A Holiday Pause for Thought

By John Underwood
December 26, 2019 —

As a student of journalism, as a working reporter, as a documentarian looking at the world through the lens of a camera, I have been trained and have always strived to stand apart and see the story I was covering from many sides, careful not to take sides. 

I approached the crisis of homelessness in Orange County the same way two years ago when I was invited by homeless activist Tim Houchen to cover a 2017 Longest Night memorial he was presenting in front of the county Civic Center Plaza in Santa Ana. And subsequently, I tracked the momentous events leading up to the mass riverbed evictions and motel exodus of the homeless in 2018 with the same methodical detachment.

To be honest, in this age of so many refracted political directions and perspectives to consider it can be comforting to fall back on so called journalistic objectivity and just take a pass on having to take a position on many of the thorny issues of our time. My job was to document, not decide. A fairly comfortable position to be in, in such a tumultuous time.

But slowly, imperceptibly, as I looked deeper and deeper into the personal agonies of those we call homeless, that cloak of objectivity for me was wearing thin, becoming a tattered blanket with too many holes in it, soon to become a luxury my moral center could no longer hide behind. As the sad and relentless parade of the homeless saga unfolded in OC before my eyes, I began to realize the true stories of this broad cross section of our society was rarely being told, and even more rarely in the context of compassion and complexity each case deserved. The clear voices of the homeless themselves, who they were, why they were homeless, what they needed most, so seldom rose to the surface of the public debate that I felt a balance, even a reckoning, was needed to give them a voice that could compete with the politicos, the pundits, and money men all jockeying for position on the back of this new phenom call a homeless crisis for which the floodgates of public dollars were beginning to flow.

When the esteemed homeless crisis “fixer” from Salt Lake City Lloyd Pendleton, who reduced runaway homelessness in that town by over 90% among the most chronic populations first,  came to Chapman University in 2018 to present his fix to a hall of movers and shakers, he squared off with OC leaders face to face , presenting what he called his “three Cs”: first, Champions, of which he said Orange County has in spades. Then, Competency, that is a level of economic wealth and a system of management in place to foster collaborations and administer care. Conditions easily met by this county. But it was the third C Lloyd warned OC leaders gathered in that conference room that day they lacked and for which lacking, he predicted, they would fail to adequately resolve their homeless crisis. . .. that C was Compassion. “Without a high capacity for compassion,” he challenged them, “you will fail . . . . it’s outcomes that matter here, not process . . . . . and outcomes only come with caring.” 

Lloyd Pendleton, who led Utah’s homelessness efforts for more than a decade, speaks to a conference at Chapman University on Thursday, April 5, 2018.

Mr. Pendleton admitted he himself and his corps of the compassionate of Salt Lake made many mistakes about the homeless in the beginning, going after the easy converts first. Only after purging himself and his staff of divisive misconceptions about who the homeless were, and begin focusing on the most vulnerable, chronic and longest standing homeless did they begin to see striking and lasting successes he told the Chapman audience.

When I consider my own misconceptions and cultural blind spots that have been an ongoing part of my own learning curve through subsequent homeless stories that have taken shape in a series of reports I am producing called NO FIXED ABODE, I often think of Lloyd and his arc of discovery about who the homeless really are and what it is they need. That “constant curiosity” as he called it for truly knowing the homeless can only be propelled by “compassion and caring for them as individuals, as fellow citizens,” as he concluded, “Can’t learn that from a database.” I am ever learning that lesson now. It is not one you acquire from spread sheets and government apologists. It can only come from getting to know the homeless themselves. 

I have come to know the homeless through working alongside the too few advocates who live and work among the homeless on the streets, along the railroad tracks, in the bush and down in the flood control channels of Orange County. They see the direct consequences of a largely dispassionate and disconnected county response to homelessness. Easily 40% of the homeless population in OC not even being counted or connected to healthcare services, contracted outreach, or even by Judge Carter’s own calculation of priority cases targeted for shelter placements, just 60%. The rest are simply written off as “shelter resistant.”

It is for these other homeless I cannot disengage into the safe zone of journalistic objectivity. And have joined the small core of advocates in Orange County who administer directly to these the forgotten homeless, the shelter resistant, the service neglected, the lost. I do this partly because I can no longer simply hang my humanity at the door when I enter their world asking them for a three-line summation of their tragic life story, leaving them with nothing tangible when I depart. But also, by offering something of value to them, a hot meal and cocoa in the winter, some cool water in the summer, I am showing respect to them in whatever condition I may find them. This kind of direct contact is the only way to earn their willingness to tell their story, to help me to peel away the layers of misconception I and the general public have about who these so called least of ours are. And I am learning something of value from them every day I am out there.     

Case in point only days ago. Two days before Christmas I was offered three large trays of warm food to disseminate among the homeless. This amounted to 40-50 hot meals. So, I put everything else on hold and took my suddenly acquired bounty to one of many park based homeless gathering places I knew of when it rains. Upon arrival, I announced I had hot meals for all. Feeding folks who are hungry and receiving their expressions of thanks is gratifying enough. But as always, I walked away from this encounter richer and wiser about my understanding of the homeless of Orange County in general, disabused of yet another misperception, namely that the homeless are by and large Godless.

After setting about dishing out maybe a dozen or more plates of chicken Tandoori, beef and rice, I glanced up and noticed all eyes were on me, and no one around the picnic tables was eating. No one. Thinking the food might not be warm enough I chided a few near me that it wasn’t going to get any warmer. A young kid, Curt, who helped me carry the large hot box full of food over to the picnic tables cleared his throat and informed me quietly so I would not be embarrassed in front of the others, now 15 to 20 homeless gathered around, that it was their custom in such a group to say grace before digging in. An elderly homeless man stepped forward then and recited a salutation of thanks to God he had obviously uttered many times before and judging from the unanimity of bowed heads around the picnic tables, many had heard before.

I was embarrassed, but not for neglecting to call for prayer before the meal in front of a few dozen homeless folks. I would not presume that requirement on anyone who was hungry and cold and destitute. Or even for having to be schooled by a gathering of homeless as to their manner of giving thanks.  

My embarrassment was more internalized, with myself for just assuming these homeless individuals would be so hungry they would forego any formality or courtesy toward man or God to get at a warm meal. Angry at myself for falling into the same easy trap millions of us do every day assigning snap judgements upon the homeless, from notions I had only concocted in my own brain. 

How many more misconception have I still to flush out of my brain about the homeless? And if I, who interact with them on an almost daily basis, can still harbor such basic misconceptions, what of others who rarely if ever interact with a homeless person? What preconceptions and snap judgements must be rolling around in the brains of three million Orange Countians who encounter the homeless only in passing on the streets or in the parks as they hurry to and from the comfort of a home, and then proceed to pass casual judgement upon those stranded on the streets? Judgements the homeless must then live with and pay the consequences for as popular misconceptions about them translate into public laws that only serve to further harass, traumatize and isolate those among us who have no house to go home to and no banquet feast to bless, except some picnic tables in the rain to gather around and some rewarmed chicken and rice to give thanks for. Still, they gather round. . . .and they give thanks, just like you and me.

About the Author

John Underwood is an award-winning journalist and documentary film-maker. As a producer for Los Alamitos Television, John oversees the production of “Backstory”, a show that tackles the local social issues of the day. He is also the producer of a multi-part documentary titled, “No Fixed Abode: Voices of the OC Homeless.” Part 3 of the 4 part documentary was recently published.

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