23 November, 2015

Dirty Love: communicating compassion along the dirty, sacred river

[This article was written for LEO Weekly and rejected because, I suspect, it did not read more like the usual homeless porn which is so common this time of year. Photo by: Amanda Hay]


There aren’t any sad pictures of homeless people attached to this article. We see a lot of that this time of year. Maybe it’s the fading nostalgia of First World Country guilt. Maybe it’s got something to do with our voyeuristic nature as humans. Maybe it’s fascination with the broken lives of people we decide to categorize as useless and dismiss on a daily basis as we run around focused on our own concerns. Of course, there is something about it being this time of year and writing about poverty and homelessness that seems a little trite. We’ve seen it before. Stories about homeless kids and homeless vets. Stories about the homeless and forgotten in this country and in other countries. You’d think the homeless in this country would get a leg up given the amount of times they’ve been used by pundits and armchair patriots to justify unearthing Nazism in the name of national security. 

 

You’re not going to see any pictures of any camps accompanying this article because most any of us would object to some stranger barging into our living rooms with a camera like a clueless tourist at the zoo.

 

But there aren’t any pictures. That’s not the kind of story this is.

 

A week rarely goes by without someone from Mayor Fischer's office finding a way to include the phrase “compassionate city” in some statement or press release.  Fischer was planning to  participate in a rally on Tuesday November 24th  in support of bringing Syrian refugees to the United State in protest of the Congress’s vote to suspend the program. When anti-Muslim bigots vandalized the Louisville Islamic Center back in September of this year, the mayor declared a clean-up day and a thousand people showed up to help. On the other hand, when WIC interim director Dr. Sarah Moyer announced the closing of three WIC centers and an administrative shakedown that included laying off nutritionists and demoting the remaining ones, there was not one word of protest or jingoistic proclamations of compassion from the mayor's office. Compassion was at least the undertone of the city's response to Louisville FOP chapter president David Mutchler open letter declaring war on “sensationalists, liars, and race-baiters (read: activists) after LMPD officer Nathan Blanford shot and killed Doug Mauyoun Mayoun; but it was also more a “Hey, hey, hey... what do you mean 'we' Copper?”

 

With the holidays upon us, the clothing and food drives aimed at helping the poor and homeless are running full tilt. Meanwhile, local organizations that work year round to combat homelessness here in Possibility City and the quagmire of issues surrounding it. Across the river in Jeffersonville, Exit 0 Director Paul Stensrud remembers when neither Ville lifted a finger when homeless camps were cleared out prior to President Barak Obama's visit this past April.

 

“It was a secondary route,” Stensrud said. “He didn't even end up using it.”

 

Wendy Manganaro of Fed with Faith echoed Stensrud’s sentiments. “Derby time is terrible,” she added, describing the city’s treatment of its homeless population.

 

“And when Obama came in,” she added, “ they had the last pictures of their lives thrown away.”

 

Fed with Faith is a not-for-profit organization working to provide food, shelter and essential resources to the homeless in Louisville, said one of the biggest problems they face is simply getting people in need to the resources they need. While there are, in theory, street teams sent out by the VA, The Wayside Mission, Seven Counties, and Phoenix Family Health, Manganaro said it's not enough to go out and set up appointments for people to see doctors a month or two later.

 

When asked whether he thought Louisville was a compassionate city, the advocate and activist sighed and rolled his eyes a little. Then Stensrud smiled a sad smile and pointed out that the most compassionate things about Louisville have little or nothing to do with anyone in City Hall.

 

“You can't do this kind of work behind a desk,” he said. “This isn't 9 to 5 work. If my phone goes off at 2 in the morning, I have to answer.”

 

“When you live under an overpass,” Wendy Manganaro said, “and you… leave to go to work, city workers don’t always give you 72 hours, so you have to start all over again.” (The 72 hours she referred to is the amount of time the city is supposed to give before forcing the homeless out of their camps.)

 

Manganaro and Stensrud said one of the biggest issues they face is the number of people living on the street who need regular medication and mental health assistance.

 

“How is someone supposed to remember to go see a doctor,” Stensrud asked, “if they can't remember who they are?”

 

Compassion with strings attached – terminology and funding

 

Natalie Harris at the Coalition for the Homeless pointed out that, according to the HUD definition of homelessness, the actual number of indigents in Louisville is dropping. According to data collected from 2014, there was a 14% drop in the number of people categorized as homeless, totaling 7,380 people. Of those, 294 were considered “unsheltered homeless” while the vast majority of them were categorized as “sheltered.” Within each of those subcategories, there was a 29% drop in people considered unsheltered and a 15% drop in those considered sheltered.

 

When we talk about homelessness, though, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about. And it’s entirely possible that not everyone is talking about the same thing.

 

Many programs, like the Coalition for Homelessness, the VA, and The Phoenix Family Health Centers – the only access to medical help people living on the street have – depend on federal grants for a significant part of their budgets. That means they are restricted in the ways they can help people. This also means in order to qualify for help, people must fit into a narrow definition of what it means to be homeless.

 

For example, the Coalition for the Homeless uses the HUD definition of homelessness when determining how to assist people who are either found by the street team or who make it to their office on S. 4th Street across from the Filson Society. Harris said HUD defines anyone as homeless if they “are living in a place not meant for human habitation.” There are other stipulations, of course, and exceptions are made for women escaping domestic violence and for children. 

 

Harris said there are 125 people currently in housing. Under the mayor’s new initiative to end Veteran Homelessness, she pointed out that two more homeless vets were recently placed into housing, taking the number up to 37.

 

Dr. Andy Patterson, Director of the program at Phoenix Family Health Center, said his program cared for 4,250 people in 2014, providing nearly 24,000 encounters. The street team goes out to set appointments and check on medications. Patterson, who has been working with the homeless population for 20 years, said he believes the city of Louisville is full of compassionate people. The growth of nonprofits working with county offices to provide assistance is evidence of that. And he says the people he’s met who work with city and county agency approach their work as humanely as they can.

 

Of course, in addition to having to stay clean and sober to keep housing, there are other strings. When people qualify for housing, they can’t have unauthorized people living with them. This can be hard because sometimes they want to bring in their friends from the camps. Gene said it can be difficult to get across to them that they have to be healthy in order to really help people. Compassion, in this sense, is less about being humane, maybe and more about fulfilling a Federal guideline.

 

That’s the main reason Fed with Faith hasn’t looked to Federal agencies for funding – too many strings.

 

Another string is that in most cases, people can’t have pets. And for the homeless who have pets, giving up the one thing they love and that loves them can be too much to ask.

 

And your little dog, too…

 

Beth Green heads up the Louisville-based My Dog Eats First, a non-profit agency that focuses on providing dog food and veterinary care for homeless people’s pets. She also ends up fighting misconceptions of who the homeless are and what their core problems are. According to Green, between 5% and 10% of homeless people have a pet.

 

“Some people look at them and say ‘They can barely take care of themselves, they don’t need a dog”, she said. But what those people don’t realize, she said, was that dog or cat is the only thing in the world that loves them unconditionally. “Why take away the one thing they love when loving it may be the thing keeping them alive?”

 

When asked whether she thought Louisville is a compassionate city, Harris at the Coalition said that probably the most compassionate part of Louisville is the people. She pointed out Exit 0, Forgotten Louisville, Fed with Faith, and My Dog Eats First as prime examples of a compassionate city. As for the city government? It's not that they don't care, Harris said.

 

“It's probably not even on their radar,” she said. “Their eye is on development.”

 

Relationship building – the Common Assessment

 

In addition to building relationships on the street, organizations like Exit 0, Fed with Faith, and My Dog Eats First also have to keep the lines of communication open with Metro and county government agencies, and those agencies have to communicate with one another as well. The Common Assessment program is administered by Phoenix Family Health Center, with the purpose of reducing stays in homeless shelters. The street teams from each agency ask the same questions to people on the street and in the camps. Street team members sometimes go out to the camps with teams from the non-profits in an attempt to speed up the process, but Wendy, Gene, Paul, and Beth have all had to become experts at knowing what forms and paperwork is needed for what agencies and in what order things need to happen.

 

Debbie Belt with Metro’s Department of Community Services said via email that the city’s Long-Term Housing and Support Team works with formerly homeless Louisvillians, helping with subsidized rental assistance through HUD grants. “A typical client will receive on-going rental assistance while they work through immediate crisis stabilization,” Belt wrote, which can include “financial/budgeting education, and possibly disability-related issues.” On any given month, she said this program assists 600 to 650 households.

 

Belt added that Community Services also oversee and monitor around 45 programs. These offer supportive services, including housing and shelter to Louisville’s most vulnerable through a combination of funding streams -- CDBG (Community Services Block Funding), ESG (Emergency Solutions Grant) and HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS).

 

Housing is only part of the equation, though. Jean Manganaro of Fed with Faith pointed out that while getting the homeless off the street is a good thing, sometimes it’s not enough. “Those four walls,” he said. “Sometimes those four walls are hard to handle.” He said people living on the street get used to living in a hostile environment, and sometimes being around the hustle and bustle of street life gives them something to focus on. He said he’s gone to check on people in housing, only to have to go find them back at the camp.

 

“It’s like waking up in museum,” Jean said, describing the sensation of trying to adapt regular housing, “and realizing you’re naked.”

 

 

A study in compassion: Panhandling in Beechmont 

 

The Beechmont neighborhood recently put up some new signs. At the edge of the Westbound 264 exit ramp – one of the primary routes tourists drive to get to Churchill Downs during Derby – there is a new sign welcoming people to the neighborhood. There’s also a new panhandling sign at the base of the exit ramp. The sign depicts two hands – one holding a paper coffee cup, the other dropping paper and coin money into the cup – covered by a red “not” sign with the caption “Don't Contribute to the Problem.”

 

According to BNA President Debbie Thompson, the signs – which were paid for with city funds – are the result of one resident complaining to Division 4 Information Officer Lamont Washington. In response to this one complaint, Washington then approached Johnson's office to secure funding for the signage.  

 

When asked whether there was any discussion about the wording on the signage, Thompson said there hadn't been any. She also expressed surprise at the tone of the language on the sign, which no one mentioned to her directly.

 

One thing has become abundantly clear. In spite of the apparent outrage that caused the signs to be bought and paid for with taxpayer dollars, no one is willing to claim them.

 

At first, I tried to get Councilman Johnson to talk about the signs, but was told to talk to LMPD Division 4. Then, the Office of Public Information denied LEO's request for an interview with Washington. In denying the request, Officer Alicia Smiley of the Public Information Office stated “LMPD is not able to provide an analysis of various laws and ordinances, as it is our job to enforce [them].”

 

Smiley then punted the ball back to Metro Council. Communications Director Tony Hyatt wrote both Butler and Johnson decided to “take a pass” on my request for an interview, claiming the signs were requested by LMPD Division 4. When pressed, Hyatt denied the language on the sign was at all offensive. “The signs merely point out what the Metro Code of Ordinances says about the law with regard to panhandling.” He then said our story was really with Division 4, not the Metro Council.

 

After trying to go through all the regular channels to talk Councilman Johnson, I was finally able to talk to him by calling his cell phone. "Have you been to our neighborhood?” he asked. “We have a problem.” He added that there was always someone panhandling at the bottom of the exit ramp.

 

Johnson maintained that the signs were paid for because Division 4 LMPD asked for them.

 

According to information the LMPD Public Information Office was willing to provide, between October 1st of last year and February 28th of this year, cops in Division 4 reported 49 curfew, loitering, or vagrancy ordinance violations. Between March 1st and August 30th of this year, Division 4 reported 79. Nine of those infractions were on 3rd Street. 

 

Only one was recorded between October 2014 and August of this year at the corner of 3rd and Southern Heights Avenue – which is also the 264 E exit ramp where the sign now hangs less than 100 feet from the welcome sign.

 

When told about the signage, Paul Stensrud from Exit 0 said while he objected to panhandling, he didn't like the tone of the signs. He went to Jeffersonville's city council to put up some signs, too. But those read “No Loitering. No Soliciting. No Panhandling.”

 

The biggest problem with the language in the panhandling ordinance is there's enough latitude allowing LMPD Officers to determine on a case by case basis what is and what is not panhandling that it reads more like a license to harass a despised group of people than an ordinance meant to protect residents from being threatened. Wendy Manganaro said unless the individual cops know the person involved and know the person’s story, it can turn out badly. Many times, when people are given citations for panhandling or vagrancy, for example, they are unable to pay them and they end up in jail.

 

Metro's Wheelhouse

 

Mayor Fischer’s budget priorities have been called into question lately. Whether it’s his office’s silence in the face of WIC office closures, his attempt to remove site administrators from Neighborhood Place locations across the city, or his support of the market-priced housing being built in Russell using forgivable loans to developers, sometimes where this city administration puts taxpayer money is not always where it puts its mouth.

 

According to a comment from the mayor’s Communication Director Chris Poytner, compassion is part of the city’s brand. “[T]he idea of Louisville as a Compassionate City has become part of our brand,” Poytner wrote over email. “And that branding makes us stop and think about compassion with every decision – individual citizens, business leaders and Metro government.”

 

The language of the sale is at the heart of all the mayor’s initiatives. Whether it’s gentrifying Russell, pushing through a sweetheart deal for General Electric and the West End Walmart, or the Omni Hotel deal that demolished a historical building and promises to alter the city’s character more than the touristy and problematic 4th Street Live, at the end of the day the mayor pushes a brand. 

 

But whenever I think of the word “brand” in relation to homelessness, I’m reminded of the earliest vagrancy laws under Queen Elizabeth. To curb people wandering during one of the many war-driven recessions of her reign, she ordered that all people arrested for vagrancy be arrested, branded with a V, and sent back to the area of their birth.

 

Maybe in these philistine times, we’ll keep that one between ourselves, ok?

 

For Paul, Jean and Wendy, and Beth, compassion is more than a brand. It’s a calling and a labor of love. They echo a similar criticism and concern –  that the city could do more to bridge the disconnect between the services Metro provides and the people who need. For them, it’s about creating relationships, getting people on the street to trust them so they can get the help they need. Stensrud calls it “dirty love.” Whether it’s providing meals or helping the people in the camps access the help they need, it’s about getting dirty. 

 

For him, the answer to whether Louisville is a compassionate city is another question. “Are you willing to dig into trenches and find out what their stories are?”

 

They all also echo a similar sentiment about the people of Louisville. “We have met some of the most wonderful, beautiful people here,” Jean said. And while there are individuals within the county and city agencies with good intentions, it seems as if the strings – and those lingering judgements and preconceived notions – get in the way more often than they should.

 

In addition to the problems associated with mental illness among the homeless populations, the fact is more of them are working than most realize. The camps that were cleared out in anticipation of the President’s visit for example, were empty because most of the inhabitants were at work.

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