Homeward bound

Douglas Anderson

Photo By Jill Wagner

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Let’s face it. As far as the popular media goes, the homeless citizens of Sacramento don’t get much play, save for the obligatory stories around the holidays and during the winter months when area shelters are overflowing.

Homeward, however, focuses its efforts on this population year-round. Funded by grants and sponsored by the nonprofit Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, better known as SHOC, Homeward rolled out its first issue in 1997. Since then, the bimonthly newspaper has distributed 3,500 copies of each issue to city officials, area libraries, Loaves and Fishes, the Salvation Army and area coffee houses, “creating a voice” for a largely silent population. Co-editor and SHOC treasurer Paula Lomazzi says her paper seeks to build a connection between the homeless and non-homeless communities to, in her words, eliminate the “us versus them” mentality.

It’s a vision that principal writer Douglas Anderson says he can get behind. The 39-year-old Anderson has lived in Sacramento the last 35 years—19 of which were spent working as a certified nurses assistant in area hospitals and senior care facilities. But the death of his mother six years ago, he says, left him struggling emotionally, leading to a downward spiral that resulted in the loss of his job and his home eight months ago.

Anderson says he is now working his way back and claims part of that journey is trying to put a human face on the homeless population, of which he is now a member, by writing for Homeward.

If you had to name the biggest misperception about the homeless by the general public, what would it be?

That every person who is homeless nowadays is there because of drugs and alcohol and that they’ve given up on society. I think that’s the biggest misperception. Yes, there are those who are [addicted]—I’d say 35 percent to 40 percent—but there are just as many who are out here because of non-drug and alcohol related circumstances. Many homeless people, like me, have college educations. They lost their job and couldn’t afford the rent, whatever. I think that there are people who do use drugs and alcohol, for coping reasons, but that’s not the reason they’re there.

What purpose does this paper serve?

It provides information to the general public about what [situations] can cause homelessness. It lets the public know that homeless people do have morals, they do have education. The paper shows that homeless people do know how to keep in touch with society [and] that just because we’re homeless, it doesn’t mean we’re stupid. It doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings; it doesn’t mean we’re not human.

In a recent issue, you basically called for the homeless community to clean up its act, in terms of taking responsibility for some of the perceptions about them, specifically in regard to the trash and human waste that is left in many of the camps. What prompted that piece and what kind of response have you received?

I was looking at the fact that law enforcement is on our backs a lot of the time because many of our camps are junky. So what I tried to do is get homeless people to look at this—look at the way a lot of people keep their camps and ask themselves, “Are their complaints valid?” So I tried to put the homeless in society’s shoes. I got a few positive responses and we’ve had more people coming in and volunteering for our American River clean-up [project] and others coming in with some good ideas about how to [remedy] the situation.

What’s your biggest gripe about the popular media?

I think the media should interview more homeless people about how individuals got there. Contrary to popular opinion, we have more families coming onto the streets now and the media doesn’t seem to be aware of just how large the percentage is of families out here. I think that kind of reporting could change the general public’s opinion. I also think if the media took the time to find out where these families are and took the time to show that homeless people used to be doctors, teachers, housewives, veterans, whatever, that would help people see us differently.

You’ve said that you’d like the city’s anti-camping ordinance removed. How can Homeward help facilitate a dialogue between city officials and the homeless on this issue?

As it stands right now, law enforcement and the political system are saying, "You guys are a menace." So if I can get the homeless society to say "No, we’re not a menace" and prove it, then the political system might look at it and say, "OK, now that you’ve cleaned up your act, maybe we can talk. We can negotiate." It’s going to be a long battle and one that won’t be accomplished overnight. Even though we’re homeless, it doesn’t mean we’re the bottom of the barrel—so we shouldn’t give society a reason to label us as such. On the other hand, society needs to stop viewing [us] as a menace and start viewing us as people with potential. That’s what I’d like Mayor [Heather] Fargo to see.