Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Community forum focuses on Ending Homelessness

A week ago, I had the opportunity to attend a community meeting focusing on resolving issues between the homeless population of Silver Spring and the broader common-unity.  The meeting, which was held in the Silver Spring Civic Center, was convened to stimulate discussion and to increase understanding between the homeless, local business owners, police, and interested citizens.  The event was hosted by Hope Restored Inc., a local non-profit which is focused on reducing recidivism and hopelessness by providing options and information to individuals and families experiencing difficult circumstances.

I was invited to attend the meeting by community leader Jeffrey Thames, the founder and Executive Director of Hope Restored.  I attended with Four Corners resident and contributor Joe Fox, who is an engaged citizen interested in making Silver Spring the best place in can be.  Joe and I attended as both interested citizens and as representatives from local blogs.  

Below is the official synopsis of the event from Hope Restored, which Jeffrey Thames has graciously allowed me to publish here.  I will include the full summary, and add a few of my own thoughts at the end.  

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On August 19, 2014, Hope Restored, Inc., convened a meeting to address the issues of individuals experiencing homelessness in downtown Silver Spring.  The meeting was held at the Silver Spring Civic Center Great Hall.  There was over 85 people in attendance with 62 individuals officially signing in.



 The purpose of the meeting was to give the individuals experiencing homelessness an opportunity to hear from the local leaders of the county, non-profit service providers, business owners, and residents of the greater Silver Spring area.

 Represented from the County was Councilmember George Leventhal (At-Large and Chairman of the HHS community), Councilmember Cherri Branson (District 5), Montgomery County Police Department Commander Marcus Jones (Third District).  Representing the Non-Profit Community was Jacki Coyle (Shepherds Table),   Nikki Stanaitis (Interfaith Works), Tony Hausner (Safe Silver Spring), Carson Henry (YMCA), Caryn York (Jobs Opportunity Task Force), Matt Losak (Renters Alliance), Caryn Bailey (Cornerstone Heritage), John Mendez (Bethesda Cares), Patrice Willams (Gap Busters), Diane Cameron (Audubon Naturalist Society), and more.
 
We also had local Silver Spring bloggers Joe Fox (Silver Spring Joe), and Sean Emerson (Around The Corners), in attendance covering the event as media representation.
 
Those in attendance included Silver Spring Regional Center director Reemberto Rodriguez and county councilmember George Leventhal (chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee).  Photo by Jeffrey Thames.

Most importantly we had many individuals experiencing homelessness sitting at the table, with the ability to speak freely about the issues that they faced every day while homeless on the streets of downtown Silver Spring.  While the focus of this conversation was on the Central Business District of downtown Silver Spring, the issues addressed, covered all homeless issues in Silver Spring.
 The meeting started with a welcome from Mr. Andre Barnhart.  Reverend Jeffrey O. Thames, Sr., Founder and Director of Hope Restored, Inc. (501c3), gave the purpose for the meeting.  The purpose of the meeting was bring different interest groups to the same table to discuss a common issue that affects each group collectively.
 

After Rev. Jeffrey O. Thames, Sr., was a brief given by Commander Jones, which listed the ways that the Third District Police Department is working in the Downtown Silver Spring area, with the intention of making it safe for everyone around, not only business owners, nor tourist/visitors but also for the homeless community.  When Commander Jones was asked about the statistics concerning citations given to individuals experiencing homelessness in downtown Silver Spring he mentioned that he did not keep those statistics separated from the overall statistics of activity in downtown Silver Spring.  He mentioned that some of the common problems encountered in the downtown Silver Spring area was urinating and defecating in public, along with disturbance of the peace, stemming from aggressive panhandling.  Other citations paled in comparison with other infractions and that the homeless community was not overly targeted by the police officers on patrol in the Central Business District.
   


Commander Jones speaking about common problems 3rd District officers encounter in downtown Silver Spring.  Photo by Sean Emerson.
   

After hearing from Commander Jones, Rev. Thames, gave individuals experiencing homelessness the chance to share their experiences.  The outcome of the shares can be summed up to be that we are in desperate need of more services around the clock for individuals experiencing homelessness in downtown Silver Spring.  The hours of Progress Place should be extended to allow individuals to come inside during the summer time, as well as the winter time.  The ability for individuals to sleep inside Progress Place should be made available at night time during the summer as it is during the winter.  The patrons leaving the Fillmore was discussed, and the individuals experiencing homelessness said they are often awaken by police during the middle of the night and forced to walk around all night because the place that they had chosen to sleep was not acceptable to the officer, that woke them up.  Reverend Thames, mentioned that having a place for individuals experiencing homelessness to be safe, was not only for the greater community to be taken care of, but it was a matter of safety to the individuals with nowhere to turn during the night for sleep.

Stef, a man experiencing homelessness, explains how there is no safe place to sleep at night during the summer, when Progress Place is not open at night.  Photo by Jeffrey Thames.

 Jacki Coyle spoke up about the services provided at Shepherds table and mentioned that there are a few people that spoil the location for everyone involved.  However, it was asked why the patio furniture was removed, and has yet to be replaced.  The answer was that drug dealing caused the items to be removed, and in order to have them returned a 24 hour police presence would have to be mandatory.  Why is police presence mandatory when there are exterior cameras recording the premises?  Open the patio!

The next step for this issue is to schedule a meeting with the Sargent Curtis from the Third District Police Department and members from the homeless community to establish a relationship that would see them having a viable outlet for outreach within the homeless community.  Hope Restored, Inc. is also scheduling meetings with service providers in, and around, downtown Silver Spring to ensure that they are able, to understand our goal, and receive our offer to help them operate at full capacity given that they will have the total support needed to ensure their sustainable effectiveness.  Hope Restored, Inc. will continue to be a bridge between groups that would not ordinarily interact with one another.  It is ok to be concerned.  It is ok to be scared.  But its not ok to isolate ourselves from each other, acting as if all is well.  When bridges over concerned, scared, and isolation are built, maintained, and effective we will see that the areas once deemed uninhabitable becomes places of pleasure and relaxation. 

 Thats what we have an opportunity to create here.  We have the opportunity to have our Hope Restored, by creating bridges connecting various common unities, or communities, together.

Again, thank you for your support, participation.  Stay tuned The best is yet to come!

 Servant among Servants,
  Rev. Jeffrey O. Thames, Sr. (E.D.)
Hope Restored, Inc.   
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For me, this meeting was a very eye opening experience.  When I heard members of the homeless community describe what it is like to be homeless, I was surprised and in some ways embarrassed that I did not know about the issues they brought up.  The biggest of which, in my opinion, is the lack of sleeping facilities for the homeless at nighttime during the warmers months.

I had assumed that any homeless people sleeping on the street were doing so because they did not want to make use of the nearby shelters (in Silver Spring, Progress Place is the closest shelter).  What I didn't realize is that Progress Place is only open for sleeping during the cold winter months.  As soon as the weather gets warmer, the sleeping quarters are closed and Progress Place only provides daytime services.  This means that any homeless people in Silver Spring or basically all of  eastern Montgomery County must go to a shelter on Gude Drive in Rockville if they want to sleep in a safe place.

The homeless attendees at the meeting explained that going all the way to Rockville is difficult and often not worth it, since the shelter fills up quickly.  The homeless who spoke at the meeting explained how they are often victims of theft, since they do not have a secure place to put their belongings when they go to sleep or go into a business to use the restroom.  The lack of secure sleeping quarters also means that the homeless do not get a good nights sleep, since they are often woken up and told to move along by police.



There were many other vivid firsthand accounts from the homeless that shed light on their predicament which are too numerous to repeat here.

The law enforcement officials who spoke also shed light on their predicament.  Commander Jones stated that the police try to be sympathetic and understanding of the homeless, but they must enforce the law.  He said that things like public drug use and urination cannot be tolerated, but he stressed that most of the time, the homeless do not cause problems.  Commander Jones explained how it is the responsibility of the police department to look out for everyone, including average citizens, business owners, and the homeless themselves.  He stated that homelessness is an issue that cannot be resolved through policing alone, but that it will take a multi-faceted approach to ensure that the number of negative interactions between police and the homeless community decline.  I think he accurately stated that homelessness is not a law enforcement issue, but a social issue.    

Councilmember Branson spoke near the end of the meeting, and she surmised what many people were thinking: that this is the beginning of a continuing conversation.  She talked of her days of assisting the homeless when she was in her twenties, and she remembers that one homeless man said that the worst thing about being homeless is that people intentionally ignore you (something I think almost all of us are guilty of doing at least once).  

I think this meeting was a great step in the right direction as far as ending homelessness goes, and it really changed my perspective on the issue.  The homeless community need to be listened to and assisted in getting back on their feet, whether it is through substance abuse help or job training.

This is a problem that we can solve by working together.     

4 comments:

  1. The most eye opening thing for me (aside from being referred to in the synopsis as a member of the media...) was the tension between the homeless clients and the aid agencies (government and nonprofit) that serve them. A lot of conversations on this topic boil down to second chances in life, and it has a real effect when the trust is broken with a group that is seen as a last chance safety net, because of a rule violation whose severity is viewed very differently by the parties affected.
    It's a utopian ideal to say that we can totally eliminate this issue, because it's like whack-a-mole, if you solve it for some, others may fall into it, but I did come away from this conversation very hopeful for a lot of reasons. I was extremely impressed at the contributions of the police who were present, and councilmembers Leventhal and Branson. There was no BS, no posturing, just pragmatism. They were clearly knowledgeable, and invested in the issue. There were no stump speeches or slogans.
    I had some ideas for ways that technology can help ease (if not solve) some of the issues discussed, and I hope others did too.
    The final thought that I had was that I was grateful to live in a community where I know that a Ferguson-like incident will never happen, because community leaders (formal and informal) really do work together every day, in a substantive way.

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  2. Thank you guys for the encouragement. We are now moving into the results phase. I am currently walking downtown Silver Spring looking for an individual. Joe, let's get together and make you a part of the solution. I'd love to hear your ideas on technology.

    Like it or not... bruh... you're the media. ;-)

    Sean... instant friends. Much respect homeboy. We are moving and shaking in Montgomery County. I looked for the meaning of the term "Progressive" for much of my campaign, and I think that seeing the group in the room last week and the followup conversations... I can say "Progressive," means Montgomery County.

    Thank you everyone. We're doing what others aren't and it means a while lot to us!!!

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  3. Jeffrey, thanks for making this gathering happen. Hopefully it will not be the last time we engage all members of the community around a table - without a 'head table', where all are equal - to discuss how we all benefit from being in this same space, downtown Silver Spring... It does occur to me that there are not too many communities where such a gathering can take place in such a productive and meaningful way... We are indeed fortunate to live here! I look forward to continue working with you on this and related matters.

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  4. Thank you for publishing this blog about the conversations and movements that my brother, Jeffrey, has facilitated. I'm glad to see the effect he is having on the community, which will eventually affect the world. Thank you for making his works known. We pray that all of his efforts will come to change lives everywhere. Thank you once again.

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