An Invitation to a ‘Thought Experiment’

don_laneI’d like to invite every “housed” person in our community to join me in a “thought experiment.” It’s pretty simple. When you climb into bed tonight, pull the covers over you and look up at the ceiling, pause for a moment and imagine that you are homeless.

Imagine you’re about to go to sleep under a tree or a bridge somewhere … you’re on a piece of damp cardboard with a couple of dirty blankets. You haven’t had a shower in several days (you had one after waiting for a few hours at the homeless center last week). As you try to go to sleep, think about what you’re wearing: the same clothes you wore all day today…and yesterday and the day before. Imagine how safe you are feeling with no walls around you and no door to lock. Imagine that every material thing you have is in a single bag, which you are using as a pillow. Now imagine that it’s starting to rain…and you hear footsteps approaching.

Now imagine you are the same homeless person in the scenario above walking down the street, carrying your rolled up blankets and your bag—doing nothing illegal—encountering “housed” people around the community. The shop owner. The police officer. The family on a walk. Imagine what looks and non-verbal signals you (as a homeless person) typically get from these citizens. Now imagine getting those signals every day, everywhere you go. How does this compare with your own typical interactions as you (as a “housed” person) encounter the shop owner and the family and the cop?

Hold these images in your mind as you ask yourself what you believe about the issue of homelessness in our community.

Do you think Santa Cruz does too much or not enough for homeless people here? What do you know about the quantity of services available here? Is there enough shelter? Are there adequate, available programs to help homeless people with substance abuse or mental health problems?

What are the chances of a homeless person getting a job if their sleeping/living situation matches the one described above?  Once a person has been homeless for awhile, what would it take for them to get back to a more “normal” life?

OK, I’ve asked too many questions.

If it’s not apparent already, I’m suggesting that many of us housed people don’t think about these things enough. If we did, I believe more of us would be conscious of how hard and unsafe and unhealthy and unfriendly life on the streets is for most homeless people.

I believe people would make fewer assumptions along the lines of “they have it easy because they don’t have to go to work each day.” (Ignoring the fact that many homeless people do have jobs.) In general, we’d realize homelessness is a much bigger problem for homeless people than it is for the rest of us who find it troublesome or bothersome only when we encounter it. I don’t think so many of us would wish to push homeless people away and, instead, we would think more about how we might contribute to addressing homelessness realistically and constructively. I think this will be especially true when people stop ignoring the fact (shown in several surveys) that the great majority of homeless people in our area lived here before they became homeless.

This is not a plea to allow aggressive panhandling or illegal drug use. Nor is it a plea to ignore the damage caused by filthy campsites in our parks. It is a plea to recognize that stopping these behaviors and messes will not fundamentally change the fact that there are more than 2200 homeless people in the Santa Cruz area and shelter beds for well under 20 percent of those people. And with unemployment at 15 percent, we need to move beyond blame and get to work on constructive strategies.

If you’d like to get involved, there are many opportunities. Help the Homeless Services Center or other local homeless service programs as a volunteer or a donor. Contribute to the new Imagine Positive Change donation program to provide a positive alternative to giving to panhandlers and to provide funds to assist people in getting off the street. Volunteer one day this year or make a donation to help Project Homeless Connect (March 30 at the Civic Auditorium), a multi-service event delivering practical resources to homeless individuals while providing an opportunity for housed residents to work directly with the realities of homelessness. Or work with your church or other faith-based organization or a community volunteer group that that is assisting the poorest people among us.

Don Lane is a City Councilmember and a volunteer board member at the Homeless Services Center.  Comments on this article via email to [email protected]

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