If you have read or listened to me speak over the past 3-plus years, you know that a significant influence in my life is the French sociologist and jurist Jacques Ellul.  Ellul, who died in the 1980s was a prolific writer best known for his writing on technique, propaganda, money, and ethics. He was a Marxist Christian who embraced the contradictions between the two, believing that dialectic tension should not lead to “synthesis” but should remain as what it is: a tension. But that tension could and should form our approach to the world because it recognizes the complexity of the world and our approaches to dealing with it.*89-79-PB

In Ellul’s writing on technique, he frequently dealt with the tension that technique was both a normal part of human advancement as well as a power that had enslaved humanity in a pernicious search for “the one best way,” or the most efficient means to achieve something.  The problem, for Ellul, is that humanity’s quest for the one best way left us enamored with means but bereft of a clear sense of where we are headed (the ends).

He spoke of our deployment of prodigious means which enable us to hurtle full speed towards… nowhere.

An Uncomfortable Dialectic

I have returned to Ellul over and over in these times and pondered his thought and what it means for the problem of homelessness in our community.  First, I know any discussion of homelessness is replete with contradictory statements–I make them myself.  I will say that homelessness is not just about finding housing for people, even while I work to provide housing. I will say we must provide a “housing first” solution for people, even as I know many will not avail themselves of that housing. I will state we must solve the challenge of homelessness even as I acknowledge that we cannot end it.

These real tensions send a message to those with whom I speak that I really don’t have a clue about what is going on, that I lack a way forward, or that the problem is simply too big for a City the size of ours to deal with. At the limit, some view my statements on the challenges of and plans for dealing with homelessness as contradictory, inconsistent and even dishonest.

But, like Ellul, I have moved towards the conviction that these tensions cannot be resolved.  There is no synthesis to be found.  We must live with the contradictions and seek a way through them to change our current reality.

I understand these contradictions/tensions to be a function not only of the complexity of the problem itself but because the word “homeless” \does not lend itself to a consistent definition or description.  The tensions around homelessness exist because we have chosen to define a syndrome as a simple and simplistic identifiable outcome–people living without permanent shelter, a fixed address, or a known place to raise their heads.

The tension abounds because this “thing” is actually many things at once and so one can say almost anything about homelessness and it is probably true in at least one case.

But drawing on Ellul, I am choosing to remain within the tensions to better, more honestly, deal with the complexity, the multiple causes, the difficult results, the uncertain outcomes of our efforts to deal with it.

The “Ends” of our Efforts Related to Homelessness

Over the past few months–as discussions of programs to deal with the challenges of homelessness have spiked in our community, due to a proposal to use taxation as a means to fund services–I have heard many “proposals” about what the ends of our efforts should be.

These have run the gamut from providing “tiny homes” for all homeless people to doing what is necessary to make Davis inhospitable for anyone who is homeless.  The latter set of “recommendations” has been extremely troubling for me, both because dozens have written to me (often in anger) to suggest it, but also because it so profoundly dehumanizes the people who find themselves in this situation.

Letters in this vein often begin or end with some variation on “I am a tax paying citizen, why do you care more about someone who does not pay taxes (not demonstrably true), than you care about me.”  These letters go on to demand that I “take action” against these people but almost always include the caveat “don’t expect me to pay for it.”

To be honest, I am writing this piece today to deal with the grief I am feeling right now about all these emails and discussions.  I have gone through several stages of grief–including a persistent anger–but can’t understand what direction I am being given.  I have referred to this call as a call to “social cleansing” and I will stick with that for now because what I hear and perceive is a call to “move them along,” “get rid of them,” or “make them leave.”

But these statements have forced me to re-examine the “ends” I am trying to achieve in all the efforts I am supporting to deal with the problem. And while it may be far too vague for programmatic purposes, I have settled on the following as the “ends” statement of what I am trying to accomplish. I believe that the end

I believe that the ends of our efforts should be to “provide a homecoming” for those who are on the streets.  Providing a homecoming implies a “welcome back,” a “reintegration,” a “return.”  More than anything (and I want to be careful not to dehumanize the many people who find themselves in this condition) I see homelessness as a form of alienation: alienation from society, from healthy relationships, and ultimately (I fear) from oneself.

I am not going to say, as many suggest, that this alienation is a choice; or perhaps more accurately the inevitable outcome of a series of choices.  To me, the evidence is clear that “choice” has very little to do with it and maybe never did.  But even if there was a choice in there at some point, today, in the moment, we see folks who are adrift, dis-integrated, on the margins.  Though they are in our midst they are the “other” in a way that causes fear.  Though we see them, we do not–indeed, cannot–look at them.  Though we know they are without a home we do not want to imagine the places in which they lay their heads.

And what I am saying is that our goal should be to bring them home.

Now I realize that this can sound paternalistic or condescending and please forgive me if it does, but what I am trying to convey is that we need to reel them in, to send out a message, to find a way to communicate that we want them not just among us, but with us; not just present, but included; not just housed, but home.

What this homecoming will look like varies by the case, but it will certainly mean a return to mental and physical health, a roof, a job if that is possible, meaningful and healthy relationships (even if not with kin), and a sense of peace about where one will go the next day to take care of life’s basic needs.

The Means by Which we Will Achieve these Ends

Though I never knew him, I hope that Ellul would be happy to see an elected official (he himself held local office for a time), focusing on ends. I realize these ends are not fully articulated but if we can grasp the concept of the need for homecoming then we will have taken an important step on the long path towards constructively dealing with homelessness.

But what of our means.  Well, the foregoing should point the way to the kinds of programs, approaches, processes that will probably be necessary: mental health and addiction treatment, housing, job training, and supportive services.

But I would like to focus on what I believe to be the means that will make all these other means actually work.

I believe that the means by which we must approach this challenge is best defined as “pursuit.”  We must doggedly pursue the people whom we wish to welcome home.

Again, I write the foregoing with a bit of trepidation.  I am never certain how my words will be taken and so I need to hear how you hear this–I do not wish to offend.

What I mean by “pursuit” is that we must not give up in our attempt to welcome people home.  We must not grow weary because of the failures, the flameouts, the inevitable disappointments.  We must be determined to continue.

But pursuit has another sense: we must commit to the relational.  We must never see homelessness as a “technical” problem to be solved, a condition that lends itself to “dose/response” type input, or left to a cadre of professionals who deliver programs.  No, we must pursue loving and longstanding relationships as simple folks with the simple commitment to “press on.”

I realize that not everyone is gifted to be a “pursuer.”  I know that others must stand alongside or stand aside as the pursuit continues.  That’s okay.

But for those who are gifted (and I suspect you know who you are); for those who were made, or who have grown to do this work, we must be relentless in our pursuit of the relationships that result in the homecoming of these, our brothers and sisters without homes.

Happy MLK remembrance day.

*See Garrison, Kevin “Jacques Ellul’s Dialectical Theology: Embracing Contradictions about the Kingdom in the New Testament.” in The Ellul Forum.  Issue 60, Fall 2017.

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Some thoughts on the topic that cannot leave my mind at the end of 2017.

Less than a week ago the Sacramento Bee ran an article about my push for a $50 per year parcel tax in Davis, to raise money for services for homeless individuals in Davis.  We already have a program in place that has moved 7 homeless individuals into permanent housing over the past year.  It has also provided jobs for 6 previously unemployed homeless individuals.  Will there be some who drop out?  Yes, there will.

But the results are clear, and in a city of our size, they are considerable.

The only problem is that the resources we are using to support local non-profits to run these programs is a short-term (3-year) grant and if we are to continue it we will need a longer-term revenue stream.

But… based on the emails I am receiving, the posts on a local newsblog, and some postings on my own Facebook site, it is clear that $50 dollars is simply too much for local property owners to pay for these vital services.

Some thoughts, quotes, observations.

The median closing price on a Davis, CA home is $615,000.

One (apparently respected) business leader in the community has written that “Davis needs to determine how many homeless people it can serve and get rid of the rest…”

I am, according to what people have written, taking other people’s money to deal with a problem that is not theirs.  This shows that I am merely a “tax and spend” politician who penalizes “makers” at the expense of “takers.”  (Ayn Rand lives in the hearts of far too many Davisites is my take home message on this one).  Apparently, people should be able to decide whether or not they want to contribute to this problem but no one should have the temerity to require them to do so (did I mention that the proposed tax is $50 per year and that the median home closing cost is $615,000?). One CA columnist held out Houston’s mayor as an example of creative problem solving without taxation and then blithely added that Beyonce gave a cool $7 million to efforts to end homelessness there.  Hey, I will take that, and if Beyonce gives that amount I will bank it and run a full program on the interest…

One resident wrote that we must make Davis so inhospitable to homeless people that they leave.  Another suggested that if we spend money on the problem that another 100 or 1000 homeless people will flood our community.  Another said we cannot “solve” homelessness and so he will actively campaign against a tax.

(Note: In the annals of human history only one significant public health problem has ever been “solved.”  That would be smallpox.  All the others, from measles to malaria, are still with us (polio may be on its last legs but don’t bet on it).  So… the fact that we can’t “solve” them implies we should not spend money dealing with them?  I am just trying to understand the logic here.  Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of African children who are no longer dying of malaria since we decided to spend money on it.  And make no mistake, homelessness is first and foremost a public health problem.  It is not about moral turpitude or “bad decisions.”  Two hundred years ago cholera could not be solved but then safer water systems were put into place…)

Another local “leader” suggested that we need to (essentially) intern the “occupying army” (his words) of homeless people in camps on the City’s edge and make them work cleaning up the City.  (I am NOT going to comment on the implications of this)

Someone wrote to tell me that this is not “our” problem but that the state needs to step up.

Another said that this is a problem that requires a federal response (good luck with that).

Someone called homeless people “the animals that get into our trash cans.”

Davis went 75% for Dems in the last election.

Look, I get it.  Your lives are hard.  You are overtaxed and underappreciated.  You worked for yours and others should not suck off your teat.  Right?

Except… no…

  • Let’s talk about childhood trauma
  • Let’s talk about drug companies that facilitate the slide into opiate addiction
  • Let’s talk about the cheapness of meth (oh my god it is so cheap… cheaper than a movie for two and dinner and that will get you a week’s supply).
  • Let’s talk about felony convictions–the scarlet letter of our age.
  • Let’s talk about our collective decision to underfund mental health services for a generation and then we can discuss chickens coming home to roost.

So, here we are.  Lost souls living on the edges, in ditches, under bridges…  Do we really believe that this is “lifestyle choice” or the result of “bad decisions”?

Maybe…

But standing at the end of 2017 I must say that I would have thought that we would be far more enlightened at this point in time.  Instead, we have retreated into the gospel of personal peace and security where our savior is our sacred right to consume without guilt, live without social responsibility, and blame our social ills on the bad choices of a coddled population.

All the while, on the edge of your town a human being is reaching the end of a long road that was not at all like the road you had the privilege to walk.

Weddings as Reconciling Events

Posted: 1 October 2017 in Uncategorized

There are several issues in this particular mix:

  • A brittle, if not already shattered, social landscape
  • A somewhat “old-fashioned,” even passe, rite
  • A resurgent nativism–politicized beyond imagination
  • A couple captured by an unlikely love
  • Three innocents who melt hearts and bring smiles to even cynical faces

I had no idea what the marriage ceremony would be like.  I attend so few of these (at my age).  I had a sense that my very creative and thoughtful daughter would put together a simple, yet meaningful and thoughtful ceremony.  And I was not disappointed on that score.

But it was more than thoughtful, more than meaningful.  It pointed a way forward out of the brokenness of our times and gave me hope.  For, despite some of the issues named above, and, perhaps because of some others, the event turned into a time of true wonder at what might be if we can stop taking positions and merely agree to be human with each other.

In the simple, even spare, space of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, a group of people, so diverse, so different, so differing, so unlikely, met to celebrate the marriage of a young white woman and the undocumented father of her three children.

The diversity was political, social, ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, theological, age… This was, quite frankly, lion and lamb stuff.

People who would agree on very little; people who would not normally break bread (or tacos in this case), with the other folk present sat side by side smiling, singing, reflecting, eating (and later drinking and dancing) together.

Aware of the differences I could only sit and marvel at how this event–this traditional, age-old ritual–could act as a catalyst to unity.  For there was unity present.  At the end of it all we joined voices in affirming our commitment to this improbable couple.  We found our agreement in the simplicity of a promise to support them in any way we could.

Let’s pause on that point for a moment: we, in all our diversity, all our latent disagreement, all our commitment to excluding the “other;”  we found a way through the morass of that which divides us and AGREED to give ourselves to this couple in order that they might succeed.

This gives me hope…

There is a post-script to this happy event and it is the place of three children in making it all possible.  Because, at the end of the day our differences remain.  We can easily enough retreat to our positions and our commitment to mutual destruction (at least of ideas), rather than back down and continue to humanize the other.  But what we cannot do is ignore these children born of the implausible partnership.  Because while the commitment to the couple could be perfunctory and somewhat pro forma, our exultation in the simple goodness of these children could really know no limits.

They were the reminder that difference can and does yield a beautiful outcome.  In their innocence, they took us to a place where our anger and narrow commitment to “principle” could only seem petulant and small.  They reminded us of the depths our love can attain when we are committed to protecting and caring for the powerless in our world.  It was the children who helped create the space for the enlargement of our hearts and the melting away of all our fears.

20. The Why of it All

Posted: 25 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Twenty days ago, I launched this process, mostly to create a bit more discipline in my life, but also because I had some things that had been lurking in my mind that I thought I should get on paper. Some of that you have seen here if you have read any of the 20/20. Other ideas found me in the course of the days and helped me discover a few things that I needed to give some more thought to. 

Perhaps the most surprising thing to me during these 20 days is how often I have been thinking about my mom. I have mentioned her, I think, in only three of these postings but she has been with me for the last 20 days and, of course, a lot longer.

Is that the why of it?

Did I need to remember my mom—gone these 12 years? Did I need some time to remember her in light of everything I am experiencing today?

(On the train last night we had dinner, as one always does on the train, community style. The woman across from me was in her 80s [heard her say that], and she was clearly forgetting a great many things in these days. She could not remember what a baked potato was, and she confused sour cream with coffee cream. Her husband shepherded her through the meal but her look told me everything I needed to know—she was losing grasp of the near past [most likely Alzheimer’s]. She looked at my shirt with the City of Davis logo and said, “Nice town—but I know I already told you that.” No, she hadn’t. But that is just what people do when they know, THEY KNOW, that the near past is slipping from memory [the distant past, especially the emotive parts, are much more concrete than what happened five minutes ago]. I know this because that is what happened to my mom. Alzheimer’s stole her mind furtively over 10 years and when I last saw her, sitting at the end of her bed in a nursing home from which she would never exit alive; and I told her “I am your son;” and she looked at me and said, with no irony at all “you can’t be my son, my son is just a baby, he was just born,” I realized how terribly sneaky that disease is.)

So, was this all—these 20 days—about my mom?

I am starting to think it was.

In nearly every reflection—especially the ones about brokenness and pain—I sought the face of my mother. I have always felt that the world needed more people like her: people with a winsome belief in the general goodness in people; people who assume the best; people who are willing to sacrifice what they want for the common good; people who desperately want peace to prevail; people who feel the pain of the hurt in others.

As I walk through these days and see the meanness and the anger, I feel naïve to continue to believe that good will prevail.

I always felt my mom was naïve.

She was not highly educated (though she was perceptive and smart in a way that people who have not lived through the Great Depression, an alcoholic father, and a sexually abusive great uncle cannot be), and she could be perceived as someone who could be taken advantage of—and she probably was. I feel the same way. In these days, I feel I am out of my depth, missing something essential, and being “taken for a ride” by people who are much cleverer and savvier than me.

Maybe that is why I am thinking of mom.

I guess what I am trying to say is I would rather be taken advantage of, duped, considered a bumpkin, laughed at as naïve, or taken advantage of by the cognizati, than fail to believe, as my mom did, in the potential for good to prevail. That is what drives me forward.

If someone who faced everything my mom did (see Great Depression, alcoholic father, and sexual abuse, above) could look on the world and proclaim peace and reconciliation, and healing and justice as inevitable (and she did), then who am I to complain about the transitory discomfort I feel from the tensions in my oh-so-privileged community.

Is this why I started 20/20? I am not sure. But it is where I end up after 20 days: wanting more of my mom, more of her love, more of her grace, more of her simple naiveté about the ordering of the world.

 

 

19. Notes from the Train

Posted: 25 September 2017 in Uncategorized

18. Five Lists of Five

Posted: 23 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Five Unique Events in Which I Have Participated.

  1. Hearing a griot perform “songs to order” on a three-stringed instrument on a moonless night in the African Sahel.
  2. Standing next to Jackson Browne at Outside Lands, taking in the same songs,  tapping our feet to the same beat—and shaking his hand.
  3. Eating a monkey harvested fresh from the bush and served up to honor a guest in Guinea Bissau.
  4. Dancing to exhaustion on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
  5. Thronging with tens of thousands at Place de la Concorde to shout the imperative “touche pas mon pote”

 

Five Largely Useless (to me) Things I Spent Hours Learning

  1. Econometrics
  2. How to mount a camel without serious injury
  3. How to shoot a layup right handed (I am left-handed and never did learn)
  4. Matrix algebra (see number 1 above)
  5. Doing a full tune up on my car.

 

Five Rather Small Things I Treasure

  1. The silky hair of a newborn
  2. My bike lock key
  3. My multi-tool
  4. My wife’s earrings (all of them)
  5. Contact lenses

 

Five Things I Remember about Bowmansville (my hometown)

  1. The old broken-down delivery truck in which we illicitly played by the hour
  2. The pine tree in the backyard that I climbed to its peak—swaying with it and the wind
  3. The “diamond” where all that baseball magic started
  4. The Sesquicentennial Celebration that Lasted all Summer in 1970
  5. Agnes Bowman, whom I believed to be a witch, until she saved me from ignominy in the winter mud

 

Five Things I Think About Every Single Day

  1. Restorative justice
  2. My mom
  3. How to help people stop being so angry about everything all the time
  4. What leadership means
  5. What I will do next

17. Pro(to)-Life

Posted: 22 September 2017 in Uncategorized

It is where the tail-end of the Bible belt dangles north above the Mason-Dixon into Amish country.  Not that the Amish have anything to do with it–this is fundamentalist Christian territory (that toxic Gnosticism that eschews the body for the spirit). A county that went GOP for many decades before the Reagan revolution, and dallied with Wallace at one point.  A place that went for Trump and is not ashamed.  Its residents are traditional marriage, pro-life folks who bought the Republican schtick about “family values” and never looked back.

It is the county in which she–my daughter–works in child protective services.  A county service that reveals everything for what it truly is.

She texted today:

“Today was the agency-wide retreat. Very concerning messages…”

I ask: “Concerning messages?”

And it pours forth…

There is no state budget yet. New laws mean more investigations more kids in care. But we get no budget increases. So exec director needs us to use FEWER services for clients. Less money for everything, but by the way, expect caseloads to keep rising. Fewer referrals for evals. No more helping with rent and daycare. No more paying for therapy or counseling. Cut back on drug screens. Etc etc.

Also, bad news all of our judges are retiring in December.  Two of our new judges are known to be very anti-child services so expect more battles in court, direct calls on petitions from judges, etc…  Do more work with fewer supports and resources with less accommodating judges. We didn’t get approved for any case aides, any extra visitation worker contracts, nothing. But yet we are expected to offer more visitation. It’s unreasonable. I’m discouraged. I have a case that just fell apart this week. Mom has nuero damage from domestic violence. Sorry, can’t refer her for any further services. Meanwhile, I have another mom in prison for contact with her husband she had a no-contact order with. Domestic violence victim. Glad we are paying for her to be in prison. Really helpful. I have a mom who told me she’s going to go take her kid (baby) back by force. Exec director today offers this advice to us: if you’re feeling like you’re in a dangerous situation, um, call 911…

Call 911?  That’s all you got?

Let us pause.  This young woman tells me that this is her calling, that she loves her job.  She has a degree from a very good school.  Award winner. Smart.  Yes, I am proud of her.

So we are left with this.  She visits a father in jail who pimped his children (if I told you the ages you would not believe it).  She goes to a trailer without heat or running water and finds meth addicts “raising” children.  She calls the cops because the teenage kid in her car at 9:30 pm threatens her (this at an hour when my daughter should be home with her three little ones).

No one wants to pay.  They are pro-life (yes, I am going to say “They” here–that undifferentiated mass of souls who vote, and complain about taxes, and go to church, and pray to their middle-class god).  THEY believe in the sanctity of life as long it is a hypothetical thing without a name.  Once it is born then it is all about bad people and, “the parents need to be responsible,” and “they are all welfare cheats,” and…

Meanwhile, they seem to forget that those parents were children once.  Children they fought to bring into this world.  Children that they abandoned once they were here.  And the cycle of trauma perpetuates itself and this year’s pimped kids become tomorrow’s pimps.  Today’s beaten and abused children become tomorrow’s  beaters and abusers.

And they stand wringing their hands about how awful it is that people turn out this way, and they refuse to see a line, a straight line, a painfully traced line between their meanness and the abandon that lurks at the door.  I am tired of this shit–and not just because of my daughter.  They care about “first life”–the life they claim exists before life begins.  But they care not a whit about life at all.

My daughter stands in the breach between the uncaring proto-lifers and the children whose lives drain away into the fertile farmland of the piedmont.  She is my hero.  She is a lonely pro-lifer fighting in the outlands of death.