Reflections from the front lines serving adults experiencing homelessness, riding the COVID wave, tolerating Phoenix summer, living up to the legacy of a champion.
As the hot sun scorches the Phoenix landscape, we continue our COVID adapted operations at the Human Services Campus. We distribute water, invite people indoors. We shelter nearly 140 people per night on the floor of a Day Room and a Dining Room, for nearly 16 months now. We are certainly out of "crisis" mode and in a new "norm."
Sunday July 25th marked one year since our champion, Mike McQuaid passed away due to COVID. I still expect him to walk through the door of my office. He would say "you got a minute?" Regardless of what was happening, I would make at least one minute for him, if not 30 or 60 minutes. He would often say, "I've been thinking about" or "What if we did..." Always thinking, always strategizing and problem solving. He left us so many gifts. And dang, it still hurts. Channeling the hurt and sadness into positive energy, working for change and advocating for all people experiencing homelessness continues to be the way I carry on. Taking the high road. Staying focused to the goal. Practicing equanimity.
And I'm thinking about tribalism and environmental justice. Not that they go together, exactly. And by the time I finish writing this I will make a connection. The NBA Finals drove home for me this idea that tribalism, picking a side, or picking a team, creates opposition between people. When I told someone that I was cheering for both the Bucks and the Suns, they said, "you can't do that!" I said, "yes, I can!" It's not impossible to root for multiple players on both teams. I may still have a preference for one team to win, and that doesn't mean I can't be happy for both. When a "fan tribe" becomes so intense that they inflict harm and violence on the opposing fans, it ruins the fun for everyone.
I watched this setting up of opposition for two years through the Campus zoning request to add shelter beds. The entire process of community meetings, voting meetings, and conversations with interested parties was designed with "those for" and "those against." "Tribes" formed on both sides. People who supported the request became the opposition to those who did not support the request. City meetings registered people to speak "for" or "against." And then in the end, City staff and elected officials stipulated that we "partner" with the community. So while nothing about a two year process supported partnering, now after a literal battle we figure out how to navigate relationships and find common ground.
In my heart and soul I believe that problem solving comes from working together, not working in opposition. I work from a place of "collective impact," gathering people to share a common vision and aligning their strengths to positively change processes and systems. And I have seen it be successful. I am optimistic that real problem solving will be coming soon with the City to create an outdoor cooling center at the Campus. I'm sure it is with good intentions that it was decided to park a City bus 300 feet from the Campus main gate. And to have this bus running from 9 am to 5 pm, inviting people experiencing homelessness on to the bus and to give them water. And to have this bus guarded by two police vehicles, with two to four officers receiving overtime pay. And those police vehicles turned on and running all day. By "running" for the bus and the police vehicles I mean the engines are running, however they are not going anywhere. And the persistent police presence is causing people who are unhoused to leave, to not engage with other services, and to move into other areas of Phoenix.
Yes, homelessness is a public health crisis. Yes, heat is an emergency situation. However in other neighborhoods, the solution wouldn't be idling vehicles polluting the air while we have alerts for ozone and high pollution. Policies for the unhoused need to be the same as for those who are housed. And, we need housing to end homelessness.
Similar to the posts and chains "solution" of last year, this is a high cost, low impact, insulting attempt to "help the homeless." Ask us what we need, and we will tell you. It's not about the "municipal tribe" versus the "nonprofit/social services tribe." It has to be about working together to solve homelessness.
Whew. With that, wash your hands. Love your peeps. Share (except) your germs. Be anti-racist. Listen first to seek to understand. Dream big and act. Breathe. Be like Mike.