It is now July 2020. These are my latest reflections from the front lines serving individuals experiencing homelessness:
1. On the upside, it's the start of a new fiscal year! Thanks to all of the corporate, philanthropic, governmental and individual donors who support the Human Services Campus and all of our partners.
2. I was asked recently if the Campus and partners receive more money, especially from the government, if we serve more people. The answer is "no." Like most nonprofit organizations we raise money from a variety of sources, always seeking diversification and sustainability. We are not reimbursed per person served. In fact some funders challenge us to serve more people for less money, asking us to innovate and reduce costs.
3. At the same time, we will continue to advocate for organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness to be funded like healthcare organizations as critical, life-saving services. We are not a charity. We are not seeking handouts. We are seeking fair payment for services we provide to people who have nowhere else to go. They do not quality for inpatient admission to hospitals, and they are not in 9-1-1 EMS qualifying situations just because they are unhoused. They exist in a gap.
4. This gap is literally at times a gap between a side walk and a street. Or a gap of dirt alongside a canal. Some people are able to sleep on a mat or a bed in an emergency shelter. Not everyone who is unhoused can access a shelter bed though, because they are always full across Maricopa County.
5. Some people in the community are very interested in the unhoused, unsheltered people who are visible in these gaps. They don't want to see them in the gaps. They don't want to see how they live, creating safe places with whatever they can find. Building temporary shade with pieces of cardboard, tents, tarps, mattresses. One woman has a table that she sets up to eat her meals at with a carefully balanced spray of flowers in the middle; the wind blows the flowers. It's beautiful amidst the less than pretty atmosphere of "street homelessness."
6. Near the Human Services Campus, the city of Phoenix wants to help the people in the gap by cleaning the streets, sidewalks, and easements. Some days the city hires a company to do a "deep cleaning." Last week when this occurred the spray resulted in blow back of chemicals on to people. People living on the streets and HSC employees. Why employees? Because they helped people to temporarily move their items. They allayed fears. They lessened anxiety. We tracked down the company to ask what was in the spray, because eyes and skin were reddening. A five-percent bleach spray, we were told. Water to rinse eyes and skin.
7. Unintended consequences. Our friends at the City may not have the time to consider unintended consequences. Today's spray in a light Phoenix wind may not have crossed their minds as to be troublesome to people existing outside. I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they certainly didn't intend to cause anyone harm.
8. We are not all medical professionals at the Campus, however we operate with the philosophy of "first do no harm." Most of us have not taken a Hippocratic oath, and we are serving vulnerable people. People living with trauma, victims of abuse/crimes, people living with disabilities and physical and mental health issues. We are there to meet people where they are, to listen first in order to understand. We are not all licensed social workers, yet we provide services with care and without judgment.
9. And all of this happens with or without COVID-19. Over the last two weeks, I have decided and talked to my team about the fact that we cannot use COVID-19 as any excuse to delay or ignore the strategic, long-term work that we must do in order to change the systems that lead to homelessness and the systems that serve people experiencing homelessness. We have a new COVID-19 response system, it's not perfect, nothing is perfect. It is manageable. We have new processes with our partners. We have PPE (although we will continue to need more). We still have anxiety and uncertainty. And we cannot use it as a reason to slow down progress on systems improvements, addressing racial disparity, and ending homelessness.
10. So happy fiscal new year! We recognize that we have to deal with both Coronavirus, AND we have to keep working on all the things it takes to end homelessness. Thank you for joining us on this journey. Stay safe and healthy.