Squirrel gravy is more relevant than political will if we want to end homelessness.
The phone rang and I could see my mothers face freeze as she spoke to my father. She hung up the phone and said we had 30 minutes before we needed to have a meal for 13 people. My dad had met individuals in need and offered a home cooked lunch. His preamble was always that we didn’t have much, but what we had we’d share.
My mother however, often carried the weight of such kindness. This day was the perfect example- we had very little food. We’d been eating pancake mix concoctions for days. I’ve seen my mother cry trying to create meals for our ever growing strangers at the table. But, I come from creative folks — and they always made things work. My grandma, upon opening her empty fridge — walked outside and came back an hour later with a bear. I come from women who make it work. “It’s not fancy but it’s what we have” was almost a family motto.
We had maybe 12 people living in our small home. Feeding all of us was a burden my mother carried. This particular day, we had not just those staying with us but a whole new group of hungry people joining.
We only had a portion of a 50 pound bag of pancake mix our grandpa gave us and a bit of powdered milk. I had also been given two eggs at church that morning. But with these minimal ingredients- my mother suggested we play a game. Sometimes I joke that the show Chopped is about geniuses like my mother who could feed us, when we had literally just a few random donated items. Not only did we rarely miss a meal, our table almost always had more than our four family members. There were always hungry people, my home was always open to them.
My mother and father would serve our guest first, I remember there not always being enough and both went hungry on many occasions. They didn’t say a word. I don’t think anyone noticed. But I saw their generous hearts and I admired them. My mom was magical- she was limited by resources but was always able to make it work. My mother, she is damn creative.
On this particular Sunday, my genius mom knew we needed meat and found a squirrel deep in our freezer given to us by a neighbor. We’d left it in the freezer, hoping it would never be necessary. I remember watching her have similar thoughts to mine- can we actually serve squirrel? My genius mother made a delicious biscuit and squirrel gravy lunch. Not only were there no complaints- for the first time in days- many had full stomachs. It wasn’t fancy, but my mother used what few things she had to make sure everyone who was hungry was fed.
I told that story recently to a group of students. Their response surprised me. They basically. blamed my mother for having children and offering food when my parents had such little food. One person even suggested I should have been aborted if my parents couldn’t financially provide. I asked “what do you mean, my mom literally fed over a dozen people with barely anything”. How can that be bad?
They’re response- “no one deserves squirrel gravy”. I asked them, should we all have gone hungry or should we have given what we had?”. After avoiding eye contact, they all agreed that there should have been a third option. An option where no one ate squirrel gravy. But their privilege meant they believed in third options. Believe me, if there was a third option, we would have used it.
It dawned on me- this is why we can’t solve homelessness. We as a community have a crisis and have little to offer today as far as permanent housing. We have squirrel gravy, and no one wants to serve squirrel gravy.
People often use political will as a source of blame. But since I’m divulging my eating of squirrel gravy- let’s continue to keep it real and go to the next step. Every city leader wants to be the person who “ends homelessness”. I’ve never met a mayor, supervisor or department director who didn’t want to end homelessness. But to have more options than squirrel gravy, requires cuts elsewhere. Do we want all San Franciscans to have parks within walking distance? Do we want to take funds from education, infrastructure or where? This isn’t an issue of political will, but of what we actually have available and how we use that. It won’t take political will, but community sacrifice that actually creates lasting change. That’s why I love San Francisco- we could be that community who proves that if we all work together- we can do what no other major American city has done- end chronic homelessness!
Until the community takes up this as a priority, the conversation about ending homelessness becomes pointless. If all we have is squirrel gravy, why do we keep talking about third options? We know what we have, there’s no secret housing market. So we either let folks continue to suffer outside alone and later pay for the health and mental health percussion- or is it possible to agree that we have squirrel gravy and we can use what we have to help those most vulnerable.
In the past, I’ve presented several concepts of change. I believe we have solutions to better help those we serve. Not so shockingly, these ideas are met with controversy. Most say, no one deserves to sleep in a service rich camp facility nor using cruise boats or even using the Japanese sleeping pod hotel concept for those who need a safe space immediately. But what bothers me is that tourist pay big bucks to stay in a retired cruise boat in LA or even look at the success of Nine Hours, a Japanese pod hotel chain! Family from my Dutch roots lived in the public housing on the canals created for the poor. These house boats are now considered prime real estate!
If these ideas are worth vacation stays, why aren’t they good enough for those who are daily struggling to get their needs met? Just because what we have isn’t ideal, doesn’t mean it won’t work.
My dream has always been to have a one stop shop in an accessible location with multi on site services and agencies. Even more, we could evaluate what type of emergency housing is appropriate upon intake.
A once size fits all approach won’t work. The correct placement may be a Nav Center or elsewhere. But we also need an emergency comprehensive connections center for those is crisis today, we can no longer continue to wait for something we just don’t have.
While waiting for appropriate emergency housing, I envision a place where volunteers, community non profits and city agencies work together to listen and meet the participants stated needs. Experiencing homelessness is often a complete loss of support- this community connections center would provide that relationship and engagement, making sure no participant falls through the cracks in the system. This builds on the proven model of success held by PHC. We have the proof of concept that we can do more when we all work in unison. Now we need to build on what we’ve proven to be efficient and effective.
During natural disasters- we don’t leave our community members on the street because we don’t have available apartments. We understand it’s a crisis and something must be done today. Even though it’s not ideal, we’ve used CruiseBoats, service rich tent housing, micro units, or even busses to give survivors respite. None of these are long term solutions, but they stop the bleeding and create a concrete step forward.
While it may not feel like a crisis to those of us with a home- the reality is that our neighbors are suffering on the street and are in a true life or death situation. If we all agreed this is a community emergency, we’d meet the needs of the crisis and work from a crisis perception of what do we have and how can we best use it. Doesn’t that make sense for our community members currently in crisis as well?
I’ll admit, even other colleagues and I go around and around on this issue. Surely a person “deserves” a home. But when we start speaking of what someone “deserves”, instead of what resources exist- the conversation becomes unrealistic and it begins feeling like change will never occur.
For example, probably like you- I’d love a wonderful vacation. Some have told me I “deserve” a luxury holiday. But you know as well as I do, we don’t get what we think we deserve, even when we work hard. My father always told me the word deserve will make you unhappy. The world isn’t fair, and deceiving yourself to believe you deserve something, will create a sense of being a victim. But if we believe we deserve nothing, ever day is a blessing. That’s the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned.
We live in a world where a cancer diagnosis is more common than a first marriage. Believe me, life’s not fair. That famous rapper with a gold toilets doesn’t have an ass more deserving than mine. But life isn’t about what we deserve or how hard we work, but strategically using what we have.
People experiencing homelessness isn’t just painful for those experiencing homelessness. But it’s also a kick in the gut for any of us to daily see such suffering. Criminalizing homelessness will never work, but creating a safe space with intentional relationships and personalized services allows a dignified way to bring individuals inside, to a space that reflects how much our community cares.
Our community has decades of experience in serving those experiencing homelessness. But perhaps like me, there’s a bit of compassion fatigue. Every time we’ve had a direct need, our community responds. But after years of promises of change (and there has been great change) until we move every individual into safe and appropriate housing- we have a lot of work to do. Not impossible work, but work only the community can do. And even more, it would need coordination from all sectors.
Offering biscuits and squirrel gravy doesn’t sound exciting. Even worse perhaps even my proposing such options appears undignified. In such a rich community how can we be ok with this?
I had a professor in graduate school who often said politicians alone can’t end homelessness. Any cuts from other valuable programs to help end homelessness would ruin their career. This isn’t a lack of political will, this is a lack of community engagement as WE are the solution. I’ve come to understand what he meant.
In my ideal world, I’d like to address this crisis as a community. Perhaps a company would buy a 20k square foot building and give PHC five years free as a tax write off leaseback. We’d ask for assistance from the community to decorate and make the space as perfect and warm as possible. We’d use our amazing staff, non profit collaborators and volunteers to give comprehensive services as well as provide ongoing support until they are safely back on their feet b
Given this type of large space- we can have partners so all services are streamlined and aligned. We would also have social events making PHC a family, for the thousands who have lost their support systems. We all need a village, together- we could create one.
We would have a medical office onsite where our volunteers would host a bi- weekly vision day, hair cut day, showers, washers and dryers, employment trainings and life skills training etc. But even more, a space where people may go 24/7 eliminating the need to sleep outside which is a huge health risk.
The reality is we don’t have beautiful apartments for all, but we can provide safe and service rich spaces that best meets the needs of each individual in our community.
The problem of course is money.
What if we as a community decided that politicians haven’t solved this- but maybe we can? If the community donors unified and prioritized grants for emergency needs, this would allow the city to focus their funding on long term housing.
We all know Housing First is the best model for long term success. However, we both know we only have squirrel gravy. If we believe everyone “deserves a home in their preferred location” this conversation will continue for many more decades. Many of my hard working staff would love an affordable apartment in SF, we just don’t have them.
So, how do we change the conversation from what a person “deserves” versus what we have to offer for our neighbors literally dying on the street? It may be squirrel gravy, but hey- when you’re hungry, believe me it’s tasty.