Connecting with the homeless
CAVE outreach program aims aid the down-and-out
Ann had just four quarters and her driver’s license with her when she set out on the streets of Washington, D.C., during the cold spring. She found a piece of cardboard in an alley and wrote the word “please” on it. She then pulled a paper cup out of the trash and attempted to make some money.
First she started asking people for money in a public square. That tactic didn’t work very well. Ann, a middle-aged woman with smooth skin, short blonde hair and a soft voice, isn’t the picture of homelessness.
“I started walking down the street to see how other homeless people were faring or what they were doing with their time, and there was this one man, and he stood outside a bakery,” she said. “I stood next to him for a little bit and said, ‘Hmmm, you must get some pretty good stuff here.’ ‘It’ll do,’ he said.”
Ann followed his lead. She sat upon a milk crate outside of a chain Mexican restaurant, placing the sign down on the sidewalk with the cup next to it. She found that not making eye contact with people was important because that was making them uncomfortable.
Spanging—street slang for asking for spare change—was one of the many lessons that Ann, who is actually Chico Mayor Ann Schwab, learned during her short foray into life on the streets. The experience came during her “plunge” into homelessness—part of a program sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless, which is based in the nation’s capital.
Schwab, assistant director of Chico State’s Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE), a student-led nonprofit organization, had accompanied student volunteers on the trip to Washington in March 2007. They were there to immerse themselves in homelessness, visit outreach centers, beg for money and sleep on the streets.
Schwab spoke briefly about those experiences at the first of several recent community meetings about homelessness and issues surrounding it. The events have been held in conjunction with Chico State’s Book in Common, The Soloist, which details the friendship between a Los Angeles Times columnist and a schizophrenic homeless man who is a musical prodigy.
Homelessness is a hot topic locally. The recent forums—attended by a range of people, including advocates for the homeless and homeless people—have been enlightening. They have served as venues for storytelling, philosophical problem-solving and statistical reasoning. Two additional discussions of The Soloist are scheduled in the coming weeks (Dec. 9 at the Butte County Library in Oroville and Dec. 15 at Lyon Books in downtown Chico), and the book’s author, Steve Lopez, is slated for a lecture at Laxson Auditorium in March.
But what will happen when all these community meetings end?
“Let’s hope that this will raise awareness of the homeless population in the city of Chico and will continue on,” Schwab said. “I think people want to do something to help end homelessness, but they don’t know what to do.
“What does homelessness look like? Who are the homeless among us?” she asked. “It is so complicated.”
To get some answers, CAVE has come up with a plan. The organization is starting an outreach program next semester on a limited basis. The focus is on volunteer service in the downtown area. Students participating as “Chico Ambassadors” will shine a friendly face on the community by welcoming “visitors”—homeless or otherwise—to the region.
They will distribute cards with information about local homeless services. They also will educate high school and college students about the Safe Sidewalks program, by spending time out on the streets “simply making a statement,” as Schwab put it. For instance, if people are riding their bikes or skateboarding on downtown sidewalks, the student volunteers are encouraged to remind them that the practice is against the law.
Schwab said that the program aims to do three things: teach students what it is to be a citizen of a community; put a face to the homeless; and enable students to be able to make a positive statement.
Kimberly Sloan, a 20-year-old Chico State student who is a coordinator for CAVE’s Adopted Grandparent Program, said that the organization has been longing to have a homeless program because “we know it’s something we can do.” The overall theme is that the program itself is making a statement of neighborliness.
“Not only is it working with the homeless,” said the bright-eyed Sloan, “but also working as the face of Chico.”
Schwab echoed her.
“They will be downtown with a bright, engaging presence, wearing bright T-shirts and hats, greeting people, giving directions, providing information about downtown events, etc.,” she said. “The real outcome would be for students to put a face to homelessness, sit down and talk to somebody, find out how their day is going, play a hand of cards with them. Just be a friend to the homeless.”
Schwab’s time on the streets was by choice rather than necessity, and it lasted for just 48 hours, but the experience has stayed with the mayor. She said it taught her that many people are just a couple of paychecks away from being homeless.
She recalled hanging out and exchanging stories with other homeless folks at a McDonald’s. One of her most poignant memories, though, is of the feeling of isolation.
“People just walked past me, didn’t want to make any connection with me, no eye contact, did not look at me like we look at each other,” she said, pointing to this reporter. She remembered wandering down the streets when a 30-something man dressed in a nice suit and tie, walking with a group of friends, smiled and winked at her.
“That made such a difference to me, to have someone acknowledge me,” she said. “When I see folks that are homeless on the street now, I look at them and say, ‘How are you doing?’ ”