An open letter from John Kirby…

… to the Palm Springs City Council and Any Other Coachella Valley Decision Makers Who Could Be Making Different Decisions About Addressing Homelessness:

Dear All Y’all,

Christmas morning 1994 – I came to in the urine stained doorway of an abandoned upholstery shop at 7th and Temple in Long Beach, California. As the bright morning sun breached the horizon I rolled over to avoid its glare and was met with a more pungent smell. It was my first “official” night of being homeless. I had spent the previous six months couch surfing, sleeping in cheap motels when I could afford them, occasionally getting an 8-hour room at a different kind of legitimate business; but, I had not yet slept on the street until that Christmas Eve when the circumstances of my life became undeniably real.

I had been a decorated infantry soldier in the U.S. Army until late 1991 when I discharged, honorably to get out of my rainbow closet and start figuring out who I was. I had been in charge of operations for a mechanized infantry company planning and coordinating training and deployments for 200 men and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. But I needed too much alcohol to help me keep the secret of my sexuality. Moving to Long Beach’s thriving LGBTQ community quickly led to trading alcohol for methamphetamine, which led to getting terminated from my job as a federal security supervisor and starting to sell methamphetamine for a living, while using more and more of it myself. The meth eventually won out over any business sense, and I started sleeping under park benches and a good meal was when I could get to the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Pacific Coast Highway when they were throwing out the leftovers at closing time, but right before they locked the dumpster for the night. It was a tight window of opportunity.

Had I known, when eating that lukewarm chicken, that Long Beach supposedly had a plan to end homelessness since 1988 when the city government started the Homeless Services Advisory Committee, I might have been a little angry that they hadn’t fixed homelessness yet. But I didn’t know. Had I been reading the comment section of OpEds and letters to the editor about homelessness and seen the caustic comments and virulent judgments and aspersions cast upon the homeless by people who didn’t even know me, I might have been even more angry. But the Press Telegram wasn’t online yet, and we didn’t have smartphones; so, I didn’t know. Had I heard the fear, and loathing, and almost hatred of citizens when speaking on homeless issues at the City Council meetings, I would have been angry, and scared, and my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) would likely have brought about some damage in the streets. But I didn’t hear it.

I wouldn’t find out about all this vitriol toward the homeless until after I went to substance abuse treatment in 1995, after which I started volunteering in social services, and later became gainfully employed within the nonprofit behavioral health and social service field. I’ve been working with substance users, mentally ill folks, homeless folks, and others in the streets and in counseling rooms, working on their behalf at municipal microphones, around policy and planning tables, and in program design and fund development for over 25 years now. I’ve learned a few things, and I’ve still a few more things to learn.

One thing I’ve learned for certain – we aren’t going to solve homelessness in the comment section of the Desert Sun’s OpEd page.

Now, I’ve been paying attention to more than just the OpEd page since I moved to Cathedral City in March 2020. Though I must say that watching the elected officials, nonprofit organizations, reporters, and laypersons battle it out in print and social media has been enlightening. But what I haven’t seen is anyone, even those in positions which would seem to make them experts, give a thorough explanation to the public about what it will actually take to solve homelessness. The short explanation is that it will take the collective will of every one of us in the community to end this travesty of service to our fellow human beings.

The confluence of circumstances that brings each individual into homelessness is unique to each person living in our streets, while often looking similar on the outside. We (the community of folks working to solve homelessness) often make the mistake of boiling things down to concrete manifestations and shortcomings of people and systems, then creating siloed solutions that do not effectively address the underlying causes of homelessness for the individuals we are hoping to serve. These manifestations and shortcomings include, but are not limited to:

· They are substance abusers and need treatment

· They are mentally ill and need treatment

· They need employment readiness training and entry level jobs

· There aren’t enough affordable housing units

· The minimum wage is too low to afford rent

Now here’s a little reality for us all. The vast majority of folks addicted to drugs aren’t homeless. The vast majority of severely mentally ill people aren’t homeless. The vast majority of unemployed people aren’t homeless. The vast majority of people making minimum wage have figured out how to keep a roof over their heads regardless of affordability. The social service community, the political community, and many citizens call these the problems. They are actually symptoms.

For many people who are homeless, or on the verge of homelessness, when we provide one or more of these siloed solutions their problems resolve and they eventually become self-sufficient, productive members of society. But for the 222 unsheltered folks in the streets of Palm Springs during the 2022 Point In Time Count (PITC) of the Homeless conducted by Riverside County in January these solutions had not yet helped. For these folks, treating the symptom while ignoring the underlying problem doesn’t work.

The PITC tells us that 50% of the unsheltered homeless folks in Palm Springs have a history of substance abuse but only 13% are homeless because of substance abuse. 44% have a history of mental illness but only 4% attribute being homeless to mental illness. And 46% have a history of PTSD but none of them reported PTSD as the reason for their homelessness. In fact, the two largest reasons for homelessness noted in the PITC are lack of income (26%), and family disruption (24%), with an additional 15% noted as “other reasons.”

What the PITC doesn’t tell us is what percentage of these folks have both a substance abuse disorder and a co-occurring mental illness; and by the way, PTSD is a mental illness so these reports can really cause folks who don’t analyze data for a living to get rather confused. I play with data all the time and I’m still somewhat confused.

We do know, from Riverside University Behavioral Health’s “Who We Serve Consumer Population Profile Fiscal Year 2017-2018” that about 61% of substance abusers served in county funded substance abuse treatment programs have a co-occurring mental health diagnosis. So for real numbers out of our 222 unsheltered homeless folks we have:

  • About 69 (31%) have both a substance use and a mental health disorder
  • About 42 (19%) have a substance use disorder alone
  • About 24 (11%) have a mental health disorder alone

· · · And most or all of the folks with PTSD are likely represented in the three bullets above this one

The most prevalent comments coming from community members about how to fix the homeless problem is that we need to force all the drug addicts into treatment, and all the mentally ill people into locked psychiatric hospitals. That would be nice but for two problems, (1) it’s unconstitutional to force anyone to accept a treatment they don’t want unless they represent a danger to self or others, and only then can forced treatment be maintained if they continue to remain a threat. This threat generally resolves within 72 hours of taking psychotropic medications and they are back on the streets, and (2) there simply aren’t enough residential substance abuse and psych hospital treatment beds available to the Medi-Cal population. I’ve only met one homeless person in 25 years who had private medical insurance, so we can expect most, if not all, of our unsheltered homeless folks to have either Medi-Cal or no medical coverage at all.

Riverside University Behavioral Health (RUBH) (who handles all the Medi-Cal funded substance use and mental health treatment programs in the Coachella Valley, and across the county) only contracts with six residential substance use treatment providers in the Valley – ABC Recovery Center, The Ranch Recovery Center, Hacienda Valdez (part of The Ranch Recovery Center), Metcalf Recovery Ranch, Casa Cecilia, and Soroptimist House; these programs are licensed for a total of 188 beds between them. My own anecdotal experience would suggest that only 10% of those beds might be unutilized at a given time by folks who aren’t from our 222 homeless folks. So if we could fill up that 10% with our homeless substance users 18 people at a time, for an average length of treatment of 90 days, it would take us a year and half to get them all through treatment the first time. Research from the National Institute of Drug Abuse tells us that at least 60% will return to substance abuse treatment within a year. Meanwhile, more folks are likely to become homeless, especially considering that eviction moratoriums brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire, if they haven’t already.

So how about county funded psychiatric hospitals in the Coachella Valley? There aren’t any. There is a mental health crisis stabilization program operated by Telecare in Indio, but as stated earlier – that’s only for short term stabilization on medications and then back to the street, generally within 72 hours. The one psych hospital in the county funded by RUBH is a wing in their own hospital in Riverside, but the same rules apply for the danger to self or others.

Governor Newsom did recently sign the CARE Act, which will try to force homeless folks into treatment for substance use and/or mental illness; but even if that law stands up in the courts – the facilities don’t yet exist for this law to become the panacea some folks think it will be.

Another large number of folks have said, both in the Desert Sun and at municipal microphones, that we should ship all these homeless people back where they came from, believing the majority aren’t from our desert. I haven’t been able to find any Riverside County data that tells us where our homeless folks lived right before becoming homeless, but other municipalities have conducted this research (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, New York, Chicago) and all have found that 60-80% of homeless folks are homeless within about 5 miles from the last home they rented or owned. Perhaps Riverside County could start collecting that data during the next PITC.

Then there is the problem of not enough affordable housing, especially housing with attached services like substance use and mental health treatment for those who need that support when first moving from the streets. Everyone seems to want folks housed and off the streets, but not in their neighborhoods.

The first project I read about was the Ivy Palm, when Palm Springs wanted to turn an old motel into supportive housing for the homeless. Everyone screamed that it would ruin business and bring down property values, crime would increase, and tourists would stop coming. Several pieces of research in multiple locations throughout California and the country have proven these fears unfounded. In fact, property values increased more significantly in some areas where supportive housing was built than in comparison areas where there was no supportive housing program. It’s not the nature of the housing itself, but how well it is run, and how pretty it is. But somehow the Ivy Palm got nixed.

Another “solution” I heard during a discussion of the Cathedral City Housing Element in 2020 was to build affordable housing on the other side of Interstate 10 where there is nothing – no services, no buses, no grocery stores – nothing. That leads to a whole other discussion about quality of life, cost of living, and social isolation. A basic rule of thumb folks, if you wouldn’t want to live there, why would you think that’s a good solution for homeless folks to get their lives together?

And the cost of building where there is no infrastructure (city water lines, electric lines, gas lines, etc.) is rather daunting. I’ve seen/heard more than one comment from folks complaining that one affordable housing project in Coachella was going to cost about $700,000 per unit to build and one person said they could rebuild their entire 3500 square foot house for half of that. Well there are significant costs that go into building these units that we “regular” folks don’t encounter when we build a house:

· First, the vast majority of these housing projects use at least some federal or state grant dollars, combined with no interest or forgivable loans, and federal tax credits, and a federal law called the Davis-Bacon Act requires that developers pay the State’s (in this case California’s) prevailing wage for all labor in the construction. Here are just a few of California’s Prevailing Wage law required hourly rates on a construction site:

  • Carpenter $71.32/hour
  • Cement Mason $69.10/hour
  • General Laborer $65.19 (for the new guy with a shovel)

I’m guessing the guy who did most of the work building your house didn’t get paid half of this amount.

· Back to that building where there is no existing infrastructure – the developer has to pay for all that infrastructure to be built.

· And in the last decade or so there has been an increase in the “green building” requirements on any project using state or federal funds. So the quality of materials, the added expense of renewable materials, energy efficient wiring, windows, HVAC, etc.

The Ivy Palm would have been much less expensive to rehab than building the housing units at the new homeless navigation center coming into the Highland Gateway neighborhood will end up being, on top of rehabbing the existing buildings for the service center operations. And even this new navigation center, for which there is abundant research to prove its potential efficacy, is receiving significant community backlash from folks who do not want it in their neighborhood. And one can only reason that this particular project will move forward because it’s going in the neighborhood with the largest number of residents who can ill afford to donate to political campaigns, and who hold the least political clout in the Coachella Valley.

And even if we had all the treatment beds we needed, abundant affordable housing, good job training and employment prospects, we still wouldn’t be able to just fix everything overnight. You see – each of those 222 homeless folks have those unique circumstances which brought them to homelessness. Each of these human beings have an emotional and psychological puzzle which must be spread out on the table and pieced together in order to create the person centered circumstances to bring them out of homelessness.

So this brings us to story time:

I was about two years sober when I first saw “Steve”. I got off the Long Beach Transit route 51 bus at the downtown turnaround and I saw Steve sitting on the sidewalk against a building. He was wearing what used to be white painter’s pants stained so many colors there was no way of figuring out what any of it was, a similarly soiled and torn white t-shirt. His more than shoulder length grey hair was matted and knotted like he had been sleeping in a mud pit for years and hadn’t touched a comb for longer. There was a small pile of cigarette butts next to his right hand that he had collected from the streets and bus benches. His head was down with his chin on his chest. He started to pick up a cigarette butt and I said, “hey, would you like a whole one?” He didn’t look up. Continued lighting his scavenged tobacco roach. I placed a couple of Marlboro 100s next to his pile and I went on to work.

I saw Steve in the same spot every day for about three months. We repeated the same scenario each day; and each day Steve would not respond at all and I would leave a couple more cigarettes and go about my day.

One day, after about three months, Steve looked up at me as I lay down the cigarettes. His lips quivered slightly. I smiled and nodded and said, “I’m John.” He tucked his chin back in his chest. I went about my day.

Steve continued to look up at me after that, and about four months into our routine he said thank you as I laid down those two Marlboros, “I’m Steve.”

I started leaving earlier for work after that so I could take the time to talk to Steve for a few minutes each morning. I learned that he held three advanced degrees in physics, biology, and anthropology. He had three adult children, all successful in their fields. His wife had passed about a decade earlier and his barely contained depression of a lifetime crippled him as a result. His massive financial debt as a result of paying for his children’s advanced degrees, and his wife’s medical expenses didn’t allow for paying for a psychiatrist or therapist out of pocket. His medical insurance from work didn’t pay for behavioral health (this was long before the Affordable Care Act and expanded Medi-Cal eligibility.) He started drinking more to self-medicate the depression. Got a DUI. Got terminated from his job. His kids refused to provide any help. The “system” was no help. He walked away from his house one night – hopeless – with a bottle of Smirnoff to go drink himself to death.

Ten years later a stranger laid down two cigarettes. The he did it again. And again. And eventually Steve began to trust just one person. It took about a year after those first two cigarettes and I got Steve into a detox and a 90-day residential substance abuse treatment program. Steve went from that residential program to a 1-year supportive housing program that helped with continued substance abuse treatment, psychiatric care and therapy, employment readiness to get back into the workforce, and most important to Steve, a reunification and counseling program to get his adult children back into his life. The last time I saw him he was ten years sober, self-sufficient, and relatively happy with his life.

There were so many points in Steve’s life before he left with his house with Smirnoff in hand that so many different people, institutions, and systems could have “laid down a couple of cigarettes” and didn’t. So by the time well intentioned service providers started talking to him in the streets to invite him into their silos of service – he didn’t trust them; and they didn’t take the time to build the trust necessary to form a relationship with him.

Steve is just one story with his unique set of circumstances. We have around 222 of these stories to unravel just in Palm Springs, with a few hundred more across the Coachella Valley. And we all need to work together to in order to do so. Otherwise we’re just going to keep yelling at each other, casting blame and aspersions, capitulating to political pressures and “donor suggestions”, and the homeless will remain on the streets in greater numbers – seething with an anger I can completely understand, both as a formerly homeless person, and as a service provider who has been working for 25 years to try and make a dent in the problem.

If our elected officials really want to solve homelessness I have a few suggestions:

· Stop letting the community overwhelm your intentions with their fear, and move forward with plans and projects that make sense from a peer reviewed research base.

· Educate the NIMBY folks with research instead of capitulating to their unreasonable demands that you put housing and services in poor neighborhoods or in the middle of nowhere.

· Change the zoning laws to allow for affordable housing, supportive housing, transitional housing programs in all neighborhoods.

· Partner with the nonprofit behavioral health providers in the Coachella Valley to increase spending on treatment infrastructure for folks on Medi-Cal who need substance abuse and mental health treatment.

· Work with the Riverside University Behavioral Health unit to bring/increase funding for street based service delivery so that providers can get compensated for taking counseling, therapy, and medication assisted treatment to the streets while we’re getting the physical infrastructure built.

· Provide city sponsored capacity building grants to smaller nonprofits specifically to fund professional government grant writers as employees or consultants, as most of the agencies doing good work can’t afford these writers on their shoestring budgets. The city can’t afford to pay for the services, but you can certainly pay for a grant writer who can get the county, state, and federal funding that can pay for the services.

· And while not addressed in this narrative thus far – start encouraging social service providers to work together instead of engaging with some of the backstabbing, gossip mongering crap I’ve heard (from leaders themselves) that has kept any real cooperation from happening in the Coachella Valley. There is no one provider out here who can help everybody, and every single provider out here can help somebody. But nobody will help anybody if all we do is keep fighting about it.