By Jill Allen, Executive Director.
Some say that people choose to live in a homeless encampment, with garbage, in unhygienic conditions. They say that unsheltered people make a conscious decision to abandon responsibility and live on streets, in parks, at highway interchanges and along railroad tracks.
If you speak with any one of the 160 people who are living the encampment life near Dorothy’s Place they may tell you about their previous life, how things went wrong, and how they dream of living inside again, and getting their life back. Everyone, regardless of circumstances, seeks safety and stability. They just have been here so long that often
they forget what it feels like to be safe and secure.
Living without a home changes people. After days, months, and sometimes years of “rough sleeping”, people change. Sleeping rough and living on the street is bare survival. People lose sight of what their life can be. They focus on day-to-day survival and being present in the moment, but after trauma after trauma, disappointment after disappointment, they lose hope. How would you feel if you walked the streets and not a single person’s eyes met yours? But people are human, and in encampment life, a community develops, and a social life. It may be rocky, but it’s still social, essential and necessary. Relationships form out of the need for safety and security.
At Dorothy’s Place we offer safety, along with basic services, for 10 and a half hours every day in the Drop-In Center. We are optimists and we offer hope. Our staff and volunteers greet each guest with a warm welcome and genuine concern.
We always ask our consumers how they are doing, what they need and what is important to them. Through very consistent efforts over time, and our consumers learn to trust us and rely on us, we offer a guided, supported path to becoming housed again through our House of Peace and Streets to Homes programs.
I’m sure you might wonder what this looks like on a personal level. I asked one of our guests recently about his daily routine. To protect his privacy, I will call him Don.
Don doesn’t live in a tent. He sleeps in a nearby alley, on a blanket, on the pavement. He wouldn’t feel safe inside a tent. Sleeping outside in the open is his way of feeling safe during the dark hours of the night, where he can see what’s coming at him.
Don’s daily routine is a matter of priorities. He comes to Dorothy’s Drop-In Center each morning to use the bathroom, take a shower, and to charge his “devices”, his laptop and his phone. Being near a bathroom is a big deal. Providing a safe bathroom for our consumers from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily is a priority at Dorothy’s Place. It is an essential service for people who do not have a place to live. Providing bathroom access is also a service to our broader community. Think about that.
Don usually eats at Dorothy’s Place. He told me he appreciates the two good meals, breakfast and lunch, which we serve every day. Dorothy’s has been serving meals for the poor and unsheltered in Salinas for over 30 years. The consistency builds his trust.
Don is in relatively good health though he does need relief from exhaustion and pain – physical pain from aging and “sleeping rough.” I do know that sometimes Don is angry and bitter about where he is and the fact that he has been down so long. Our staff has encouraged him to work with us to help him get into housing. He has made progress and we will support and guide him in this often-lengthy process. We hope Don will continue to trust us and that he will live inside one day.
I sometimes hear from well-meaning folk who think that congregate free meals, offered by what some call a “soup kitchen,” is the reason there is an encampment outside Dorothy’s Place on Soledad Street. I agree, but I see the situation differently.
Food brings people together. Available bathrooms and a TV playing the local news brings people together. This is, in itself, a good thing, and generally keeps people healthier and more civil. The consistency in daily service builds trust in our consumers – it’s a huge advantage. The tragedy is that we don’t do more. We don’t offer unlimited housing opportunities. We don’t offer jobs. We don’t offer mental health and addiction services here in a personal way, like we offer meals. The encampment is here because we do a little, but don’t do enough for these very sick and disabled people that have essentially been thrown away by other people. The unsafe, unhealthy encampment exists not because we feed and serve people. It exists because we stop our service at meals and restrooms and leave the other essentials to the sick and disabled to figure out on their own.
Fortunately, Dorothy’s Place has evolved over the years. Currently, we serve over 500 meals daily. We provide the essentials in the Drop-In Center, but now, in addition, we’re getting good at assisting people in qualifying for disability income and permanent housing they can afford. We’re good at housing them transitionally until they can obtain permanent housing. We’re getting good at understanding what makes people shy away from institutionalized health care, and how to assist them here, where they live and are more comfortable. Chinatown is a real neighborhood, with neighbors who know each other, are fond of each other, and look out for one another. They want to trust others, but it just takes a while to develop the ability to trust again. It’s happening every day here.
At Dorothy’s Place, trust has become our most valuable asset, and we want to parlay that trust into huge benefits for our consumers and our community. For Don, and others living outside, we are developing a new program, an Multidisciplinary Encampment Outreach Team staffed by professionals, to provide medical care, mental health services, and social services, right in the encampments. We won’t abandon the people who live in the encampments in Salinas. We will serve them where they live, but it will take a long and painstaking process of relationship development to make this happen, and it has to happen on an individual basis, recognizing the uniqueness of each person. In fact, measuring and evaluating the level of trust we’ve achieved with each person inside the encampments will be the most important measurement of success, because we know that with a sufficient level of trust, everything good follows.
The Chinatown community has a strong sense of belonging. As we build trust with people who are living in the community, our Streets to Homes program is successfully guiding and supporting people to qualify for and move into permanent housing. As people adjust to living in an apartment, paying rent, and discovering their new life, we continue to provide resources and support. We are continuing to assist people to get into housing even during the pandemic.
It can be a long, difficult road to a home and a new life. Dorothy’s Place is successfully guiding people on this journey. We hope you stick with us and support the building of trust in our unsheltered community in Salinas.
With love, respect and compassion, Dorothy’s Place provides essential services, transitional support and housing assistance to people experiencing the injustice of homelessness and extreme poverty.
Without your financial support, our work doesn’t happen. Join us! Stand with us as we assist people from street life to home life. Your solidarity is humbly and gratefully received.