Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In The News: SF Examiner

Starving out needy is no way to deal with homelessness

There is a constant chorus of complaints about homelessness in San Francisco, but it has reached a fever pitch in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood that ridiculously includes calls to shutter a church meal program for the needy.

Homelessness is a complicated matter that is the manifestation of myriad root issues — the economy, the lack of mental health services, and drug and alcohol addiction, among others. The most visible fragment of the homeless population, though not nearly the entirety of it, is the street homeless — the men, women and children whom ordinary San Franciscans and those visiting The City see spending their days and nights in public spaces.

Merchants and neighbors around Duboce Park have apparently had enough of the homeless people who traverse the area and, seemingly, stay there on occasion. The anecdotal stories from the neighborhood point to an upswing in criminal behavior from transients, though police and officials who deliver city services have not quantified any such trends in the area.
Even if there has been an influx there, one of the ideas that merchants and residents have proposed is mind-boggling.

The St. Francis Lutheran Church serves meals to needy people every Sunday morning. One key word there is “needy,” not homeless. The church does not differentiate between those who have residences and need meal assistance and those who are homeless. Dr. Raj Parekh of the Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team told The San Francisco Examiner that many people who visit the church for assistance are not homeless; they simply need help with food for reasons that include poverty.

The neighbors and merchants have unfairly targeted the church’s meal program, saying it should be shut down to see if that drives homeless people out of the neighborhood. While the effects of such a callous proposal would be debatable at best, since many other factors likely play into where people sleep outdoors, the impact on the economically struggling patrons of the church is undeniable. People who, as Parekh pointed out, may have to make choices between such critical items as medicine and food could be forced to pay for food above other urgent needs.

If the neighbors and merchants are truly interested in helping the homeless, and not just pushing them out of the neighborhood into other parts of The City, there are better, more constructive solutions.

For instance, there could be a pooling of resources to fund a dedicated social worker for the area, who could work with the transient population to connect people with housing or mental health services. The groups also could work with The City to bring the successful Project Homeless Connect to Duboce Park to reach the same goal of connecting people with services.

In short, the neighbors and merchants who are vocal about this issue should stop demonizing the transients and a church that is providing a social service to the community. Instead, they can start working toward projects through which the neighborhood can assist The City in tackling the larger issues around homelessness.

Shuttering a meal service program and pushing transients out of one neighborhood might improve the situation for the immediate residents and merchants, but it does nothing to get at the root issues that lead to homelessness.

There is no simple solution to homelessness, but the idea of booting the church’s meal service is a nonstarter that will only do harm.

Monday, February 25, 2013

In the News: SF Examiner

Duboce neighbors think St. Francis Lutheran Church meal program is feeding homeless problem

St. Francis Lutheran Church
Anna Latino/Special to the S.F. Examiner
Duboce neighbors think St. Francis Lutheran Church meal program is feeding homeless problem
A church meal program has become the target of residents seeking to reduce the number of homeless people living in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood.

St. Francis Lutheran Church officials say that despite a recommendation introduced last week to suspend Sunday morning meal service for 90 days to see if it affects the area’s homeless population, they intend to keep feeding people.

“It’s not something in our ability to do as a faith community,” said Megan Rohrer, executive director of the Welcome Ministry, which partnered with the church on the meal program. “It’s a mandate for us to serve the poor, particularly during the Lent season.”

The recommendation, along with an increased police presence, was announced during a community meeting last week. The meeting — which included two dozen community members, city leaders, police personnel and elected officials — was the second gathering held to address the increasing number of homeless people in the neighborhood. Residents and businesses have said an increase in criminal activity has coincided with an increase in the homeless population. Such police data was unavailable as of press time.

David Villa-Lobos, director of the meeting’s host, the Community Leadership Alliance, said the church’s program can be improved.

“This is not a target on the church; we just think it can be run better,” he said.

Community members appear to be split on whether the meal program is the culprit. Some merchants said it could be attracting homeless people to the area, while residents of 14th and Belcher streets disagreed.

Pastor Pamela Griffith Pond said the church also deals with the trash and vandalism resulting from homeless people moving into the area.

“If people are acting out, we don’t let them in,” she said. “We want to be a good neighbor, but whatever problems others are having, it’s not related to feeding people at St. Francis.”

Griffith Pond said the church partnered with Rohrer to take the meal program to the next level, such as providing more organization, since the program had been run by volunteers for more than a decade. But the service, which feeds roughly 125 people, will not be discontinued, Griffith Pond said.

Dr. Raj Parekh, of the Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team, said meal programs help more than just the homeless.

“Many of these people aren’t homeless, but food is an issue,” he said. “They have to make choices between food, medications and clothing. I support the notion to have access to food; if a church wants to be a part of that solution, more power to them.”

And there are solutions, Parekh said. When there is criminal activity such as drug use or vandalism, residents and business owners are encouraged to contact police. But when a person is sleeping on a sidewalk and in obvious need of help, that’s when the Homeless Outreach Team comes in.

Parekh said he expects his team to begin focusing on the Duboce area in the coming months to address the growing homeless population.