When Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) showed up at the intake facility for the Path of Life homeless shelter in his Riverside, California district on Tuesday, the staff who put him through the standard check-in process knew who he was. But for the rest of his stay — dinner, a night’s sleep in one of the shelter’s 129 beds, and breakfast Wednesday morning — the congressman planned to be incognito in hopes of getting an authentic sense of what life is like for those homeless people lucky enough to score a spot in the shelter.
“I used my middle name as a point of contact as a way to communicate with other folks,” Takano said in an interview just hours after leaving Path of Life. The shelter was not full Tuesday night, Takano’s fact-finding trip didn’t keep anybody on the streets who would have taken his bed otherwise, and the congressman said the same dormitory neighbor told him “they didn’t try to put on a dog-and-pony show for you, this is how it really is.”
Rumors had been going around the shelter that a lawmaker might be stopping by, and Takano’s secret wasn’t perfectly kept. At dinner, “there was one woman who looked at me and said, I recognize you from somewhere,” he told me. Just before lights-out, the man in the next bunk — a 60-something trained biologist one bed over who guessed Takano was there out of curiosity rather than need — went a step further. “He said it was awfully nice of someone like me to come in who didn’t need to come and pay attention to the plight of people there,” Takano said.
But blending in wasn’t really the point. Bonding was. “The more interesting part of the evening,” Takano said, “was that for the most part homeless people are invisible to most of us. There’s very few of us who will voluntarily interact with them in a normal homeless setting, whether it’s a part of town where homeless people are, or they’re panhandling, or somewhere on the street, we’re not apt to find some reason to interact with them.” Ever since Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) spent her own night in a shelter back in February and challenged colleagues to do the same, people like Takano have started trying to familiarize themselves with what homelessness is really like in America.
Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless nationwide on any given night, and almost 60,000 of them are military veterans. Riverside County features “one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the United States,” Takano wrote to a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official in May, and hundreds of those servicemen and women are living on the streets. One attempt to get a headcount of homelessness in the county last spring found 2,978 adults and children homeless on a given evening, and veterans made up a tenth of the total. (ThinkProgress’s own Scott Keyes wrote earlier this year about what it’s like to go out and count the homeless overnight.)
The resources available to programs that shelter, support, and ultimately house the homeless have also shrunk amid the recent federal obsession with cutting deficits. The politically-inflicted budget cuts known as sequestration sliced funding for programs with a proven track record of reducing homelessness. Affordable housing programs and other anti-homelessness systems that managed to reduce homelessness during the worst recession in 80 years were not spared from the budget ax. “Because of the sequester there were so many important programs that were cut [at HUD and Health and Human Services],” Takano said, and service providers he met with stress that “there were just a number of different programs under HUD that both the city and the county were saying they were experiencing cuts, which make their jobs just a lot more difficult.”
Takano said that a local medical official who talked to him about the area’s homelessness amelioration efforts mentioned that some local law enforcement agencies prefer to bust up homeless encampments and relocate the indigent across a jurisdictional line to become somebody else’s problem. Such hardhearted approaches to the homeless, sometimes even coming with handcuffs and gavels, are shockingly common in American cities.
“It’s not as if there is a lot of social opportunities for them to be fully human,” Takano said. “The context of the shelter provided a medium by which these people were not invisible any longer. The young people from the church sat down and had dinner with the homeless — well, the people who were guests of the shelter. You could see social conversations that would not be happening if they were not there.”
The dinner was provided by volunteers from Grove Community Church, as it is every Tuesday at Path of Life’s shelters. Everyone Takano talked to said Tuesdays are one of the best meal days, and it’s only rarely that a volunteer organization backs out and leaves the shelter to make do with what it has on hand. On those nights, some of the guests themselves turn chef. “I actually met one of the cooks,” Takano said. “He’s a Vietnam vet who served a tour of duty in the early ’70s and said he was raised by a mess cook, a mess sergeant of some kind.”
In addition to the communal dining experience and precious, humanizing conversational interaction, the shelter tries to steer its residents onto the path back to self-sufficiency.
“Caseworkers try to help them set goals for themselves, and this is the first step towards some sort of attempt to stabilize homeless people and put them on the path to some sort of housing,” Takano explained. During intake, he had been asked a range of non-mandatory health questions, as well as if he needed help getting onto food stamps. The shelter also requested he sign an agreement not to yell, curse, or threaten fellow guests or staff, and he was searched for contraband to ensure that the shelter would be a safe place for all to sleep.
Path of Life houses a tech center “where people can use computers to try to connect with family, maybe do some job searching,” Takano said, and even provides a “pet motel” to house, clean, and provide veterinary care to the animal companions that many homeless people bring with them.
Despite these kinds of service offerings, the shelter is meant to be a short-term solution for its residents. “This shelter is a 30-60 day program,” the group’s website says. The separate families-only shelter allows stays up to 90 days. But either way, the end goal is supposed to be a transition to some other form of permanent supportive housing.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has begun to place greater emphasis on such facilities as a consensus takes hold among anti-poverty workers that paying for housing and personal development is far cheaper than leaving homeless people on the streets. The local social workers and activists Takano met with before checking in to the shelter “don’t disagree that this is desirable, but they said one-size-fits-all implementation is a problem,” according to the lawmaker. As a group of formerly homeless families learned in Georgia earlier this summer, even when marginalized people do everything right and live up to every aspiration of those HUD programs, their recoveries can still be disrupted and destroyed by local mismanagement.
For Takano, though, the creativity and work ethic he saw among ground-level service providers is a hopeful beacon. “I come away from this experience optimistic. It’s a terrible problem, but my sense is we’ve got some awfully committed and intelligent and creative people trying to work this problem out,” he said. “I was just so moved by their commitment, and I was moved by the homeless people themselves. I saw them as real human beings that are struggling with their issues, but I don’t see this as insurmountable.”
When the lights snapped on in the men’s dormitory of the shelter at 6 a.m. Wednesday, Takano noticed a station set up to the side of the room. The visiting congressman watched as a man ironed his clothes.