“Bet you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into.”
Shannon Stevens, an intake specialist at the Maryhouse women’s shelter, glanced at me and then worriedly across the room toward a woman in pink.
A pink sweater. A pink scarf, trimmed rhinestones and glitter to match the rings on almost every finger. This middle-aged black woman was stylish. If you saw her on the street, just strolling along a sidewalk in midtown Sacramento, you’d think she was a government worker on a lunch break.
“She took a bunch of pills,” Stevens said, “because she couldn’t take sleeping outside anymore.”
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You’d never know the woman in pink was chronically homeless.
On Monday morning, she was hunched over in a chair in the intake office on the verge of tears. She has been staying at the Salvation Army shelter, one of only a handful in the city that accepts single women, but was keenly aware that her time there was running out. Thirty days, with a 10-day extension or two. That’s all you get. Then it’s back to the streets.
The woman in pink, whom I agreed not to name, has been working with Maryhouse at Loaves & Fishes to get permanent supportive housing. But the list is long and getting to the top of it takes time. Time the woman in pink, who has cancer and a host of other health problems, didn’t think she had left to give.
So she took a bunch of pills from her purse and swallowed them with a cup of water from the Maryhouse lobby.
“I don’t want you to worry about housing, OK?” an intake specialist said as paramedics helped her stand. “You’re still on this list.”
“They’re not gonna call,” she whimpered, shaking her head. “They’re not gonna call.”
For the past month, Sacramento has been locked in a renewed debate over the city’s urban camping ban. Homeless activists pitched their tents outside City Hall on Dec. 8 and have been daring police to arrest them ever since. And last week, the morally driven hacker group Anonymous purportedly joined the fray.
Not that it has mattered much. City officials, including a new mayor-appointed task force on homelessness, are still plugging along, understandably looking for the right balance between short-term and long-term solutions.
Meanwhile, others in the broader community continue to wrestle with questions such as: Is it really safe to let homeless people camp outside? How about humane? Should police arrest or fine people instead? Is this a “criminalization” of the homeless or, given the enormous amount of trash and biohazard of disgustingness that homeless campers leave behind, is this more of a public health issue?
These are valid questions, but each one misses the point. And the point is, whether Sacramento has an anti-camping ordinance on the books or not, homeless people will continue to camp outside in tents and under makeshift tarps.
Some will do so because, as one Maryhouse employee told me, they like their freedom.
Far more will do so because they have health issues, such as agoraphobia or untreated paranoid schizophrenia, that make it easier to stay outdoors than to share a bunk in a crowded shelter. It’s not just because they’re picky.
If you don’t believe me, go watch 45 women, short-tempered from living outdoors and unable in some cases to hold a coherent thought for more than 30 seconds, try to share four showers at Maryhouse. Let’s just say arguments are common.
But most homeless people who find themselves outside in a tent night after night will be there because they’re in a situation like the woman in pink.
They camp because they have no choice. They do it because right now in Sacramento there’s nowhere else for them to go.
Shelter space is extremely limited, even with additional floor pallets carved out for Winter Sanctuary. There aren’t enough motel vouchers to go around. The wait for permanent supportive housing is far too long.
Until Sacramento officials address this very fundamental issue of supply and demand, spending time and energy debating the merits of the city’s camping ban is rather pointless.
The threat of that ordinance doesn’t make a difference to the 45 women who showered at Maryhouse on Monday morning before heading back to their tents. And it wouldn’t have made a difference to the woman in pink if she had found herself on the streets Monday night instead of in a hospital room.
“I’m tired of living like this!” she started screaming as the paramedics loaded her into the ambulance. “I’m tired of living like this!”
She shouldn’t have to.