Saturday, November 10, 2012

Day Seven: leaving the streets

Sometimes I retreat to the street with the intent of experiencing one thing and find that more important lessons will do everything they can to steal my attention. These things that ascend are the things I spend the upcoming year focusing my work on.

As Alisa and Graham boarded an early flight home yesterday, the issues of the streets ascended and called me to suspend the thoughts about family homelessness that I thought I would be exploring and called me to refocus on issues of severe mental health issues.

Ultimately, I'm glad my family is safe and that Alisa will be able to focus on feeling better in a less stressful environment.

I'm also glad to be able to model something I would normally only do behind the scenes: changing focus and reassessing what is the true calling from the streets (as opposed to what might provide the most dramatic impact or most beautifully written sermons).

I can tell you from the brief time that Graham was here, that babies are placebos for life. Regardless of housing status, babies can light up a room, make us focus more on joy then the pain that all too often swallows our thoughts and makes just about everyone smile.

The homeless folk I know talk about how in their vulnerability they are rarely given opportunities to serve others. Children, seniors and pigeons are beings the homeless often go out of their way to help (because their seen as more fragile and accessible to care for), though all but the pigeons tend to be told by caregivers to cross on the opposite side of the street.

The few homeless friends who were able to meet Graham talked about feeling privilege to be allowed to meet him. Stereotypes that judge homeless people as dirtier, riskier and more diseased, follow them well after they are housed and even when they have to go to much greater lengths to protect their sometimes fragile immune systems (due to HIV/AIDS or Hep C status).

I wish I could have shared the gift of allowing my son to show all of my homeless friends that they are not monsters, but rather beautiful children of God. I'm sure on another trip to this fair city I will get that opportunity.

The enduring lesson of this trip is that if burnt community, family and societal bridges cause homelessness, then our job is to haul water and use fire extinguishers whenever we see someone starting to light a fire near a bridge. I am on my way to the airport now to go home to my family in hopes of restoring our bridge.

The longer, harder more difficult work will be to rebuild our communities and families in such away that we are able to respond to the fires of addiction, mental health, racism, trauma and everything else that creates homelessness.

I pray today for all who feel lonely and lost. For those who can only feel alive and able to be cared for when they make their problems and wound bigger and deeper. For families with burned bridges that seem beyond repair. And if it is true, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, that the same measure we used to measure others, God will use on us, then let us become more forgiving, tolerant and responsibly (as opposed to letting folk abuse us without seeking safety) able to mend all the fences we create or stumble upon.

And, as I will do everyday of this street retreat I'll beg you, if you are able, make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.

Blessings and a warm thanks for following me on this journey,

Friday, November 9, 2012

Behind the scenes attitudes of the SFPD

"In San Francisco you get in trouble if you make a crazy guy shit his pants in fear, but across the bay you can shoot a guy in a wheelchair."

Hanging at my favorite coffee shop to charge my phones and get out of the sun, I find myself sitting here while some "undercover" police officers* talk candidly. A senior officer (who brags often that he teaches at the academy) is talking to a person (from the Castro patrol) about how to become a supervisor and to:
1) let him know what to expect, how to get around the "rules just set up for liability",
2) how people work to get out of doing patrol duties,
3) how to get free public transit riding with a law enforcement card,
4) how "arresting black people is better than watching cable",
5) how they confiscate the bikes of people they don't life so they'll have to pay fines
6) how the police were on suicide watch with Mirkarimi before he made a plea deal, and
7) what I care the most about here- how they respond to "the crazies" (by which they mean homeless folk) that "sometimes just need to be shot, but be careful what community you do it in."

Their conversations about responding to individuals with severe mental health issues in the single room occupancy (SRO) hotel rooms is literally making me cringe.

First, for those unfamiliar with San Francisco politics, a SRO is a housing situation, typically leased by the city to prevent the resident from obtaining tenants rights. They are hotels with a twin bed and enough of a walkway to fulfill the fire code. They are technically a sheltered place to live, but they enable the city to still count the individuals in their homeless count (because federal homeless guidelines require a private bathroom and kitchen facilities in order to be officially called housing). SRO's at best have shared bathrooms and kitchens and typically do not have mailboxes for residents (which mean the residents cannot access state run domestic violence programs).

Imagine if you lived in such a tiny room. Now, imagine that you have paper thin walls and about 100 neighbors with severe addiction and mental health issues that you share your kitchen and bathroom with.

While it is true that all models say you must provide housing before you can address addiction, mental health issues and the trauma that causes and comes from living on the streets, there are some individuals whose mental health issues are exacerbated by life in SRO's.

When to medicate, jail or hospitalize people with mental health issues is also a sticky subject, that I'm not attempting to address in this blog post. I do however advocate that in the moments that people are intervening, whether it is family, faith leaders, social workers, medical professionals, police or judges, that people do so with care, compassion and the desire to enable individuals to self determine when it is safe and possible to do so.

So, when I hear police officers talking about how easy it is to get rid of the "most annoying" or to create fear in mentally fragile individuals to get respect, I'm very upset about it.

While they are talking about how little the amount of paperwork is, "just one simple little half-page," to 51-50 (police code for committing someone to the hospital for a 72 hour emergency psychology hold) a person and get rid of a "crazy nuisance", I think about the shrinking number of mental health beds in San Francisco and pray the nurses and doctors are better at triaging need than these police officers are.

While the number of mental health beds in hospitals is shrinking, it means we need to become better stewardship of these beds. These two police officers are not helping to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable get the support they need.

I pray these two officers are bad seeds. But, I fear that they are a symptom of San Francisco's broken mental health system.

Bravado or not, their loud public conversation is happening next to an homeless advocate. Moments like this are why I go on street retreat. I hear this conversation as a call to step up my work advocating for vulnerable individuals with chronic mental health issues this year.

While these two officers continue to speak inappropriately about politicians they work with and have projects with, I could certainly share more salacious bits of their conversation. But, I would rather focus on the call for all of us all to work on issues of mental health in San Francisco and across the country.

I pray for all individuals who struggle to stay their highest functioning self, for the families and friends that support individuals with mental health issues and for all who advocate and protect the most vulnerable in our society.

And, as I will do everyday of this street retreat I'll beg you, if you are able, make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.


Pastor Megan

*Note: While I'm on street retreat I am not trying get anyone in trouble or create the impression that my time is a sting operation to expose organizations or individuals. If organizations felt this way, I would no longer be allowed to eat with and listen to those in need.

I often avoid naming organizations that I am critiquing, because my goal is for the entire support network to improve our response to homelessness. In order to do this, I need to maintain good relationships with organizations and city agencies. In this case, I believe it is a crime to disclose the photos or identities of undercover officers because it can put them in danger.

Day Six: the support of friends and family

One in three families in the US struggles to afford diapers and one in two mothers has cleaned out a wet or soiled diaper and reused it because they can't afford diapers.

These are not the statistics for homeless families, they are for all families in the US.

During this street retreat, I have been thinking and praying a lot about these families. My family is privileged, and still conversation about costs of baby items is a major stress.

Yet, the erratic weather this week has also been a challenge. The first few days of my retreat it was eighty degrees. The past few days it has been a windy, rainy fifty five degrees.

Families living on the streets, in shelters or cars are constantly needing to adjust and change plans due to weather changes. This leaves little structure or assuredness of safety to their lives. It requires the kind of flexibility of plans few families are able to master with without conflict.

But, as I have said street retreats are not only about being with and near the homeless, for me as someone who is often giving more than I receive, this week is about being open to receiving and being present to what happens when you say yes to the opportunities for listening that might not have found me in my typical routine.

I find that the act of receiving, while following shelter hours or on a street retreat can be exhausting. It requires a willingness to receive not only what you need or want, but all that people have to give.

And while people have been generous in taking me to lunch and other meals, it typically requires walking miles or trying to navigate San Francisco's child unfriendly public transit system with a child.

With the exhaustion of the streets, I wonder how long it takes for people to stop offering or to become unwilling to always foot the bill. I wonder how long tired feet are able to walk the distance needed to receive. Or, how long relationships of hospitality last when the people coming to dinner are crabby from lack of sleep, the constant exposure to mental health issues in food lines and the grittiness of urban settings.

I'm grateful Graham has clean diapers, loving parents and safe, dry spaces to be.

I pray as children lay down to sleep, that they will have clean dry, unused diapers. I pray that they will wake to hopeful parents and full breasts. And that we will work our damnedest to create a future for them without homelessness, so that when they raise their children they will be able to do so without the need to chose between paying their medical, housing or diaper bills.

And, as I will do everyday of this street retreat I'll beg you, if you are able, make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Day Five: Family Fractions

Blame it on my crabby exhaustedness, airplane woes that caused Alisa and Graham to arrive at 12am or the scrambling that resulted in our only transport options being a rental car with a rented infant car seat, but within 12 hours of arrival, Alisa and I have already needed a mediated therapy session with our couples counselor.

I'm not telling you to make you worry about the state of our relationship or to complain publicly about relationship woes. Rather, I tell you because I think it's important to model that even this brave street retreat warrior needs a support network to get through tough times like this.

Typically, I'd skip discussing my behind the scenes process and just tell you about the bits that seem like a good homily for the day. But, I must confess as someone who has slept on the streets in multiple cities, I only lasted 12 hours with a baby before I needed professional help to handle the realities of trying this with a baby.

Because Alisa's flight was arriving after shelter hours, I followed the rules of a typical shelter and asked for an overnight pass and received permission. I got permission from Pastor Stacy to park the rental care overnight in the lot at herchurch (which is in a quite safe neighborhood).

Because we were parked on private property, I thought I wouldn't have to worry about the law against sleeping in your car, that violating might cause Child Protective Services (CPS) to investigate our family. Because the car was warm, the doors were locked and it was a lot like camping I thought I'd be able to sleep in the car and write a poetic blog about the thousands of families that live in vehicles because they're afraid of CPS.

But I only lasted about two hours.

I have slept in the streets, alone, exposed and vulnerable countless times but I could not sleep with the baby in a car.

Poor Alisa, had to wake up again (now it was 2:30 am) as I drove to the Fools where we could sleep indoors, sleepily schlep all of our luggage and grumble at each other in our exhaustion.

At most we got about three hours of disoriented sleep.

When we got up I was delighted to be greeted by hugs and smiles of homeless family members whom I journeyed with for a decade and I loved getting to share my new family with them.

The ability to have Graham meet my colleagues and friends in the Bay Area is worth more than I can say.

But I also know, now more than ever that my heart cannot stomach a child for real or as part of a retreat living in a shelter, a car or any situation that does not provide safe shelter.

We'll see if Alisa and Graham continue on this journey with me or head home early.

Regardless, today I pray for all the parents and children doing everything they can to keep their families safe and sheltered.

Perhaps it's the exhaustion. Perhaps I've caught that spirited fire that I'm always looking for on the streets that will fuel my passion for another year of grueling, underpaid and often thankless work.

But today I beg you to fund the work that I must do for and with the homeless over the next year.

I'm the professional they call when there day is too hard.

And it's time to get back to work.

And, as I will do everyday of this street retreat I'll beg you, if you are able, make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Day Four: the beginning of the birth pangs

For the first four days of my street retreat, I've been thinking a lot about the homeless families I've know over the years.

I have often heard stories of couples who are living on the streets because they are unable to get housing and in a heterosexual couple sometimes only the female is able to get housing.

Some chose to continue to wait, and live on the streets for four or five years until they can get housing together.

Many are unmarried, because they can't afford a marriage license or have been together so long living by street rules, that they don't always understand the need for the formality of civil marriage recognition. Others have a child whose biological patent is not the person they're in a relationship with and they're afraid they'll lose the benefits that barely keep them fed.

Regardless of the reason, if they are unmarried they cannot live together in low-income housing. You can imagine how this also affects same-sex couple who are unable to be married in California.

I had always told people that it was better if just one could be housed while we worked on getting the other indoors. But I had never met a couple that agreed to it, except one.

A few years ago when I was sleeping out in front of a church, I met a man who had housing in an SRO, who was only allowed to have overnight guests 10 days a month.

So, the couple would stay indoors for 10 days and then (so the female didn't have to sleep on the streets alone) for 20 days, the male slept outside with her.

Tonight my partner Alisa and two month old son will be joining me on my street retreat, and I now understand the ache of being separated by the streets.

Last night marriage equality historically passed in a few states. But what most people don't know is that these laws do not give same-sex couples the same family protections as marriage between a man and a woman. And while Graham is my son, the courts do not yet recognize our relationship and won't until I can adopt him as a second parent.

These precarious legal relationships have ramifications about who can be together in shelters and low income housing.

Regardless of my legal parental status I know, many of you may wonder why I'd bring a baby into this experience.

I say: the Tenderloin is the neighborhood in San Francisco with the highest concentration of families. Why is it ok for most of San Francisco's families to live here, but too scary for my own child?

Some might wonder about the reduced immune system of little babies. I'd remind you that the epidemic of HIV/AIDS an Hepatitis C in the homeless population might mean their immune systems are even more fragile than a babies. If it is ok for all thousands of children of God to live here, why is it not ok for my baby?

Over the past decade the homeless in San Francisco have called me "ma" and I have cared for them as if they are all my own children. I believe it is time for Graham to meet his brothers.

And for those who are still afraid, I remind you that your fear is an important part of this project. How much more should we be afraid and working to prevent all children from experiencing true homelessness?

There are hundreds of homeless families in San Francisco and over 2,000 homeless students going to school in San Francisco today.

I pray today, that all families who are separated finds ways to love across the boundaries of war, poverty, prison walls, bread lines and generational misunderstandings. May all children know they are loved, have their daily supply of breast milk and be safe and warm.

And, as I will do everyday of this street retreat I'll beg you, if you are able, make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Day Three: the Politics of Homelessness

Today is Election Day. I know, because a homeless man yelled at everyone lined up for breakfast in the food lines.

On social media people are clamoring about the lines at their polling place. The photo above is of a food line that stretches more than three blocks. The participants waited more than forty minutes for these trays.

How long would you wait for three teaspoons of eggs, watery malt-o-meal and a moldy piece of bread? How long do you think hundreds of others who are primarily surviving off disability benefits ought to wait?

The reductions to disability benefits are something you vote for when you approve elected officials and their plans for creating a budget.

Voting, may let you choose between a candidate who will hose down the homeless at night while they sleep, or let them sleep in peace. At least that's one difference I see between Newsom's administration and Ed Lee's. There is a lot less of the needless shuffling around of homeless folks. But, there is also a lot more public drinking and drugging. By which I mean, that in past street retreats people at least attempted to hide it.

The man in front of me had the Ten Commandments written on his jacket. Well, he kind of did. Commandments 7-9 were etc, etc, etc. And the tenth was: only marry 1 nut, not two.

I wonder if our desire to resolve domestic poverty issues is a lot like his jacket. We start off strong and really want to help, but we get a little tired and hope our etc, etc, etc while help. We need creative approaches that will make a real difference and most importantly our tenth commandment for helping the homeless (well perhaps it should be the first) should be compassionate mental health care.

Last night I found this art installation at UN plaza: four mirrors with a bible at the center. If we, our congregations, our cities and our elected officials took a deep look into those mirrors could we say we're doing everything our faith requires to respond to homelessness and hunger? If you answered yes, I'd ask you why there are two homeless children under the age of two behind the art, if we are doing everything we can?

So this Election Day, I hope you will vote.

Then continue voting everyday, by working to end poverty, holding those elected officials to account for addressing poverty issues and vote with your donations to organizations who can make a real difference.

And, as I will do everyday of this street retreat I'll beg you, if you are able, make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.

Today I pray that all individuals elected today will understand their responsibility and obligation to support those who are most vulnerable.

Pastor Megan

Monday, November 5, 2012

Meeting Jesus in the Food Line

Jesus told us that however we respond to those who are naked, hungry, homeless or in prison, we are actually responding to him. This week, I am spending a week in San Francisco eating with the homeless to commune more closely with God.

I've seen Jesus in the dinning halls throughout San Francisco. In the scorching heat, Jesus waits about an hour and a half in the food line, not because of a natural disaster that unexpectedly plagued the area, but because we've grown too used to the many unnatural disasters that keep people living on the edge.

Even if he's managed to avoid or recover from addiction, Jesus's wilderness walking and slipping mental health will likely keep him wrestling demons (present and in haunting flash backs of the past) no one else can see or hear.

Once inside, Jesus devours the food put in front of him, rejects the items that are too hard to chew with a toothless mouth and rarely washes his hands before or after eating. Distant screams of scripture might be a sign of things to come or they might be the product of having thousands of Jesuses in this food line.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus leads the disciples through a cornfield to show them how to feed themselves and the other followers who are hungry. Jesus embodied the command that we feed people and ensure they have the basic necessities to allow them full participation in the life of congregations and temples.

The story of the widow putting in her last two pennies in the temple offing boxes, is not only an illusion to the fact that those who are the most vulnerable don't get to chose if they'd like take up a cross and follow. Rather, it's tied to their wrists for them daily by our inability to respond.

Regardless of the choices that create poverty, hunger and homelessness, we are called to be a community that sells all our things and gives it to the beggars.

We couldn't imagine actually doing this, because we don't trust our pastor, our neighbor or our family members to do the same once we become the ones in need of care and support.

And like Mark's Gospel, I end this blog without comforting you in hopes that it will inspire you to do something - whatever it is that is yours to do.

Perhaps you help with my goal of raising $3,000 while on street retreat. You can make a secure online donation to Welcome, or participate in our reverse auction.

Or perhaps you will learn more about these and other lessons in the Gospel of Mark. join me Tuesday night at 6pm (PST) for Bible Study that Doesn't Suck or pre-order the book which will be out in early December.

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