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Taking a Stab at Responding to Stab Santa Cruz
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
Hitler once said, “If you can’t convince them with facts, you can at least scare them enough to get them on your side.” Just kidding; he didn’t actually say that. Though it seems reasonable that he could have said it, right? The problem nowadays (and I cringe at the thought that I have become old enough to complain about “the way things are nowadays”) is that it is so easy to spread around disinformation just because it seems true. There was that quote, shared widely all over Facebook that was attributed to MLK, but the truth is he never said it. Big deal! It was a good quote. Sharing it does no harm; Martin Luther King Junior probably said something similar at some point or another.
The problem is when something damaging, full of lies, and purposefully misleading goes viral. In the last week, a blog written by “Stab Santa Cruz” that trashed the project I am working on, Santa Cruz Sanctuary Village, got shared all over the local blogosphere. http://www.stabsantacruz.com/santa-cruz-is-about-to-make-a-horrible-mistake/ It had pictures! It seemed scary! It freaked people out, and without thinking critically at all many people shared it. I know, I know besides getting nostalgic for the good old days, I am now asking people to think critically; I am such an old fuddy-duddy. Hey, Facebook isn’t for thinking critically; it is for watching cat videos. The problem is, people didn’t just share; they wrote their elected officials demanding action be taken to stop a Santa Cruz Sanctuary Village.
I know I am biased. I really think a Sanctuary Village is essential for the dignity and safety of our homeless neighbors as well as the safety of our housed community and local businesses. But I would hope that even if people disagreed with me, they would want to know exactly what they disagree with and why. In other words, I think it is essential that the truth about homelessness in Santa Cruz be told. Then people can write City Council with their suggestions. Aldous Huxley once said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” (He really said that).
So what is the problem with the “Stab Santa Cruz” article? Honestly, there is so much that is just plain wrong, that it feels daunting to try to address it all, but I will give it my best shot. I mean, I will take a stab at it.
At the beginning, the article says, “The number of transients in the county was estimated to be just over 9,000 back in 2011.” In some ways the conversation about who is transient is irrelevant. Santa Cruz Sanctuary Village has always wanted to prioritize our localized homeless population. We want to work with our friends and neighbors who are helping to build the camp. We want people who have friends, family, and social activities in Santa Cruz to have a place in Santa Cruz that they can call their home. Nonetheless, I think Mr. Alkhassadeh’s treatment of this word, “transient” is the epitome of so much that is wrong with this article. He goes on to try to define transient as someone who “hikes” from place to place to use social services. But this definition is not one that is widely accepted; Merriam Webster defines transient as “a guest or boarder who stays only briefly; a person traveling about, usually in search of work.” In fact to suggest that there were 9,000 people who traveled to the city of Santa Cruz in 2011 looking for homeless services is so ludicrous, I can only imagine that the original source of this number (and what is that source? Mr. Alkhassadeh never once gives a citation for any of his sources, so it is completely possible that he simply made the number up) intended the word transient to mean, very broadly, a guest to Santa Cruz. Since we are a tourist town, the idea of hosting 9,000 guests seems reasonable, but being transient, in this context, doesn’t mean homeless. Based on this definition, those sweet European backpackers who stay at the hostel for four days before heading to San Francisco are transients. That elderly couple who are traveling across the state in their RV and stopping to visit their grand kids are also transients.
So, I have an issue with the word “transient,” but even if we assume he is using the word interchangeably with “homeless,” the seemingly made-up statistic that Santa Cruz City’s homeless population was 9,000 is completely ridiculous. There is actually a nation-wide research firm, Applied Survey Research, which uses peer-reviewed methods to take a census of the homeless population in cities across the country. http://www.appliedsurveyresearch.org/projects_database/homelessness/santa-cruz-county-homeless-census-and-survey.html I know “peer-reviewed” seems like a nerdy term, but it means that their methodology is way better than Mr. Alkhassadeh’s method of “pull a totally random number out of thin air.” ASR’s most recent survey reports that Santa Cruz County (the entire county) has slightly over 3,500 homeless individuals (way less than 9,000). Their numbers also reveal that 72% of those folks were living in Santa Cruz when they became homeless. Fifty-three percent of the entire homeless population had been in Santa Cruz for more than three years when they lost their home. Thirty-one percent of the homeless population reports being here for more than ten years, and only a very small percentage, 5%, were here for less than thirty days.
This is important. The majority of homeless folks in Santa Cruz are from Santa Cruz. In other words, the actual number of true “transient” homeless folks is less than 200. Frankly, I am tired of people repeating this unfounded idea, “people come here to access our services; if we just take away services, homeless people will disappear from our city.” No data exists to support such a mean-spirited strategy for public policy.
So it is clear from the beginning of the article and the assertion that there are 9,000 transients in Santa Cruz, that “Stab Santa Cruz” seems to have no scruples when it comes to making up “facts” simply to terrify housed folks and decision makers. Maybe Mr. Alkhassadeh agrees with Hitler’s assertion that “It is not truth that matters, but victory,” (yes, Hitler really said that), and that is why he goes to the extreme in slandering not only Santa Cruz Sanctuary Village but me personally with ugly, unsubstantiated, libelous character attacks. Regardless, it is endlessly frustrating that anyone would give him and his blog any credit.
One of the weirdest things about the article is that Mr. Alkhassadeh says, “Santa Cruz homeless should [emphasis is mine] receive the best possible services to obtain temporary housing that is safe and clean. Local organizations should do whatever they can to get people back on their feet and into the workforce. …at the same time all of these organizations need to be monitored and regulated and local service providers should give local residents priority over transients from other cities.” If those are his recommendations for the city, he should be a supporter of Sanctuary Village. That is exactly our vision.
Contrary to what he says, ample evidence exists from all over the Pacific Northwest that these sanctuary-type camps are working fabulously. I know, he says they don’t work, and we end up with a “he said/she said” kind of conversation, but it is important to note that our assertion that these camps work is actually based on studies, reports by un-biased third parties, documentation of statistics, and can all be verified with cited sources. You can read “Stab Santa Cruz” ten times, and you won’t ever find a single reference, no peer-reviewed data, no studies or reports, nothing to give validity to his claims. I know, I know facts, statistics, studies, they aren’t sexy. It is way more exciting just to say some scary stuff. However, public policy isn’t (or at least it shouldn’t be) a soap opera. Sometimes we need to drink a big cup of coffee, prop open our eyes, and commit ourselves to slogging through some actual research.
So what do actual studies show? Well, for starters there is no evidence that Sanctuary-type camps increase crime in a neighborhood. In 2004, upon the opening of Tent City 4, The Seattle Times wrote an analysis of Tent City 3. http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20040521&slug=tentcrime20m some notable quotes from the article include, “Neighborhoods surrounding tent-city sites have not seen increases in the level of reported crime, according to a Seattle Times analysis of Seattle Police Department incident reports…In all three locations [that Tent City 3 had moved to, as it is an itinerant camp], the types of crimes typically reported in these neighborhoods were similar to those reported during the campers’ stay.” “When the King County Jail director, Larry Mayes, asked police in Seattle, Burien, Tukwila and Shoreline about their experience with tent cities, he said, ‘The story is basically the same at each jurisdiction. The data doesn’t indicate any increase in crime or public-safety issues or calls for service.’”
A year later, the Seattle Times reported on the progress of Tent City 4 http://seattletimes.com/html/eastsidenews/2002178956_tentcity13e.html. This article, again, shows crime rates staying fairly constant when an area hosts Tent City 4. Furthermore, many residents of the host neighborhoods enjoy having the camp nearby, “’Part of this experience is that we have to confront our preconceived notions and prejudices that lay deep inside us,’ said Kathi Rowley, a pastoral assistant for [St. John Mary Vianney Catholic Church]. ‘We have benefited from their being here. We’ve gotten to know the residents personally and gotten to know their stories.’”
Another report that is important to consider is the report on Dignity Village written by Kristina Smock for the Portland Housing Bureau. http://dc407.4shared.com/doc/AaRx8YH9/preview.html The report was written at a time when Portland was considering whether or not to renew their contract with the Village. Dr. Smock’s final decision was a strong recommendation for renewal, noting several findings, including the following: “Dignity Village has successfully sheltered 60 homeless people each night, year-round, at a cost per bed night that is one-third the cost of the cheapest shelter option within Portland’s homeless services system…From 2007-09, the annual rate of 911 calls resulting in the dispatch of Portland Police to Dignity Village was lower on a per capita basis than the city-wide average…More than 90% of the stakeholders interviewed for the evaluation supported the City’s renewal of Dignity Village’s contract.” I want to repeat that last point made by Dr. Smock, “More than 90% of the stakeholders interviewed for the evaluation supported the City’s renewal of Dignity Village’s contract.” So, sure there seem to be a few people here and there who don’t support Dignity Village, and I am sure anyone can find their statements on-line, but an unbiased, third-party, hired research specialist found that the folks who support the homeless village are in the overwhelming majority.
Honestly, there are endless articles and studies noting the efficacy of these Sanctuary-type camps. For more information see Santa Cruz Sanctuary Village’s FAQs http://www.indybay.org/uploads/2014/07/21/faq_10_sanctuary_village.pdf.
But I think the thing that upsets me the most about the article from “Stab Santa Cruz” is the untruths told about homeless people. The way Mr. Alkhassadeh describes homeless folks makes them sound like a group of mentally ill, drug-users, with no regard for the natural environment who litter and toss used needles all around (oooh, used hypodermic needles, scary!). He plays on the worst fears of the worst stereotypes of homeless folks. Anyone who has ever been the victim of stereotyping knows that, every now and then, there is someone who fits the stereotype, and that is why the stereotype exists, but most people would also acknowledge how frustrating it is to be so narrowly understood.
Until working on a Sanctuary Village, I knew very few homeless folks. But over the last year and a half, I have gotten to know more and more of my homeless neighbors. I have met a sweet high school student who wants nothing more than to go to college in order to help her family out. I have met a kind grandmother who just wants to stay in Santa Cruz to be close to her family. I met a middle-aged man who was out of work, near tears because of the loss of dignity involved in living on the street, unable to care for his wife. I met a man who has biked all over Europe and tells hilarious, lewd jokes. I have met older women who say they fear for their lives staying at the shelter. I have met kind gentleman who keep their clothes clean and well pressed, who try to stay as low-key and under the radar as possible. I have met people with shy, kind smiles who always say “please” and “thank you.” I have met so many wonderful people who need help and support, who are trying desperately to “pull themselves up” in innovative and clever ways. I have met people who are so tired of being harassed, who fear for their lives every day because of the ugly, vigilante attitude toward them.
I am not perfect, but I try to have a lot of kindness and compassion to those who are in different situations than I, and it breaks my heart when our wonderful city caves in to all the negativity and fear-based hype that is perpetuated by articles like “Stab Santa Cruz.” This article really brought out the worst in our citizenry, and I hope that kindness and a search for compassion and truth will prevail.