California Forum

Failing a ‘litmus test’ to aid homeless

Lynne Guensler, who has been homeless since May 2015, relaxes at Land Park with her cat, Fluffy, on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Guensler, 55, lived out of her green four-door Mazda with her 21-year-old son and pet cat for a few months and just recently received temporary shelter for 30-days until she can find housing for herself. But finding affordable housing isn’t easy, she says, when she only has $900 a month between herself and her son.
Lynne Guensler, who has been homeless since May 2015, relaxes at Land Park with her cat, Fluffy, on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Guensler, 55, lived out of her green four-door Mazda with her 21-year-old son and pet cat for a few months and just recently received temporary shelter for 30-days until she can find housing for herself. But finding affordable housing isn’t easy, she says, when she only has $900 a month between herself and her son. aseng@sacbee.com

Mayoral candidate Angelique Ashby says she finds images of government-sanctioned homeless tent camps in other cities to be “deeply disturbing.”

Darrell Steinberg, her main rival, says that tents aren’t solutions, but may be better than “riverbanks and doorways” in the short term, because “what is happening now is not what any great city should allow.”

They’re both right.

Dystopian and brutal in the magnitude of heartache they house, tent cities are unnerving reminders of how easy it is to fail, both individually and as a society. It’s disquieting to feel them creep into our consciousness and potentially our neighborhoods.

But the system Sacramento has now leaves too many people without aid for too long, and delivers too little in the end.

Lynne Guensler and her adult son Brannon Reyes, a homeless family trying hard to stay together, are what Guensler calls “the litmus test” for what can go wrong, in life and in Sacramento’s homeless services.

Articulate and intelligent, Guensler seems like the kind of person it would be easy to assist, the there-but-for-the-grace contingent that is sane and sober.

But, “the more we tried to get help, the more we got turned down,” she says.

For nine months, she and Reyes lived in and around Land Park with their Siamese cat, Fluffy, spending days near a public restroom and nights on the side streets, at first in a mortuary’s covered walkway and later in a car.

Since November, they’ve been working with a “navigator” from Sacramento Steps Forward, the agency charged with coordinating homeless outreach and directing people into services.

It took that navigator three months of trying before she could get them an appointment for a housing program run by Volunteers of America, the largest homeless service provider in the area.

On a Tuesday in February at 2 p.m., the day before Reyes turned 21, they showed up early for the meeting.

But the VOA employee said she never does intakes on Tuesday afternoons, and never at that place. There’d been a mistake, she couldn’t do anything about it, and they’d have to start the process again.

Guensler was disappointed, but not surprised.

In homeless parlance, there’s no such thing as an adult child, and no aid for out-of-the-mold families. She’d been hearing “no” for months.

She and Reyes could split up and do better, never mind the cat.

But “that’s not a choice,” she says. “If they break your family apart, they take everything you have.”

The navigator made calls and rescheduled the appointment for the following Tuesday at 2 p.m., same location, same woman. No explanation.

They came back, driving their faded green Mazda with the last of its gas, and were expected this time. Guensler and Reyes wanted to know what kind of help they might get.

But giving that explanation was “not my job,” the VOA woman said. Paperwork was, so they filled out a dozen forms and were hurried out by a fellow who wanted to lock the place up by 3 p.m.

Two weeks later, Guensler and Reyes got a call from Volunteers of America, a faith-based nonprofit organization.

This employee told them they didn’t have enough income to be successful in its “rapid rehousing” service, Guensler says.

Two days passed, and the nonprofit called again, offering enrollment in the program they’d been told wouldn’t work for them.

Confused and mistrustful, Guensler and Reyes went to sign up.

They could get a $652-per-month rent subsidy for three months for a one-bedroom, this VOA employee said, plus help with a deposit and maybe credit check fees – a total of about $2,700.

But the agency wouldn’t help find an apartment – no leads for friendly landlords, no advice on where to look. Reyes and Guensler had 30 days to figure it out before the offer expired.

He suggested searching Craigslist.

Guensler, 55, has steel-clad optimism, but it was showing the dings. She worried frustration would crack Reyes.

A tall blond with a ponytail and a lazy eye, he hadn’t learned to “roll with the punches” the way she could, she says.

The amblyopia makes him shy, and Guensler is protective. She is also adamant that he doesn’t drop out of Sacramento City College. That’s why they stayed in the park.

Reyes’ dad, a veteran, died when he was 11. Guensler went back to school for an accounting degree. She’d once been the convenience store manager at Hotel Berry, she says, but was a homemaker for so long she didn’t think she was employable.

In recent years, they lived in a Riverside Boulevard apartment paying $825 a month using mostly student loans.

Last spring, there was a glitch and she lost the funding. They were evicted.

Once life started falling apart, she couldn’t stop it. “It’s like being in a hole that keeps caving in on top of you,” she says. “You keep trying to climb out, but you can’t.”

Guensler and Reyes aren’t the only ones stuck in that pit.

Sacramento’s homeless aid system is “like a puzzle with 10,000 pieces,” says Amani Sawires Rapaski, the COO for Volunteers of America.

Byzantine and convoluted, it’s torturous to traverse without a guide. The navigators don’t have their title for nothing. An entrepreneurial and passionate lot, they’ve been busy chaperoning people into a queue, even when they don’t quite fit.

But some of the area’s nonprofit partners, even good ones like Volunteers of America, have rigid and overburdened bureaucracies, made worse by the influx of homeless.

Sacramento simply doesn’t have “enough affordable housing resources in our community for people to ever exit homelessness,” Sawires Rapaski says.

And that, says Sister Libby Fernandez of Loaves and Fishes, means regardless of how many people the navigators reach, “the funnel does stop when it comes to real housing options.”

So we need flexibility and alternatives while we figure out housing – including those disturbing tent cities, which are no more prophetic of Sacramento’s future than a new downtown arena.

Guensler doesn’t know if she would use a tent city. But she might, if it was “safe and well-regulated.”

But hours after Sawires Rapaski learned of Guensler and Reyes, VOA offered them an interim apartment in North Highlands during their month of apartment searching.

On a day so wet the fields of Land Park were closed to Little League games, Guensler and Reyes moved inside.

In the morning, Guensler made a Dollar Store breakfast with eggs and sausage on the electric skillet. Then she sat with her son at the kitchen table, drinking coffee saved from the day before.

“It hasn’t sunk in that it’s real,” she says. “It looks like a home.”

But it’s not, and her 30 days are disappearing fast.

Anita Chabria is a regular freelance contributor who lives in Sacramento. Contact her at anachabria@gmail.com.

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