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Archive for March, 2009

I was whiling away my life the other night by watching the Des Moines City Council on Channel 7. The City was getting hammered, non-stop, by their local citizens over the prospects of a new homeless shelter at I-235 and Keo Way. It was punching bag treatment to which the Council has become almost inured. If they haven’t yet, they soon will be, I think.

I had to laugh, though. One anti-shelter testimony was especially amusing, even if unintentionally so.

The testimony was from a very nice lady, I’m sure, from the Sherman Hill area. I’m not sure how that neighborhood is particularly affected by this matter, but why waste a chance to lecture people on TV, right? Anyway, she was earnest enough and I am sure she believed everything she was saying. So, hats off to her. She said she was saddened with the debate because the two sides were comprised of “caring ultra liberals versus other caring ultra liberals…” The audience all applauded. They applauded all the anti-shelter speakers, of course, but this applause had a lot more gusto. I half-expected them to start chanting, “si, se puedo.” Laugh? I thought I’d die I was laughing so hard.

I guess the upshot of that sentiment is that the mean old Republicans and/or conservatives just don’t care about all those ratty homeless people. It’s ingrained. Learned at an early age. We just hate everyone, you know?

Well, the “ultra liberals” apparently don’t hate everyone. But now, with this homeless issue, they just can’t agree on what to do! It’s so sad. Don’t you just hate the non-theoretical world? One thing most of those ultra liberals agreed upon, however, is that they don’t want a shelter within about a million square blocks of where any of them live. That much was clear.

On top of the not-in-my-backyard issues, some of the local conspiracy theorists had concluded that many of the City Councilmembers had been bought off by rich developers that are just drooling with lustful avarice over the site where the current shelter is located. So, they conclude, I guess, that the fix is in. It’s absurd, of course, but no conspiracy theorist ever let implausibility stand in anyone’s way.

Then we have my friend, Mayor Frank Cownie, who voted “no” on the whole issue once the debate finally wound up after several hours of the piñata treatment. Frank and I co-chair the Council on Homelessness here in our fine city. I think Frank makes some good points about homelessness and we both agree on the concept of “Housing First.” I like Frank. He’s a good guy and his heart is in the right place. But, I think he’s wrong on this issue.

At the risk of allowing some people to believe that the GOP doesn’t really hate everyone, there are some good sound reasons for a new homeless shelter. First, and just speaking for myself, I don’t hate everyone. I want to see everyone have a fair and equal chance to be self sufficient and dignified. And to not have to depend on some oppressive bureaucracy to feed and clothe them. That’s not freedom. It’s not hate; it’s not love, either. It’s institutional slavery. To me, that’s the bright line between conservative behavior and liberal behavior. Not philosophies…behavior.

I know more than a little about the Central Iowa Shelter. I checked in, once, as a homeless person and stayed there. I checked into the Bethel, too, at about the same time. Those two shelters are two completely different animals, believe me. I grew a nine day beard and got some ratty clothes, scuffed myself up a bit and did my best impression of a homeless person. I looked like sort of a cross between the Unibomber and Mullah Omar. In other words, a bum.

Ironically, I was, by far….by a light year, the worst dressed, worst groomed, worst smelling, most physically repulsive person in either shelter. No contest. If they would’ve held a King of the Hobos competition, I would’ve won by acclamation. But, that was my impression of a homeless person: a bum. If felt perfectly natural to me to get into character like that because that’s who I thought I’d be interacting with at the Shelter. Not so much, it turned out.

For one thing, many of the guys (and women) had jobs. Particularly true at the Bethel. Almost everyone was well groomed and had decent clothing. There’s a lot to write about with respect to that experience, but suffice to say that this part of it; the looks of the homeless and their general demeanor, was a surprise to me.

So, when it comes to the reaction of the Cheatum Park neighborhood people to the proposed Shelter at Keo and I-235, I get it. We all see the bums walking around downtown, maybe dragging a bag of cans behind them, pushing a grocery cart full a junk and muttering to themselves. The residents don’t want to see the same thing on their front sidewalk, that’s all. Who’d blame them? Who would welcome that?

The problem with that impression of the homeless is that it’s the same false impression that I had when I checked into the Shelter one November night not so long ago. The guys and women that we think of when we think “homeless” aren’t necessarily the same ones that stay at shelters. They’re likely the homeless that won’t stay at a shelter. It’s not that they don’t exist…that messed up humanity that all of us have seen in every urban setting to which we travel…it’s that they don’t exist much at homeless shelters. That’s all I’m saying.

It’s controversial…it’s complicated and it’s political. There’s no question about any of that. Nonetheless, the reality is that the current shelter is too small, too banged up and too far beyond repair to do nothing. Women need more emergency shelter space and, in the coming months, so may the men. The location at Keo and 235 is not ideal, but it does have the advantage of being bordered with a main thoroughfare and a freeway. It isn’t smack dab in the middle of anyone’s “neighborhood.” The county is in for $1,000,000 to help build the new shelter. That money is solid. There’s a large allocation of homeless money in Obama’s stimulus bill, also. So, the money will be there to build it; the staff will be there to help the homeless.

The last question is: will our friends on the City Council hang in there and clear the path for the Shelter to obtain the property? I hope so. This issue needs to be put behind us…for everyone’s good. Including the homeless.

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