Sean Ashton: Throwing money at homelessness won't fix the problem
7 pm was the announced starting time, and at 7:10 Roy Anthony Shabla stepped to the microphone and welcomed everyone to the May edition of his Green Salon, a long-running monthly gathering for musicians, artists, poets, and craft-beer makers.
“Downey doesn’t come till the event is nearly over,” Roy has said, and he usually starts the festivities accordingly late. Not this time. Sean Ashton, Downey City Councilman, had graciously offered to come and speak on the homeless situation in Downey, and I was eager to interview him for the gathered artists, art lovers, and artist lovers. One of the musicians had added his microphone and stand to Roy’s, so we both would be heard.
Good weather prevailed, the kind of balmy evening that has trademarked Roy’s sessions in his home garden that have given the event its name. Rain was forecast, but the cold and damp had held off, and the spring evening light lasted well beyond the interview.
Two tables were laden with vegan snacks, olives, wine and beer. Other tables held neat piles of books of poetry by local poets and t-shirts with quotes.
Poster boards held laminated clippings of my articles about the homeless women who stand at the post office, with colorful photos of one of them, “Julie.”
These last minute decorations made it to the party thanks to the goodwill of Maria at Office Max, the one on Firestone near the old All-American site. She put them together at the last minute for me, and even found some coupons to help ease the expense.
I talked with artist Scotty Salmon – “like the fish” – whose colorful abstract shapes were underscored- pun intended – by five-line musical staffs.
“This big one even has a title,” Scotty said, and I could make out, between undulating golden swirls, the words “The Girl From Ipanema.” Interpretation of the circles and triangles is left to the viewer.
This reporter interviewed some early arrivals, specifically one young woman with lime green hair done up in corkscrew curls.
“Why do you have green hair,” I asked, and the answer was, she used to work at Disneyland making costumes for the parades, and the employees’ appearance there was rigidly regulated.
Now Sarah, 24, doesn’t work at Disneyland, she runs a shop called Pop in Little Tokyo, and she is having the time of her life doing some of the things she always wanted to do. Oh, to be that young again.
Sarah had come with her frind Vicki because Vicki’s fiancé, Steve Cheng, was the headliner musician for later in the evening.
Roy had just done some white on white pieces in honor of Robert Ryman, the important minimalist and conceptual artist who died in February, still working at age 88. Minimalism played a large part in Roy’s development, and refers to a spare and bare style, a reaction to the more florid abstract expressionism of the twentieth century.
At the appointed hour, a beginning audience of 10 or so had arrived. They sat on folding chairs in the large cement expanse around Roy’s atelier in Santa Fe Springs, in a pleasantly isolated industrial park. His space’s 20-ft. high ceilings accommodate Roy’s newly expanded style. Not for every living room, but maybe for a foyer, the way Roy’s guru Jackson Pollack’s masterpiece “Mural 1943” dominated the entry to patron Peggy Guggenheim’s Manhattan townhouse.
The cinderblock wall outside the compound made a bright backdrop as Downey Councilman Sean Ashton launched into an explanation of the ways that viewing the problem of homelessness have evolved.
“Homelessness cannot be cured by throwing money at it,” Sean said. “Time has shown us that method doesn’t solve the problem.”
And the problem isn’t homelessness at all.
“It’s the myriad of modern-day troubles,” said Sean, “which lead to that final disaster. If we can solve those, homelessness will go away.”
“Last week at an inter-city conference on this subject,” Sean said, “we identified factors, like a decline in the economy, and the eroding buying power of the middle and lower class worker’s wage.”
Then there is the un-affordability of housing; death of sheltering relatives; mental health issues and the soaring cost of medications; alcoholism and drug abuse; domestic abuse. Sex trafficking. Technology has replaced humans with machines and robots, even on something as mundane as the corner car wash.
“And there have always been a few,” said Sean, “who are happy to live outside the system. They used to be called hobos and hippies, not vagrants, and they took to the open road or Walden Pond, not the San Gabriel Riverbed.”
“During the 80’s,” said Sean, “there was talk of hard answers for crime, and so possession of drugs like marijuana was over-criminalized. That put more people in jail, resulting in overcrowding the jails, and now we have that problem to deal with. Let the prisoners out early? Let for-profits build jails and run them? One problem has created another.”
From the audience, the musician who had played the guitar and was singing at 6 pm when the gates opened, asked a question.
“I’m from Downey,” he said. “I’m a truck driver, and these for-profit humanitarian service businesses strike me as wrong. Like for-profit jails.” Clearly the audience was interested in all the ways government and its people can interact.
By now it was 7:15, still light, and there were 15 interested listeners.
“Downey has gotten $300,000 from CDBG,” said Sean. “Sorry for the jargon, that’s Community Development Block Grants, and we are working with a group called the Whole Child. We are targeting families who have become homeless, and bringing services to them, and their school-age children. We can get them help to go on living. So one segment is being served.”
I said I understood that there were ordinances in California that forbid anyone from interfering when a homeless person camps out on a bench. Calling the police won’t get them moved from their spot in front of a business.
“That raises ADA concerns,” Sean said, meaning the Americans with Disabilities Act, “in case the sidewalk is not clear enough for someone in a wheelchair to pass. Public safety is also a main concern.”
Roy asked about the census taking.
“We take the census every year,” Sean said. “We need it to calculate how much government funds to ask for, to provide services.”
How many homeless are there in Downey?
“This year there were 89,” said Sean. “But two years ago it was 310, and last year 208.”
How to account for the big discrepancy?
“Maybe we are reducing the number by offering them services,” said Sean. “Or maybe the counting method is not accurate.”
“I volunteer with the census count,” said Roy. “If it’s a rainy night you can’t find even one, and when the sun comes out in the morning, there are five at one gas station.”
“There is a shelter being planned in Downey,” said Sean. “But it will be for veterans. It is on county property but within the Downey city boundaries, on Gardendale and Garfield. Before I was on the Council, I thought that wasn’t Downey. It had an American Legion Hall, a recreational building with a bar. But the property had become rundown and was not generating tax revenue for the county.”
“So the County and Downey partnered to raze the hall, and plan the shelter,” said Sean. “But the neighbors in South Gate and Hollydale have complained. NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard.”
Changing the subject for a minute, I asked if there were philosophical discussions on the council. On the one hand, there might be those who hold the idea that the best government is the one that governs least, and that social problems should be left to private enterprise and faith-based organizations.
The opposing point of view would be the idea that social problems are the responsibility of the citizenry. The government should be the social safety net, and also the employer of last resource, so there would be no jobless.
Taxes pay for social benefits, and like most other civilized countries we should offer more social welfare programs, and accept a higher tax rate to pay for it.
“I am a Democrat,” said Sean, “I put that right out there. I’m a teacher, and I believe in paying my fair share. Government is for the protection of the people.
“But I don’t believe in heavy taxes, and I want an accounting of how the money is spent.”
Does Downey have a coordinated program, or is it being developed piecemeal? What is Downey actually initiating as a new program? What can I tell Julie and Jennifer at the post office, and the man who lives in the hedges, or the man with the deeply weathered face, who silently glared at me as he pushed a shopping cart filled with all his possessions past my car where I was parked at In N Out, where Lakewood crosses Firestone?
Is there an action plan in Downey for helping the people who have congregated in the riverbed, or for those who stand at the post office or outside Marie Calendar’s, rain, wind or shine?
If you are a vet, yes, there will be a shelter and counseling. If you are a family with school age kids, then TLC and PTA HELPS provide help. Our police take sensitivity training, have psychologists with them when they approach the homeless, and they can put the homeless in touch with social workers and social services.
So then, does it follow that a homeless person should go to the police station to apply for help?
By now it was 7:20 and 17 people had arrived. Carol and Frank Kearns, he a poet and she a writer for the Patriot on local concerns, were in the audience, as well as poet Clifton Snider, coordinator of the evening’s program.
“What about places for people to park, if they are living their cars?” asked Carol. “What about church parking lots?”
“The parks permit all day parking, but they do close at 10,” Sean noted. “And the police enforce that.”
Once again, are there any specific plans to build a structure in Downey with, say, public toilets, and showers, that the homeless could use?
“There are free public toilets in the parks,” Sean said, “and in the library.” But he admitted that park-goers do not like to see their facilities taken over by the homeless. And without a car, getting to these spread-out facilities is hard.
“What about portable showers?” asked Roy. “There are already volunteers who give haircuts, and a place on Imperial, Clothes the Deal, where someone who wants to return to the work force can get a free outfit to wear for an interview. But what about social services for the homeless who are too old or too handicapped to work?”
“I can get anyone a place to sleep, for one night, just like that,” said Sean, snapping his fingers.
But I wondered, will that help 64-year-old Julie, nearly blind, who for a year and a half has spent rainy nights moving from a hospital waiting room to inside a Jack in the Box?
Sean reminded the gathering of the unique point of view of the council person, who is responsible to the voters.
“We have to think how we are going to fund these projects,” he said. Besides compassion and energy to help one’s fellow human being, there has to be the dollars and cents considerations.
Right now, city budgets for places like Downey allot about half for protective services, like fire and police, and almost as much for infrastructure – street repair, traffic lights, parks, the Library. The balance pays the staff and the employees who make things happen in Downey.
By now it was 7:40, and 20 or more sat listening while a few preferred to stand. This was an informal affair, and musicians were waiting to perform, poets were ready to read. We were still trying to figure out the question, does Downey have a master plan, that coordinates existing program, or is it a patchwork that does not fit all sizes?
The Downey Unified School District supports TLC - True Lasting Connections -- for families with children in our schools. There are programs for seniors that the homeless can attend, in Apollo Park and at the Barbara J. Riley Senior Center, with an occasional free meal provided.
“Mayor Rick Rodriguez has organized a Council of Clergymen,” Sean said. “They meet monthly and coordinate services they can offer.”
But that goes into faith-based, not government-offered aid.
“What about the skate park,” Scott, the 24-year-old painter, asked. “I thought that was terrific when it was built. Doesn’t that help keep at-risk kids active and out of gangs?”
“Yes, and Downey was the first to have something like that,” said Sean, “thanks to former Mayor Meredith Perkins. It’s a great success.”
The city also works with PATH, Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, which funds services for people with serious mental illness (SMI) who are experiencing homelessness. Again, those grant funds are restricted to those with SMI.
By now it was nearly 8 o’clock, and about 25 had gathered, their interest in the interview unbroken. Sean offered the insights that the homeless tend to congregate where they can get help, and they tend to be where things are familiar.
“The homeless in Downey probably grew up here, went to school and worked here.”
“I am very accessible,” Sean said. “Please get in touch with me by email and I’ll try to get answers to your questions. And that email is sashton@downey ca.org.”
The world now has this problem, not just the United States. And in the United States, they look to California because California is progressive and innovative, and many situations have had their solutions begin here. Maybe California will look to Downey, to see if we have found any answers.
As Sean said, it’s all the situations contributing to homelessness that must be resolved, and then homelessness will go away. But until that time, people are suffering acutely from physical and emotional want.
Councilman Sean had intended to leave early, but he stayed after he left the mike, and talked to questioners. Music and poetry flowed long into the evening, several cartons of food donated by participants waited to be taken to the First Christian Church in Downey.
Sharing of another sort, initiated by tonight’s host Roy Shabla, at another special kind of Downey Doing.