Sunday, August 31, 2014

Don't Just Sit There

Have you ever tried to raise money for a good cause?  It’s tough right?  People don’t want to see pictures of starving children, children with flies on them, bald children, women with breast cancer scars, people in wheelchairs, veterans with missing limbs, veterans with burn scars so bad they are unrecognizable, or homeless people, or mentally ill people. You can barely get people to give up a NEW toy at Christmas for Toys for Tots… I know, I’ve tried!
When my son joined the Marine Corps, I became deeply involved with an organization called Marine Parents raised money through a variety of ways, but it was always a struggle. The founder and many of us volunteers worked day and night to be able to send care packages to deployed Marines, help the wounded warriors and their families, provide support and much needed information to families of all Marines from boot camp through veteran status and provide support for Gold Star Families—you know who they are, right?
When asked to join the Board of Directors and head the fundraising and development aspect of the organization, I learned real fast how quickly people can forget to call you back, not respond to your emails or letters or just flat out say no. Support for the troops does not necessarily equate to SUPPORT for the troops. All that flag waving… is meaningless unless we take care of our troops.
When the recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge appeared on the horizon, I could not have been more thrilled. A little understood, fatal, hideous disease, which hasn’t received much attention since Lou Gehrig was “struck out” with it in 1939 and subsequently died in 1941, at the young age of 37. It killed my dad in 1991 too.
So little is understood about this disease that they really don’t know how or why people get it. What they do know is that military veterans are twice as likely to develop ALS. There is no single test for diagnosis, and at this time, there is only one drug, that may prolong life by a few months. At the time my dad was diagnosed with ALS, there was no drug. In 23 years, they have created one drug that might give someone an extra two months.
For a few weeks the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took Facebook, YouTube and Twitter by storm and managed to raise an unprecedented 100 million dollars. And it did so because it was different—something almost anyone could do, and it was something people who couldn’t afford to donate, could do to help raise awareness. Wouldn’t everyone want to participate? Well, some people don’t want to help-- some people who care less about humanity and more about their own lives. Some people who are too lazy to do their homework before they decided something isn’t worth their time. I know of one person that called the ALS campaign “crap.” (She was promptly unfriended.) Some people started posting untrue tax records for the ALS organization trying to debunk the organization and the Ice Bucket Campaign.
Across the board—not just ALS, but with Childhood Cancer, Breast Cancer, Lung Cancer, Ovarian Cancer, Cancer of the Prostrate, Colon Cancer… and that is just some of the cancers not even all the diseases. For everything we don’t understand—for everything we don’t have a cure for we need funding.
There is no shortage of causes for people to participate in and if something isn’t your cause- I get it- I really do—but don’t slam other causes or all causes because it makes you feel better about not giving a shit.  
A couple of things I learned while I was fund raising on a grand scale was corporations are interested in numbers. They want to know how much traffic your website gets, how much money you get from grants, how you plan to raise the next 10,000 and then the next 10,000. They want to see official tax records and they want to know the percentage of money spent on administrative services.  In the case of medical charities, we would want to know the percentage that goes to actual research. So if you are going to go after an organization for a large grant- have your ducks lined up. These aren’t bad things for us to understand either—in order to get the maximum bang for our buck or our sweat.
I also learned that people run from scary stuff. People didn’t want to hear about troops with missing limbs or blinded or brain damaged… because if they thought about it, they would have to admit that it might happen to their loved one. Cancer is scary, MS is scary, homeless people are really scary… And, the mentally ill… forget it, no one wants to even think about them. But, we have to—because our society is becoming immune to humanity and human frailty. What people say and what they do, don’t match. We are not doing enough for each other. The days of feeding a stranger are no more- yet fifty years ago, that was the norm. Now if a hungry person knocks on our door they are likely to be shot.
The ALS Ice Bucket campaign may have seemed like a gimmick to you- but gimmicks work better than guilt. And gimmicks work better then screaming.  Sadly- many people don’t want to confront reality. They want everything to be pretty  (or fun) so their denial can’t be broken. The ice bucket challenge was a huge success. It may not be long term, like some of the walks or runs, but as far as awareness goes—it got everyone between the ages of 13 and 80 to think about ALS and I would call that a successful campaign.  
If you think there is nothing you can do, you couldn’t be more wrong. Here is a list of a few different way to raise funds for a good cause.  If you can come up with something new, that isn’t dangerous then explore it as an option. Check your charity in one of the charity watchdog websites provided at the end of this article.

·         Walk/Run-a-thon
·         Ride -a-thon
·         Bowl-a-thon
·         Golf Tournament
·         Bazaar
·         Spaghetti Feed
·         Crab Feed
·         Sidewalk Sale
·         Casino Night
·         Bake Sale

If you are stuck for worthy causes, just open your eyes. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. You are going to see pictures of bald children, children with tubes, and dark circles and maybe even some children that have passed away. Don’t look away. Don’t pretend that if you don’t look it doesn’t exist.  It does – and they need all the help they can get.  Do something.

Helpful Links:  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin's Flight From Earth

He was part of our identity—all of Marin really, but mostly those of us that went to school with him. I went to school with him but we weren’t friends or buddies. He was friends with my friends and I knew who he was because I knew who everyone was; he might have known who I was—we never talked about it later. And later he worked with my boyfriend in Sausalito, and after that I became a good friend of his brother Todd. We knew each other. He was Toads little brother and I was Cable Car Katie, a name Todd gave me since that was my usual mode of transportation. We didn’t hang out unless we were both visiting Todd at his bar on Chestnut Street in the Marina. And then, we were quiet, polite, and probably thirsty.  I waited on him when I was a waitress in Sausalito. I left him alone- and he appreciated it. He was an introvert when he wasn’t being an extrovert.

I was in a management class about 20 years ago in Livermore, California. I might as well have been a 1000 miles away from Marin it was so different there. The terrain, the people, the smell… nothing was the same. The man who was facilitating the class asked all of us to write down something that most people didn’t know about us.  I never write anything of consequence when asked to do this because if people don’t know things about you they probably shouldn’t—so I wrote down I WENT TO SCHOOL WITH ROBIN WILLIAMS.

When we read them aloud, the facilitator’s head snapped to me… and he said, “That’s what I wrote too.”

He had gone to College of Marin with Robin; I had gone to Redwood High with him.

Marin County has had many stars, a lot of favorite sons and daughters. Some spent only a short time here and we claim them anyway… like greedy little grubbers who want all the credit for other people’s success.  Writers, musicians and actors often find Marin County amenable to their needs. We don’t chase after them or ask for autographs, sometimes we nod, but mostly we let them alone and maybe that is the attraction.

Robin always had a melancholy layer just below the surface. If you ever met him, you would know that. And like many people that suffer from depression, reason escaped him, logical thought was stuck in some deep dark pocket of his brain and what surfaced was the last resort, the last decision he would ever have to make.

He was part of our identity—in some weird subconscious way. So the fallout of his demise – his purposeful leap to the next world, has been hard. It’s taken a toll on so many people – some that never met him but loved him for his art. And those of us that knew him, though not well, we are left with an empty feeling, and ask, “How could you leave this soon?”

He’ll be part of the Redwood High Memorial Wall now, a wall I was just reading all the names on last week. I was thinking I should add my little brother and now there is one more, and College of Marin’s Memorial Wall too. Maybe they’ll have a plaque at some bar he went to once or twice, and the along the Dipsea Trail. He won't be forgotten anytime soon-- but what killed him will be, it always is.

I wish, I know we all do, that he would have picked up a phone.



Sunday, August 3, 2014

While I Was Walking...

Life is strange sometimes. I could have easily– no, more than easily-- it was almost a given--turned out to be a bitter old woman.  I might have been the lovely Miss Haversham, cobwebs and all. Instead, due to some fluke, some twist of fate and perhaps a bump on the head,  I have become more compassionate in my mature years. This surprised me, so I had to do some double checking to make sure I hadn’t turned into a Marin County left wing, hippy dippy who has lost touch with all reality. When the two completely different subjects I wanted to write about converged, I took it as a sign from Buddha or my late mother,  who keeps an eye on things, (okay that's dippy) that I should sit down and try to explain to everyone what I was thinking about all year long, and why I couldn't focus their conversations about vacation locations or new TV shows.
Cyberbullies and Homeless People

Sometime last year or maybe the year before I made the mistake of starting to read the comment sections on public blogs and newspaper articles.  I was stunned at how vile people could be. Most of whom use an alias but some, so sure that their responses are acceptable behavior, use their real names. Some people are just bullies who would never say anything to anyone’s face, but feel safe doing so in cyberspace. The attacks shocked me and I am not easily shocked… in fact I can be frightfully candid when the situation calls for it… but some of these situations did not call for anything other than compassion. I wanted to write to these publications and blast these bullies for being bullies… but that didn’t seem right either. I knew I couldn’t shame them, so I just sat on it for a while, waiting for the urge (to verbally smack them upside the head and make them see how puny their brains were), to dissipate. I tried not reading the comments, but when the two issues converged, when the hideous comments written were about the one other thing I was feeling passionate about and writing about—well, I had to act.

But, let me digress for just a minute here--I started walking around my little town sometime in April of 2013. First a mile, then two and then three, four, five and six miles some days. Around July 2013, I ran into an old friend, my old roommate from the 70s who I hadn’t seen for over 30 years and we started walking together with our dogs and talking about everything including our shared shock of how people view other peoples misfortunes with such disdain. I realized then, that if I was out of step with the world so was she, so at least there were two of us. My wheels started turning.

It was on my alone walks though, with just my dog, that I started noticing a lot more homeless people than ever before. They were camping out in public instead of the open space areas. Small areas of trees next to shopping centers, or schools or churches, usually near a creek but always near foot traffic. Some of them had carts full of their belongings, some had only backpacks, some had built lean-tos, some looked spaced out, and some looked drunk, some looked crazy; some looked depressed (Who wouldn’t be?). A few had dogs. One lady hung out at the laundry mat in the afternoon until it closed, one guy parked his cart and his collection of I don’t know what  on one of the main streets and greeted everyone that walked by like he was the mayor. Their faces were dirty and wrinkled beyond their ages and most of them were missing some or all of their teeth. Their hair was matted and yes, they smelled bad. I didn’t see one person who could have gone and gotten a job that day. They needed more help than that.

During those first few months of walking, the weather was still warm. I found myself looking for them though, making sure everyone made it through the night. A seed was planting.

While all that was happening, a debate started hitting the town council meetings, the bloggersphere and newspapers about affordable housing. From what I read, the majority of people in Marin County were not pro affordable housing. Some cited valid reasons like high density and traffic and others plain and simple said if you can’t afford to live here you should not live here. Others still, said they didn’t want the riff-raft in their neighborhoods. They didn’t want blacks or Mexicans moving in from other blighted areas (Like Vallejo). Wait a minute I told myself… I can’t afford to live here! I barely get by and I have 2.5 jobs.  I don’t smoke or drink or take vacations. How can these folks ever get back on their feet without some help?

As I watched the debates unfold, I started making mental notes of things that sounded off to me. The issue was three fold or four fold and the information was one fold. My confusion was compounded by the fact that many people I know and respect were coming down on the anti-affordable housing side and I couldn’t figure out why exactly.  I knew two things. 1. Marin has an abundance of homeless people (many people with children) and 2. Marin and the Bay Area in general has an extreme shortage of apartments and homes for rent. (At any price.) The rental market, which I am very familiar with because one of my 2.5 jobs is a licensed Realtor, is off the charts this year. I leased one three-bedroom two-bath home in San Rafael for over $3,200 in one week. Another, in Novato, in less than two weeks.

I started digging for facts. What I found online was not surprising since it backed up what I saw while I was out walking. But, what I saw while walking was worse than reading about it. It was real, it was human. It was inhumane. We care more about homeless animals than people in this county. That’s what I saw. That is what I see every day.

The First Fold:

According to a report by the Marin Independent Journal, the homeless biennial count in January of 2013 was 933, which was down from the previous years. However, the precariously housed, people that may be facing eviction, or are living in overcrowded homes or couch surfing, numbers have increased to 4,388, up from 4,179 in 2011.  

The report continued. “Diane Linn, director of Ritter Center in San Rafael, which provides services to the homeless and working poor, said that number continues to rise because of economic pressures and a lack of local affordable housing.

We are sorely short of affordable housing options. There are no single-room housing occupancy options," Linn said. "It's bad for the working poor out there. It's getting harder and harder."

(*Linn is no longer the director. Peter Lee has been the director since 2014)

 The Second Fold: Plan Bay Area, ABAG, and SB375:

Plan Bay Area is a state mandated, long-range housing and transportation plan designed to reduce pollution and greenhouse gasses.

ABAG:  Formed in 1961, the Association of Bay Area Governments is the comprehensive regional planning agency and Council of Governments (COG) for the nine counties and 101 cities and towns of the San Francisco Bay region. ABAG has limited statutory authority and requires major city and county votes for action. The concern of ABAG is long-term growth, big picture, sustainability and conservation.

Signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, SB375 is the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008; a State of California law targeting greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles.  The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32) sets goals for the reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions. Passenger vehicles are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions statewide, accounting for 30% of total emissions. SB 375 therefore provides key support to achieve the goals of AB 32.

The Third Fold -Citizen Marin: Citizen Marin is comprised of the leaders of neighborhood and community groups from throughout Marin County who are wrestling with the demands of the Sustainable Communities Strategies and SB375. They struggle with the concept of overbuilding Marin County with affordable housing like high-density buildings in otherwise single-family home neighborhoods. They cite issues like crime, traffic and simply maintaining “our small town quaintness”. 

Citizens Marin group disagree with the scientific conclusions and contend that the density mandate of 30 units per square acre is too high (20 is acceptable) and that affordable housing (apartment complexes) will increase the crime rate.

I could go on and on here about the debate—but I’m really only interested in the human element of the whole situation. If I have learned nothing else in my 62 years, it’s that you have to care about other human beings. I see homeless people and want to help, but I’m not sure how. I give them money; sometimes I buy blankets and distribute them. I have made sandwiches and brought them to people, but all the little things I do does nothing to answer the greater problem.

To help me understand the greater problems regarding affordable housing I made an appointment to talk to Mary Kay Sweeney, the Executive Director of Homeward Bound of Marin.  Homeward Bound is Marin County’s chief provider of shelter and residential services for homeless families and individuals, serving approximately 1,400 people per year in 14 inter-related residential programs. No one understands homeless and the working poor better than Mary Kay Sweeney and the people that work tirelessly at Homeward Bound of Marin.

Mary Kay Sweeney replied to my email request to meet and was gracious enough to spend more than an hour with me explaining the homeless issue in Marin and answering some of the questions I had regarding affordable housing. Many of my questions were based on citizen responses to online blogs and hearsay information from colleagues. I wanted to confirm my suspicions that some of the facts people were sharing in cyberspace (and over lunches) were complete or partial fabrications.

One of the responses I read on the Novato Patch –replying to an article on affordable housing was this one by someone who calls himself/herself Bubbasixpack. (I’m sure he/she means beer and not abs)

Bubbasixpack July 09, 2013 at 04:33 PM

There are lot of empty houses in Richmond, but they're empty because they moved here when invited by the developers who couldn't fill the places they built in Novato. Fill up the empty housing before we build more. Don't like where you live? Too bad. Stay in school and out of jail. It worked for me.

I asked Mary Kay – specifically if she was importing people from other cities to fill affordable housing units. She shook her head slowly- adamantly no.  I felt she had heard that question before- and she was weary of it.  “No”, she said, “in fact, it’s the other way around; since there is little or no affordable housing here we sometimes look in neighboring counties for our transitional people.”

Bubba’s comment was one of the milder ones.

I read everything I could get my hands on regarding this issue- but the most important research I did was right on the street. I started putting dollars bills in my fanny pack that I use when walking the dog. As Toshi and I walked around town and ran into homeless people, I started looking them in the eye and saying hi. Just hi. They all wanted to pet Toshi. No one asked me for a dime. A few times, I made sandwiches and delivered them but mostly I just started giving them a buck or two when I could. The most important thing was that I said hello. They were no longer invisible-- to me. Or scary. Or crazy. Did they need baths? Yes. Did they need meds? Some did. Would they spend my lousy dollar on cigarettes or booze? Maybe. All of them, every single one of them thanked me and said God bless you. Some told me their story. Some didn't want to talk but all were polite. All of them pet Toshi and got some Toshi love.

Homelessness is a costly issue. There are multitudes of problems that arise from the homeless people including wild fires started at encampments, defecating and urinating in streams (or in Open Space areas) littering near streams where many of them camp out. Transporting to hospitals due to exposure to weather extremes or overdoses (on an already unhealthy body), hospital expenses, arrests for loitering, illegal camping, etc. I’m not sure but I think there has to be a better way to manage this issue.

You might think that everyone that is homeless is a junkie or drunk or someone who refuses to take their meds—but you would be wrong.  Many people just like you and I are just one or two paychecks away from homelessness. Anyone with a minimum wage job or even slightly above would be in real trouble if they lost a week of work due to illness. Many low-income people work three jobs to stay alive in Marin. If you lose your job and your home, getting into a one-bedroom one-bath apartment in Marin County (providing you have excellent credit) can easily cost 5000.00. In order to afford the least expensive studio in Marin you need to make over $20.00 per hour.

Many argue, why wouldn’t people go where they can afford to live? There are several reasons. Many of Marin’s homeless are from Marin- some from one time affluent families in Tiburon or Ross. They stay because their families are here, and occasionally some help them out, and because they are familiar with the terrain. I can’t imagine being homeless and camping out and having to go to a strange town where I didn’t know the safe places to go.

About 9% of the homeless in Marin County are veterans.  Some suffer from PTSD or TBI. Many suffer from drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve run into to a few of these vets while walking Toshi, when I am wearing my USMC sweatshirt. They always ask me if I was a Marine. No, I tell them. My son is. They tell me then, that they were Navy or Army or they just say Semper Fi and I know the rest. “Thank him for his service,” they say. Then I guiltily thank them for theirs—because clearly, our whole country did not.

As the weather turned bitterly cold, I found myself driving around in the morning and taking inventory of the homeless people I knew. They had their regular spots and if there weren’t where they were supposed to be I worried.  I knew some wouldn’t make it through winter. That was a sad fact.

In this 2013 report on homelessness in Marin County – the statistics are eye opening. In one of the wealthiest counties in the nation—we have a ridiculous number of homeless and almost five times that precariously housed individuals.

I’m not sure when Marin became so full of itself. Marin was originally inhabited by the Miwok Indians and built on the backs of ranchers, fishermen and blue-collar workers. In the early 1900s, Tiburon, one of this country’s wealthiest cities, was a blue-collar railroad town, with cargo trains running daily. The wealthy people that did live here were largely philanthropic and donated to a variety of causes without fanfare. Most of us that grew up here, most, not at all wealthy, but some who grew up in wealthy families too, find this snobbery and lack of compassion disgusting.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. I do believe if there were more people like Mary Kay Sweeny of Homeward Bound in the world, that this problem could be solved tout de suite. She seems to have compassion, ability to solve problems and implement processes for long-term success. Why city leaders across Marin wouldn’t want to help her expand or copy her methodology (without quid pro quo) I don’t know. Politicians it appears are only in it for their votes and don’t really care about anyone who isn’t making it to the polls.

I can’t do anything about the bullies. They are stupid. They are not worth my time. The only thing I can do because I am not a millionaire, is help the organizations that actually are doing something, by either spreading the truth about homelessness thereby changing the way some people think of the homeless or donating my time and money to places like Homeward Bound or Ritter House and teaming with other organizations that raise money for homeless veterans. Some people want to stay angry, I won't waste my time on them.  

Across the nation, there are homeless people who need help and across the nation, there are not enough facilities to help them. Every year- every damn year, we find homeless people frozen to death or somehow killed by the elements. It seems like a no-brainer to me. If it’s fear it could be you… all the more reason to do something. I don’t know where the anger towards these folks comes from. Oh yeah… your tax dollars. Well- in that case remember the veterans… the ones we owe EVERYTHING to. Remember the sweat of all the underpaid workers in the country that keep food on your table, watch your kids, clean your houses, change your oil, rotate your tires, cut your lawns, make your fast food, work at your favorite retail outlet, or work at any one of a million restaurants or bars you frequent. Because when they lose their jobs, (or even lose work due to illness), they are in jeopardy of losing their homes.

I’m still walking. I’m still handing out dollars or sandwiches and in the winter I’ll go to Goodwill and other places and buy blankets to give away. It’s not enough. People have to care or this problem will not go away.

Helpful Links: