The past few weeks have brought into focus something that I have been trying to capture about beautiful Cambria. The community was invited to attend two different town forums, both on topics that cut across all artificial barriers. Both sessions shared a set of common characteristics. First, they were led by top-shelf chairpersons. Both committees have an outstanding group of citizens who serve our community with passion and distinction. And both forums featured expert presenters who brought facts to what are often emotionally charged and occasionally hyperbolic topics – Homelessness and Wildfire Preparedness.
Session One – Homeless in the Community
The first event, hosted by the North Coast Advisory Council under the leadership of Chair Susan McDonald, offered an in-depth discussion of homelessness in the community. The council put together a panel of fourteen experts who represented governmental, faith-based, and non-profit organizations that deal with the myriad issues grouped under the HOMELESS label.
It was, at times, depressing, shocking, and despairing. But those moments were countered by hope, success, actions and intelligent determination to meet the issues where they are, and not accept the simple and superficial arguments that say there are no answers except the one that aligns with an individual’s worldview.
When we were young we pledged allegiance
Every morning of our lives
The classroom rang with children’s voices
Under teacher’s watchful eye
We learned about the world around us
At our desks and at dinner time
Reminded of the starving children
We cleaned our plates with guilty mindsAnd the stones in the road
Shone like diamonds in the dust
And then a voice called to us
To make our way back homeMary Chapin Carpenter
What does “homeless” mean? There are as many variants as there are people, it seems.
People without a place to live due to a financial crisis or a health crisis. Victims fleeing domestic abuse. People who have a mental illness, addiction, or untreated substance abuse problems.
There are the transients, the part-timers, the semi-homeless, the on and off again homeless. There are rotating families who struggle to find the ways and means to a permanent place. There are veterans and those who illicitly claim that status.
There are those who like the freedom of rootless life, who depend on the kindness of strangers for sustenance. There are those who similarly wander, but use other methods of extracting support from communities.
Most distressingly, there are, in Beautiful Cambria, almost one hundred kids classified as homeless. They couch surf or share grossly overcrowded motel rooms with others in similar situations. They rotate through homes and sheltered places, often claiming a corner of a floor or perhaps a shared bed. Sometimes they shiver in a car or a campground. That might be fun during an adventurous road trip, but not so much as a way of life.
As reported by a school administrator, there are 601 students enrolled in the Coast Union school system. Of those 601 students, 73.8% are eligible for nutrition assistance. That’s 447 kids. The meals provided by the school are often the only healthy food these kids regularly get.
The numbers seem to remain constant, but the faces change. Families who come to this area are looking for a place where they can build a decent life. They work hard, contribute to the community, and help make the local economy run, yet can’t get enough traction to sustain a permanent home base. So they move on to the next place and are replaced by the next group of hopefuls.
Solutions in Action
As the forum progressed, the experts on the panel stood up and answered the question, “What are you going to do about it?” It was heartening to hear the consistent answer – “This is what we are doing about it.”
Each presenter gave a straightforward description of what their organization does, the challenges they face, and the programs and approaches they rely on to provide critical services.
The level of cooperation and coordination was heartening. The inter-agency relationships painted a picture of the few doing the work of many. Churches and schools, CCSD employees and citizen-driven action committees are all taking on a piece of the challenge. From Veterans Services to Domestic Violence victim support, from the Sheriff to State Parks, the message that rang out was – it is not just “my” problem – it is “our” problem.
There are no rose-colored glasses here, but there is a lot of clear vision. The problems facing too many of us are real, and the impacts are not insignificant. The truth takes the heart in many directions. There is real human suffering, and in beautiful Cambria, it is met by true humanity.
The starving children have been replaced
By souls out on the street
We give a dollar when we pass
And hope our eyes don’t meet…Stones in the road
Leave a mark whence they came
A thousands points of light or shame
Baby, I don’t know