Sure, it’s a religious holiday and a secular celebration, and a time to remember Peace on Earth. However, mainly, Christmas is a time to get stuff. People become very preoccupied over what they’re going to give and what they’re going to get. Often, it’s stuff.
It’s a good time of the year to remember that some people experiencing homelessness have “too much” stuff — not in the sense of whether they need it, because they do need it just as much as housed people need their stuff. It’s too much stuff because there is nowhere to leave it, and it’s a real hassle to carry around with you everything you own. Too often, that is what homelessness is all about.
For USA Today, Marisa Kendall interviews Phillip Black, a person experiencing homelessness, whose belongings were thrown away by the police when he temporarily had to leave them unattended. A resident of Washington, D.C., Black currently keeps his stuff in two different shopping carts, one stowed behind a church and another in a parking lot. Kendall writes,
Finding a place to safely leave possessions is one of many challenges homeless people face each day, homeless advocates say. Some cities, including Portland, Ore., St. Petersburg, Fla., New York, San Francisco and Chicago are trying to help people in Black’s situation by offering free storage space to the homeless.
The District of Columbia, where Washington is located, once had a free storage program, back in the ’80s and ’90s. Kendall spoke with the deputy director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, Cornell Chappelle, who said that one of the problems with free storage is that people would just leave their belongings there forever. It’s a major issue for the people who run such a facility. (It’s probably a major issue for the people whose belongings were abandoned, too, because they are likely to be in jail or dead.)
Kendall says that in New York City, a person experiencing homelessness can use any commercial storage facility, and the city will pay the bill. That sounds almost too good to be true, so there must be a mile of red tape connected with it. The program in Arlington, Virginia, sounds wonderful. In St. Petersburg, Florida, old reliable St. Vincent de Paul, which has been in the helping business for decades, operates a storage center with 260 large bins, and most of them are generally in use.
The Portland, Oregon, center, with 50 cubicles big enough to hold a shopping cart, opened very recently. The city paid $30,000, and the Portland Business Alliance kicked in another $8,000. It’s only temporary, however, because a Resource Access Center that is scheduled to open next summer will fill the storage need and provide many other services.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, a storage facility located in a church and financed for a limited time by the city, was used by over 200 people experiencing homelessness. When the startup grant expired, things looked grim. But the company won a $25,000 prize in a “great ideas” contest sponsored by Pepsi, and received funding from three local foundations and a lot of donations from the public, so it looks like it will be able to stay open for another year.
But somebody always has to make the hard decisions on when to get rid of stuff. It can’t just keep piling up forever. There must be many more dilemmas associated with operating a storage place like this, and the people who figure out how to make it work smoothly are to be congratulated and applauded.
Source: “More cities offer homeless free storage,” USA Today, 11/18/10
Source: “Vancouver homeless get aid from Pepsi,” Edmonton Journal, 11/13/10
Image by Phillip Stewart, used under its Creative Commons license.
What better way to celebrate the holidays than to hear a success story? There is a good one in the San Francisco Chronicle and, no surprise, it’s about a person experiencing homelessness. The reporter is Tim Povtak, who writes for pro basketball annual magazines and has won many awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors. The story originates in Mt. Vernon, New York, a smallish city of 60,000 inhabitants, bordering on the Bronx.
Mt. Vernon is renowned for the number of excellent basketball players it has produced and supplied to college and professional teams. Their jerseys hang on the wall of the gym at the local high school. One of the athletes thus memorialized is Ray Williams, who was always remembered by his home town, even though no one had seen him for many years.
Once upon a time Williams, now 56, was a local hero and an inspiration to the young players coming up after him. From 1977 to 1987, he played for 10 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). His professional career started with four seasons for the New York Knicks, including a year as team captain. Then he joined the New Jersey Nets, the Kansas City Kings, went back to the Knicks, and has also played for the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs.
Like many athletes, Williams didn’t manage money too well, either before or after retiring from the sport. He filed for bankruptcy in 1994, and consequently parted with his home and family. He received his NBA pension in a lump sum and then lost it speculating on real estate in Florida, where he than entered a span of 13 years as a member of the working poor, surviving on part-time, low-level jobs. As writer Povtak describes,
When his playing career ended, he started a gradual, downward slide, spiraling through a series of bad choices, bad investments, bad advice. Life after basketball was like quicksand. He kept sinking.
For many months, Williams lived a “dock of the bay” existence, fishing for his supper and sleeping in a found wreck of a vehicle. Then, in the summer of 2010, the Boston Globe published a story about him, written by Bob Hohler and titled “Desperate Times“.
Williams told the reporter that the NBA ought to make better arrangements for the players who apparently don’t understand that their careers won’t last forever. (I hate to be a negative voice here, but the NBA could protect retirees by refusing to hand out a pension as a lump sum. If it were paid out gradually, that would prevent the very situation that Williams found himself in. Of course, the players wouldn’t like it a bit, and neither would their lawyers.) Actually, two NBA-related groups had helped the retiree with “grants,” but he just couldn’t get a foothold on life. Hohler wrote,
Williams, 55 and diabetic, wants the titans of today’s NBA to help take care of him and other retirees who have plenty of time to watch games but no televisions to do so. He needs food, shelter, cash for car repairs, and a job, and he believes the multibillion-dollar league and its players should treat him as if he were a teammate in distress… One thing Williams especially wants them to know: Unlike many troubled ex-players, he has never fallen prey to drugs, alcohol, or gambling.
All of this came to the attention of His Honor Clinton Young, the mayor of Mt. Vernon, who set things in motion to get Ray Williams back home and living a productive life. Having returned to the land of ice and snow, Williams now holds the job title Recreation Specialist, but the expectation is that he will do so much more. Williams has already given a talk at the Boys & Girls Club, and addressed the Mt. Vernon High School boys’ basketball team. Ric Wright, the school’s football coach, calls him an icon.
Mayor Young envisions the revitalization of Mt. Vernon through its recreation and sports facilities. He is counting on the Williams’ charisma factor, presenting the former star as a kind of ambassador for the city who will relate to contractors and developers, and bring about a hoped-for alliance. Meanwhile, Williams has been reunited with his elderly mother, brother, and other family members who still live in Mt. Vernon for their first Christmas together in a long time.
Bonus Holiday Video!
Life Can Be Lonely This Holiday Season Lil Bob & the Lollipops.
Source: “Ray Williams Goes From Homeless to Home With a Job for Holidays,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17/10
Source: “Desperate Times,” Boston.com, 02/07/10
Image by LabyrinthX (Nicholas Bufford), used under its Creative Commons license.
We just have to share this amazing photoessay, the pictures taken by Getty Images staff photographer Paula Bronstein (and erroneously credited here to Paul Bronstein.) In Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, the winters are long and very, very cold, and many homeless people survive by living underground in tunnels that are not actually sewers, as the headline states, but channels for heating pipes.
Really, this is fascinating. Someone has taken the trouble to translate (from another website) nearly 100 comments from “Chinese netizens” as well as, apparently, European expats in China, and people from other countries too. Some cruelly anti-Mongolian sentiments are expressed. The country used to belong to China, then became a satellite of the USSR, but now Russia is kaput, so things don’t go well in Mongolia. But many points of view are represented. One person says,
Beijing isn’t lacking either — If you have the chance, go to the Beijing Film Academy campus gates and look under the manhole covers…
There is in fact a tradition of cave dwellings in northern provinces such as Henan and Shaanxi. The soft loessial soils allow cave dwellings to be excavated, providing homes that are spared the worst of baking summers and freezing winters. Getting enough natural light into the cave dwellings however is one problem that is shared with living in a sewer. There is simply never enough sunlight or daylight.
In case you’re thinking, “This could only happen in Mongolia,” think again. Or rent Dark Days, a documentary directed, produced, and filmed by Marc Singer, and released in 2000. It’s all about homeless people living in an Amtrak tunnel under New York City, amid construction debris and terrible noise from the trains, with plenty of rats for company. They build shelters from scrap wood, cardboard, tarpaulins, and whatever else they can get hold of.
Many of the residents have managed to pull electricity into their subterranean shacks. Sometimes they go “up top” to find food and things to sell. Many have pets, for protection or companionship. The sanitary arrangements vary. One resident says that if you’re homeless, this is the best place in the city to be.
But it’s not safe down there. One guy demonstrates for the camera how he sets up a noise trap, so if anybody approaches his place while he’s sleeping, a bunch of frying pans will fall down and wake him. Another claims that 80% of the tunnel dwellers are crackheads. A woman named Dee tells how someone tried to burn her hut with her in it. Still, most of the tunnel dwellers look out for each other and engage in cooperative efforts, and some of them have been down there for 20 years. It is a weird but not totally dysfunctional family.
Then, along come the armed Amtrak police, telling everybody they have 30 days to get out. Not one person wants to go to a shelter, where everything you have including your clothes will be stolen. With the aid of the Coalition for the Homeless, they negotiate the Section 8 bureaucracy. With the promise of housing, they demolish the cozy shelters that were built with so much care. The film ends by showing the various formerly underground people in their new apartments, with real beds, and windows with trees outside.
Now, check out “Lost Vegas” by Pete Samson, who explored the unknown world underneath America’s capital of gambling and glitz. He says hundreds of homeless people live in parts of the 350-mile flood tunnels beneath Las Vegas:
Rather than working in the bars or kitchens they ‘credit hustle’, prowling the casinos searching the fruit machines for money or credits left by drunken gamblers.
But the competition is stiff. Sometimes there is day labor, and there are always dumpsters to recover food and useful items from. Sampson interviews several residents, including a woman named Amy, who says,
The main dangers are the floods and the Black Widow spiders. But it’s not a terrible place to be if you’re homeless… It’s much cooler than on the streets, we get a breeze coming through and the cops don’t really bother you. It’s quiet and everyone helps each other out down here.
Clearly, something is amiss, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Despite all the promises humankind has made to itself about a brighter future, conditions are getting worse and worse for more and more people. What can alleviate the situation? The Universal Living Wage might be a good place to start.
Source: “Mongolia’s Homeless Living Underground In Sewers,” ChinaSmack.com, 11/06/10
Source: “Dark Days (2000),” IMDb.com
Source: “Lost Vegas,” TheSun.co.uk, 09/24/09
Image of Dark Days, used under Fair Use: Reporting.