00 PM, I received an email from a community member about panhandlers at both ends of the Trader Joe’s lot on Milpas. The community member asked them a question: where are you from? San Francisco. They said they’d been here since Sunday, this was a great place to come, as they’d be fed by non-profits. When asked: so then why panhandle? Tourists, the locals are nice, and the cops don’t care.
Now, wherever your emotions went while reading this sequence of events in the course of one day… you’re right to feel those things. This particular issue sparks a lot of feelings that reflect the experience one has had on this subject, whatever that experience has been, and all experiences are equally valid.
Some of us have meaningfully participated in assisting homeless individuals. We might have served lunch to someone we know, who once had a business here, and now this feeding is their only route to get a good meal. One might have helped someone leave homelessness, and been powerfully affected by that experience. Those who volunteered for the count last year might have heard first-hand narratives of loss and addiction that touched them deeply.
There is nothing anyone can say that would negate those experiences, their power, and the feelings they created.
But the same is also equally true of people who have been assaulted, experienced theft or shoplifting, harassment, trespass, and defecation on their property. The businessman who runs a tacqueria with his daughters, assaulted behind his business at 5 AM when he accidentally disturbed a transient sleeping at his back door, is upset. Understandably. The manager at McDonald’s who was punched in the face by a transient who arrived recently from Santa Maria is also upset, understandably. John experienced an assault in apprehending a shoplifter. There are people who avoid some of the stores on Milpas, or State St altogether, because they don’t want to experience an intimidating scene.
None of these feelings are wrong. Whatever experience you’ve had is valid, because you’ve had it, and nothing anyone can say will undo it. Browbeating won’t make it un-happen, and neither will name-calling.
I put this forth today, after the randomness of the events of Tuesday, because it feels like when we talk about this issue, people divide into opposing poles, and refuse to consider any other way of looking at it.
(Anyone who follows issues will readily point out this happens on any number of fronts.)
But reality is not so black-and-white. Those that have helped people in dire need, and feel we should do so, are right. But so are those who’ve experienced a criminal element, the effects of fallout on their area, or who meet individuals who show us how we’re taken advantage of…their experiences and thoughts are no less valid.
What’s necessary is to hold the tension of those opposites, those different experiences, and the total reality they present. It’s not one or the other. It’s both / and. Until we learn to see the situation, in its entirety, we’ll never get to an objective viewpoint.
Without that, we’ll never be able to solve this problem.