Homeless is homeless

We’re generous with the victims of Katrina. What about the people who’ve survived more personal disasters?

Willard and Mary Bills, who left Gulfport, Miss., after the recent storms filled their trailer with 4 feet of water, are new residents of the quickly renovated apartments at Mather Field.

Willard and Mary Bills, who left Gulfport, Miss., after the recent storms filled their trailer with 4 feet of water, are new residents of the quickly renovated apartments at Mather Field.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In late September, the Volunteers of America staff was filling spice cabinets with bottles of hot sauce and paprika. Bags of soap and toothpaste lay neatly against pillows on brand-new, freshly made beds. On the Mather Community Campus, 40 newly refurbished units—bungalows and the “propeller” building with its two wings of apartments—were being offered to evacuees who had found their way to Sacramento after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Mather Field, which used to be Mather Air Force Base, had sheltered local homeless folks in the military apartments since the 1990s. But, according to one volunteer, the apartments hadn’t been renovated since they were used by military personnel. The base was decommissioned in 1993.

“They were so disgusting,” said Tamara Pacada of Volunteers of America. She described rooms full of stained electric-blue carpeting and rusted water pipes.

With the help of corporations like U.S. Home (which has partnered regularly with the Volunteers of America for the last four years), Starbucks and Sleep Train Inc., as well as the County of Sacramento, the apartments were stripped, cleaned, renovated, painted and filled with new furniture—some of it donated from model homes. Because of the immediate need, the entire project was completed in a little over two weeks.

Usually, the Mather Community Campus houses approximately 180 people (40 to 50 families) in two-year transitional housing programs at any given time. By chance, the propeller building had been vacated just weeks before the hurricane, and the residents moved to a larger, renovated apartment building across the street. The county had planned to renovate the propeller building, but the project likely would have taken many months.

It was only through a concerted effort, private dollars and the labor of regular staff who came out on the weekends to help that the propeller building was ready for evacuees so quickly.

“They just put it as a top priority,” said Pacada.

But this generosity, this unity of purpose, left a number of chronically homeless in Sacramento wondering why all that help wasn’t available to them. Curtis Hill, a shy man who’s battled homelessness in Sacramento for years, replied to SN&R’s questions from his Yahoo e-mail account, which he occasionally accesses from Sacramento public libraries: “Some people have done everything required of them in programs like the Salvation Army and [Volunteers of America] shelters and have been waiting to get into Mather or Shelter Plus Care, etc. Others are sitting in parks, sleeping on the river, or worst [sic]. We want to help the victims of Katrina but we also feel betrayed by the board of supervisors and state and local officials because they have been telling us there is no housing available. … People in the streets are wondering why the housing is not being made available to those who really need it here.”

Hill has, however, had access to public services. He was housed at Mather at one point but claims he is unable to work because of mental-health issues. After almost three years, he was out of the program. He claims that even with the assistance of shelters and the county, he’s been unable to settle anywhere but a single-room-occupancy hotel—one in which the water recently was turned off for two nights in a row. On his veteran’s pension of $846 a month, wrote Hill, he’s been unable to raise the money for deposits on an apartment of his own.

“Some won’t take people with evictions,” Hill wrote. “Most homeless people have evictions.”

Though some shelters are run by nonsectarian organizations, Hill also resents that most submit people to religious lectures or Alcoholics Anonymous-style programs that insist on a “higher power.”

“You should also know that the majority of people that are sleeping along the rivers or who can’t deal with homeless programs is [sic] because they always try to push religion on people,” said Hill. “It’s 12-steps this, 12-steps that.”

According to housing advocates, including Tim Brown, director of Loaves & Fishes, people are more generous with the evacuees because they’ve come to believe that homeless people choose homelessness. They perceive a difference between those who are homeless “through no fault of their own,” like the evacuees, and the “undeserving” who battle homelessness daily.

Even on the Mather campus, this mind-set was visible. “I would say they make a choice to be homeless,” said Tom Ricks, a security guard at Mather. “They have a two-year program for these local homeless to make something out of their life, and I watched, like, 33 percent make it. They have two years to get their life together, and they have the best of everything.”

But as a Volunteers of America spokeswoman, Christie Holderegger, said, most chronically homeless people have mental-health or substance-abuse issues. The county Department of Human Assistance does support a few long-term residency programs for people with severe mental illness, including Halcyon Place on Stockton Boulevard, but there’s very little turnover.

Bruce Wagstaff, director of the Department of Human Assistance, says everyone he works with, including the homeless people his department serves, are sympathetic toward the victims of Katrina and glad they’re receiving services. Both the Volunteers of America and the Department of Human Assistance see the recent renovation of the Mather Field apartments as a win-win situation for everyone. Katrina evacuees have safe, free housing, and when they’ve transitioned into more permanent situations, the newly renovated apartments will be available again to local homeless families.

John Foley, director of Self Help Housing, believes that the community could use more of the kind of effort and enthusiasm that went into the renovation of the Mather apartments.

“Seems to me it’s pretty hard to be critical of any generosity to people who lost everything,” he said, but “it’s true that when [local] people have personal crises similar to that, often there isn’t any help for housing.” Foley said he’s seen people lose jobs and homes because of the economy, or because of health problems, and their situations are just as critical as those of the evacuees.

Kerri Aiello, communication and media officer for the Countywide Services Agency, recently received a call from a local woman with three children. “I’m not a victim of a hurricane,” she told Aiello, “but I am a victim, and I’m in crisis.”

Aiello also had heard of at least one local homeless woman who tried to impersonate an evacuee to get into Mather. When the woman was unable to provide evidence, she apparently left the building.

Recognizing the continuing need, Wagstaff says he’s hoping to harness and redirect the community’s recent enthusiasm to expand services for local homeless families. According to a count taken in January, there are 2,229 homeless people in Sacramento County. Wagstaff would like his department to be able to provide longer-term care to those people.

Foley thinks assisting the hurricane evacuees is a good start. “Compassion won out,” he said. “Kudos! That’s a good thing.”

Editorial intern Salatha Helton contributed to this report.