Hope is a simple word, one that can be extremely difficult to appreciate if what we see is taken at face value: specifically the constant development of Pasadena condos starting at $2 million while so many people are forced to sleep on the street. During the pandemic crisis, this contrast of so much wealth with so much need is ever more apparent.
We like to tell ourselves that homelessness is a result of drug addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness in order to make ourselves feel better about doing nothing to end it. While these are certainly factors for some, the truth is that becoming homeless is a multidimensional problem caused by many things, some of which include sickness, unemployment, working but underpaid, rising housing costs, eviction, debt, ageism, domestic violence, racism, trauma ….
None of us is immune to the many seen and unseen circumstances arrayed against us. Some just have the means to endure and fare better in hard times.
“In many instances, trauma changes the brain and the way that we walk through the world,” acknowledges Shawn Morrissey, director of advocacy and community engagement for Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena. “Unfortunately, even when someone is desperate for help, help is not necessarily accessible.”
“I grew up in Sri Lanka, which is considered a poor country, but you don’t see homeless people because the poor are taken care of. I came to Los Angeles in 2003,” recalls Mel Tillekeratne, co-founder and executive director of Shower of Hope, a mobile shower program that has recently begun to serve people experiencing homelessness in Pasadena.
“In 2010, I drove through skid row. It was shell shock. I couldn’t comprehend how a country so wealthy could have thousands of people on the street in one of its wealthiest cities. It’s one thing to learn of inequalities in the classroom, but it’s another to see black and brown people sleeping next to each other, among trash, on one of the filthiest streets in the US, that you understand there is something very wrong with this system,” says Tillekeratne. “That’s when we started a grassroots organization, Monday Night Mission, to serve food on the street five nights a week.”
Shower of Hope mobile showers is currently parked at the Pasadena Public Library’s Hill Avenue Branch parking lot from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays, 9 a.m to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Fridays. Participants receive a shower and a sack lunch. In addition, Shower of Hope operates seven trailers seven days a week serving 29 shower sessions in 21 other locations. There are some homeless people who utilize the showers before going to work.
Jenni O’Reilly-Jones, homeless programs coordinator for the city of Pasadena, reached out to Shower of Hope for help with rising pandemic needs which could not be met by the Pasadena Public Health Department shower and laundry service, which operates five days a week at the Jackie Robinson Community Center. An end date for the Shower of Hope program has not yet been set. However, the Pasadena Health Department GEM (Geriatric Empowerment Model) Link serves only the 60 and older population while its TAY (Transitional Age Youth) Link serves homeless youth, so there is quite a large gap with that middle population that is only now being accommodated by Shower of Hope.
“There are so many people who depend on our public facilities, and the inability to do so due to the recent closures is bound to take its toll on the health of our entire city” says former 2020 Pasadena mayoral candidate Jason Hardin,
“Those sleeping on the streets are already vulnerable, and the showers that Shower of Hope can facilitate each week can help alleviate some of that vulnerability,” Hardin said.
Hardin also campaigned the idea of raising the “in-lieu” fee for developers who prefer to pay the fee rather than including affordable housing units in their elite complexes.
“We don’t have our 2020 data yet, but since 2011 the homeless count in Pasadena has been on a downward trend. In 2019, the count was 542 which is 20 percent lower than 2018,” says O’Reilly-Jones. This figure may not be totally accurate today, as the count was taken in January 2019, months before a plethora of previously unheard of rent increases took place in certain areas leaving many more families without housing. More than 58 percent of Pasadena residents are tenants.
Union Station, through their coordinated entry system, are providing 160 rooms to those who are most vulnerable under Project Roomkey, a project which provides a safe haven in motels and hotels for unsheltered people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. “It provides an incredible opportunity for agencies, governments and community members to work together to create permanent housing solutions for these neighbors once the pandemic is over,” said Union Station CEO Anne Miskey.
Shower of Hope, Exodus Recovery and the city of Los Angeles have opened safe parking lots for people who are currently sleeping in their cars, none of which are located in Pasadena. As O’Reilly-Jones explains, “There are no safe parking programs in Pasadena because our current land use codes do not allow this type of activity anywhere in the city.”
Tillekeratne’s advocacy work was featured in the 2018 documentary “The Advocates,” produced and directed by Remi Kessler, which highlights the work done by those who are committed to helping our homeless neighbors by doing ”whatever it takes for as long as it takes.”
“What we are doing here is not a permanent solution. We are keeping people alive — but this is not a solution to homelessness. The solution to homelessness is simple: it’s homes,” states Tillekeratne. “For a city, a country that is so wealthy — that just a little bit of that wealth distributed among those who don’t have it would mean that these people would be off the street.”
As a community, we can help our less fortunate neighbors in two ways: taking care of their immediate needs and their legislative long-term needs. Neither one can be effective without the other.
One way to accomplish the latter is to reach out to your City Council representative. Make it clear that affordable housing and permanent supportive housing for our unhoused neighbors is of the utmost importance for our city. Make sure that the Pasadena City Council includes tenants among its members. Donate to and volunteer with organizations that offer immediate help.
While calls for “doing the right thing” have not yielded enough in terms of solutions, here is another thought to ponder: When you total the resources that we spend on law enforcement, first responders, emergency room care and legal costs associated with people experiencing homelessness, would it not be far more fiscally responsible to simply take care of those who need help to begin with?
Unfortunately, not matter how much we say we care, if we insist on continuing along a path that is clearly not working, what we are really saying is that we do not care.