Friday, March 9, 2012

The homeless with us

The following is my column which appeared in Wednesday’s Claremont Courier. I will add that the memorial walk and service on Sunday for the five (known) homeless men who have died in Claremont was one of the most remarkable and powerful gatherings I’ve been to in Claremont. There were about 50 people there, and, while that may not be many, there was strikingly clear, passionate and eloquent talk about the shame of what this community has done and not done with the homeless.


Gregory Tolliver says he won’t rest until he doesn’t have to keep an eye out for the Phil Greenes in Claremont. He says he will keep speaking up until he knows for sure that no more Phil Greenes show up dead in front of City Hall.

That’s the thing. There are a bunch of Phil Greenes here in Claremont. And Mr. Tolliver and the other Occupy Claremont activists say that we are fools not to acknowledge this.

Phil Greene was the homeless man who was found dead at the doorstep of the City Council chamber one morning in January. He was found dead by Mr. Tolliver, who had spoken with Mr. Greene the night before and had, as he had for the previous month and a half, slept in a tent in front of the chamber. Although his and the other tents are no longer there, Mr. Tolliver and the other Occupy Claremont activists are still making noise and working on behalf of the homeless and others in Claremont struggling with poverty and losing homes.

The activists point out that, while they share the name of the national Occupy movement, their focus is very much on Claremont, and homelessness in Claremont is a primary concern.

Homelessness in Claremont. The fact is that Phil Greene wasn’t the only homeless person living on the streets of Claremont. Not only that - he wasn’t the only homeless person to be found dead on the streets of Claremont.

This past Sunday, in the afternoon, a community-wide service was scheduled at the Claremont United Congregational Church, preceded by a procession through the Village. It was a memorial service for Phil Greene and four other homeless people who died in Claremont over the last four years. That’s five people who died, homeless, on the streets of Claremont in the last four years.

It just so happened that Phil Greene died right at the door of City Hall and right when the Occupy Claremont activists were there. This is probably the only reason why we knew about him. This is no doubt why his death was front-page news.

There were four other homeless people who died in Claremont during the last four years that we didn’t know about, that didn’t hit the front page. But these four deaths shouldn’t really be a surprise, because, as Mr. Tolliver and the other activists have discovered and have reported, there are about 28 homeless people living just in the Village area, within two or three blocks of City Hall.

This is only about a six or eight-block area - a very small, tiny area. It doesn’t include all of the rest of Claremont. There may well be at least a few other homeless people living in Claremont.

But, as with the three others who died, we don’t know about these 28 homeless people living in the Village and the others who are probably living in the rest of Claremont. Most of us don’t see them.

Why don’t we see them? Why are Claremont’s homeless people invisible?
The primary and most simple reason is they clear out during the day. They get up early in the morning and head towards Pomona where they can get services - food, healthcare, perhaps a shower. They return here at night to sleep.

Part of the reason for this is Claremont’s anti-camping ordinance. They don’t want it obvious that they are “camping” here, that they are breaking the law.

Even so, they feel safe here. Claremont is no Pomona, no big city. Claremont is known as a safe, quiet place.

For a homeless person, being safe is what it is all about. A homeless person is constantly on the lookout for a safe, out-of-the-way, “invisible” place. For someone who is so vulnerable and who has nowhere to put clothes, blankets, medicine, cash and, yes, cellphones and watches (after all, homeless people do have lives and the things that that requires), finding a place where they won’t be bothered, where they won’t be hurt and robbed, is critical.

There were those killings of homeless men in Orange County earlier this winter. It is easy to see this as a case of easy pickings, with the men literally being stalked. But, as has been pointed out by the Occupy Claremont activists, it is also the fact that two dozen - that’s 24 - homeless people have been assaulted just in the Village during the last year.

What can we do about this? How can we make these people here, many of whom are mentally ill and need medical help, safer? How can we be sure that there are no more Phil Greenes in our midst who end up dead on our doorstep?

Or do we want to do anything about it? Would we rather just ask how we can make them go away, like with a no-camping ordinance, so that they are someplace else and not here?

These are some tough questions, and it appears that the answers are at least as tough. Nearly ten years ago, the Los Angeles County supervisors came up with the idea of having five regional centers throughout the county where the homeless could go for shelter, food and services instead of ending up on L.A’s notoriously crowded and dangerous skid row. However, there was such an outcry from those who didn’t want the homeless in their area, who said that the services would attract the homeless, that the idea was quietly shelved.

At about the same time, which was also when the City established its original camping ban, a group of Claremonters met a number of times to see what could be done for the homeless here. They eventually came up with a monthly meal program, done in rotation at several Claremont churches. I haven’t heard of these meals being stopped, but neither have I heard much about them going on.

The message is that Claremont shouldn’t attract the homeless. At least, not too much.

And, other than monthly meals, it appears that, in a painful irony, there is, as with Jesus, no room at churches. Several Claremont churches have been asked to open their facilities - rooms, restrooms, even showers in one or two cases - for the homeless to use. But something always comes up about liability. Or something.

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