Nascent ‘Citizens Council on Homelessness’ holds its first meeting
At approximately 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 5, inside Room 207 of the Louden Nelson Community Center, a new local movement began—or, at the very least, an email list was compiled.
About six people showed up to the meeting, after seeing fliers around town announcing the formation of a new Citizens’ Council on Homelessness. The fliers invited people to “discuss a comprehensive plan to address homelessness that is practical, affordable, and humane”—a poignant charge given the current tensions surrounding the issue of homelessness locally.
The vision, which is the brainchild of local homeless man Darrell Blair, is nothing if not comprehensive. Blair’s dream is to open an “eco village” for homeless people to live, work, and improve their mental and physical health through spirituality.
For Blair, the philosophy of local homeless services, including the 180/180 Project, which seeks to provide permanent housing for homeless people in Santa Cruz County, isn’t enough.
“It’s not good enough to say ‘these people are ready for the workforce now,’ [and be satisfied],” Blair says. “I want to provide platforms for people to express something they like about themselves. You have to go above and beyond.”
And for him, going above and beyond means creating an entire sub-economy. The idea for an entirely separate community for homeless people came to Blair after he had a mental breakdown 14 years ago. A deeply spiritual Buddhist, Blair was meditating one day and realized his psyche had the strength to take on the project.
Having an idea is one thing, but implementing it is entirely another. However, after years of mental preparation, Blair felt ready to take his idea public.
Which brings us back to Room 207.
The group’s inaugural meeting had the makings of an academic social experiment: If you put seven strangers together in room with folding chairs, a whiteboard but no markers, a passionate but stubborn facilitator, and a whole lot of space, both physical and figurative, between them, and asked them to tackle an issue as complex, isolating, and, for many of the attendees, fiercely personal as homelessness in Santa Cruz, what do you get?
The results: equal parts frustration and patience, a dash of bonding over shared experiences, and a to-be expected amount of circular conversation.
An economics graduate student from UC Santa Cruz named Jeffrey Hancuff was one of the first to engage Blair in conversation, asking what specific plans the organizer had for fundraising and gaining a 501(c)3 status.
Blair responded that part of the reason for these meetings was to attract people with resources and respectability, people who he felt the city council might actually listen to, unlike himself.
“I have street credibility,” he said. “I’m looking for people who have domestic credibility.”
Hancuff said this was a good start, but he and the others continued pushing for a more concrete plan for funding. Blair responded that, ideally, the eco village would be at least partially self-funded through selling crafts and goods, but that he was also open to donations—information about which he says can be found by emailing him at [email protected]
“Well, what’s your mission statement?” Hancuff asked.
“To cultivate the homeless potential within the homeless population,” Blair answered.
“That’s too broad,” Hancuff said, his tone even and definitive. “Nobody’s going to fund that.”
The meeting included several tense exchanges like this, but there was also plenty of cooperation. As idealistic as Blair’s vision is, and as vague as the plans for executing it are, everyone at the meeting was earnestly interested in nailing down a plan—as one woman named Kathy said, “I think we’re all here because your flier inspired us. We want to help you.”
Eventually, a few more short-term goals were hammered out. Blair agreed he would make a list of costs, and that the group would focus on finding a building for a Homeless Center for Spiritual Development.
Blair also is keen to take over a space in the Pogonip that he said city council awarded to the Homeless Garden Project seven years ago, but has been sitting unused ever since. Blair is patently suspicious of all homeless services that are not run by homeless people themselves, as he believes too many people profit off of what he calls the “homeless industry.”
The difficulties facing homeless people who want to take their fate into their own hands came out during the meeting. At one point, someone asked Blair why he didn’t have more of his ideas written down. He explained that he was constantly too under-rested to write, blaming the outdoor sleeping ban in the City of Santa Cruz. He then took off his baseball cap, revealing a shiny bald head, and braced his arms in mock-seriousness, imitating police who he says wake him almost nightly and tell him to “move along, move along.”
Everyone laughed, and a few people nodded like they have been there themselves.
Looked at realistically, Blair’s strict fidelity to his original plan will likely be a big hurdle for the Citizens’ Council on Homelessness to overcome as it moves forward with its weekly Friday meetings at Louden Nelson. What exists now is merely an idea and a handful of modest, un-influential individuals lacking in resources, but who say they plan to continue attending. It will likely be awhile before anything concrete comes out of it. But Blair couldn’t imagine not making an attempt, despite the odds stacked against him.
“It’s a hard world out there,” he said. “But it’s a hard world if you don’t try, too.”