I can’t remember a time when I did not care about people and animals.
Growing up on a farm and seeing friends on my plate turned me into a vegetarian. I am also a lifelong adopter of homeless cats and dogs.
When I was in junior high school, my county began a daycare program for migrant workers’ children, who, until then, had spent their time working in the fields with their parents. I volunteered to care for them for a couple of summers. I was not yet fully conscious of the justice issues around migrant workers, but it was a start.
After high school, I worked as a nurse’s aide in the local hospital, caring for women and children. I have always helped individuals directly.
And, of course, the 60s, particularly after I attended Woodstock, had a strong influence on me. The anti-war, feminist, civil rights and other movements became part of my life.
Eight years ago, Carolyn Epple and Mikeal O’Toole asked for help in creating an encampment at the vacant Sonoma County Water Agency in Santa Rosa, in response to the growing crisis of homelessness in Sonoma County. It was named Camp Michela, after Michela Wooldridge, who was murdered while living on the streets.
Helping there, watching how the county and city used law enforcement to shuttle people around, seeing how they didn’t help, but hindered, listening to the lies, quickly turned me into an advocate. As Camp Michela was being created, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission declared it a failure. To them, only shelters were acceptable — so they did what they could to make it fail.
Working at Camp Michela, which was forced to move to a spot behind the Dollar Tree in Roseland, taught me many things. Number one: Every unhoused person needs a psychiatric evaluation to find out what is needed to help them get off the streets. There is no one answer. Most people have landed on the streets for multiple reasons. It is my experience that all these groups should not be housed together. For instance, those who don’t want to end their addictions may hinder the progress of those who do.
At Camp Michela some people cooked, others washed the dishes or cleaned the camp or were part of a loose government. They were treated like adults who had a role to play in improving their lives. It didn’t work perfectly, but it was better than the camps in which people are given everything and never required to give anything back.
The camp failed because local government refused to help. They even refused port-a-potties.
The second thing I learned is “Services. Services. Services.” We all hear that there aren’t enough. In fact, they hardly exist and are decreasing. Caseworkers are rarely seen. Psychiatric help hardly exists. Drug rehab programs keep losing beds. Everything has been too little, too late. A country that can perpetually prepare for and wage war can pay for services, but the unhoused are considered expendable. Your elected representatives may not say that, but actions speak louder than words.
The third thing I learned is that we must listen to the homeless. They are the real experts. Most of us have not been homeless and are viewing this crisis from the outside. My daughter and I were homeless for two weeks many years ago, and were rescued by a kind woman. I was lucky. It was not long enough to make me an expert on the subject. Camp Michela was a model —homeless advocates working together with the unhoused themselves, making
decisions together. Not perfect, but better.
And a final thing I believe with all my heart is that no elderly, sick or disabled person should be living on the streets. Whenever I see an old woman with a walker, pulling her belongings behind her, I know that it is a sin that our government allows this.
Some of the people I met at Camp Michela have died. Several have stayed at my apartment for varying lengths of time. That was enough for me to learn that just housing is not enough. Some still stop by. Some are housed, some are employed and many are still struggling, mostly with addiction. Some are lifelong friends.
My very good friend, Ka’Lane Reposa is a success story. I met him at Camp Michela and he is now well housed and continues to work uplifting others.
And what can you do?
First, don’t be a NIMBY. You are closer to being on the streets than you think. Our inhumane economic system can end your comfort at any time.
Second, empower the homeless, don’t infantilize them. Learned helplessness is real.
Third, let your representatives know how you feel. Speak up for, not against, the unhoused.
Fourth, understand that homelessness is a human-created condition, not created by the people who are unhoused but by those who place profit over people. We need solidarity. We need to prevent homelessness in the first place.
No matter what, do something! Thank you.