Friday Morning Open Thread

What’s up?

I hate to start on a depressing note, but this letter in Berkeley Parents Network left an impression on me as we have a huge homeless population in Berkeley:

Helping homeless man with cancer
I recently ran into a man who grew up around the corner from me in Berkeley and attended the same alternative highschool. He was raised by his grandma who passed away when we were young and then I pretty much lost track of him. Over the years (we are now in our late forties) he would pass through the neighborhood (where I still live) to say hello. He never asked for anything but a bit of normal conversation with folks who knew him when he was young but I did get the sense that he was struggling and sort of off kilter. I saw him last night and he revealed that he has lung cancer and is sleeping in the bushes of local parks. Again he did not ask for anything, but when I asked about family he said “gone.” When I asked if he was receiving support from social services etc.. he shook his head as if I were a being naive. I asked how to locate him if I thought of a way to help, and he just sort of shrugged. It was a brief conversation as I was taken by surprise and in the middle of a minor family crisis. I really can’t say that I know him now or what other problems he may have and I currently have negative financial (or emotional) resources of my own to offer so I expressed as much sympathy as I could before he just wandered away. Now I am haunted by thoughts of that friendly neighborhood kid who had no one but his grandma and how he might be dying outside in the bushes of what used to be his own now affluent “village”. I think about trying to find him and offering….what? Money I don’t have, info. on resources I know nothing about, a warmer sleeping bag? I know there must be other terminally ill people living on our streets, and that better people than me are trying to meet their needs but after just letting him walk away like that I’m finding it harder to look in the mirror. Any thoughts on what to do or who to suggest he reach out to if I encounter him again?
–Useless Wannabe Samaritan

I am definitely going to read the responses. I pass about five homeless people — usually the same men — every day. I have opted to donate to organizations in my neighborhood instead, and will give to the occasional woman that I see because it is so shocking, and in my mind, more dangerous to live in the streets as a woman. We really need more resources for mental health services and affordable housing. Do any of you have a similar experience where you live?

In health news: the deadline to apply for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act is March 31st. I am enjoying the videos promoting the deadline, including this one with Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer:

What else is in the news? What’s up with you?


Study: No Job Better Than Bad Job

Having no job is better for your mental health than a bad job, according to a study cited by Time magazine. Read on:

Australian National University researchers looked at how various psychosocial work attributes affect well-being. They found that poor-quality jobs — those with high demands, low control over decision making, high job insecurity and an effort-reward imbalance — had more adverse effects on mental health than joblessness.

The researchers analyzed seven years of data from more than 7,000 respondents of an Australian labor survey for their Occupational and Environmental Medicine study in which they wrote:

“As hypothesized, we found that those respondents who were unemployed had significantly poorer mental health than those who were employed. However, the mental health of those who were unemployed was comparable or more often superior to those in jobs of the poorest psychosocial quality… The current results therefore suggest that employment strategies seeking to promote positive outcomes for unemployed individuals need to also take account of job design and workplace policy.”

I believe this study in that I have always thought that there was nothing suckier in this country than having a job you hate and being broke. Shudder. What do you all think?


Cell Phone Use Among the Homeless

Cell phones are helping the homeless stay connected to the world and even helping them find work, according to an article in the Washington Post.

Check it out:

“Having a phone isn’t even a privilege anymore — it’s a necessity,” said Rommel McBride, 50, who spent about six years on the streets before recently being placed in a city housing program. He has had a mobile phone for a year. “A cellphone is the only way you can call to keep up with your food stamps, your housing application, your job. When you’re living in a shelter or sleeping on the streets, it’s your last line of communication with the world.”

Advocates who work with the District’s homeless estimate that 30 percent to 45 percent of the people they help have cellphones. A smaller number have e-mail accounts, and some blog to chronicle their lives on the streets.

When Laura Zeilinger, deputy director of program operations for the D.C. Department of Human Services, conducted housing assessments of a couple of thousand people living on city streets last summer, she was surprised by how many gave her cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses.

“Phones are really a lifeline for many people,” said Adam Rocap, director of social services at Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit drop-in center for the homeless. During a string of attacks against homeless people sleeping downtown in the fall, two victims called 911 for help after they were assaulted, he said.

As the article pointed out, some people grumbled when homeless people shot a photo of Michelle Obama with their cell phones — as if a home and a phone cost the same thing. You can get a pay-as-you-go mobile phone for less than $30, according to the Post.

And this is hardly a phenomenon in the United States. The other night, my husband and I were watching the Amazing Race and he pointed out all the cell phone advertisements in this impoverished section of India. Not even the poor can escape the prevalence of wireless technology, which sounds like a good thing.


How To Help the Homeless

A mom at Berkeley Parents Network asked for advice on how to help a homeless woman and her 4-year-old son.

This is a big issue here in the Bay Area. I myself am conflicted as to how best to help since I get asked for money every time I go to the supermarket, drug store and other places, usually by the same people who have lived in those street corners for months if not years. We have a big homeless population here.

What I have been doing is buying the homeless newspaper from vendors if I have cash on me. (Sometimes I only have a credit card.) I also give money to my Catholic church whenever it requests a second collection for a local Catholic homeless shelter (St. Vincent de Paul).

But I am going to run the BPN mom’s letter as well as responses for other ways to help the homeless. Please add your suggestions:

Homeless family – how to help?
I was in San Francisco the other day where I ran into a homeless woman and her 4yr-old son. They were sitting on the ground at a very busy corner, reading a book. Initially I thought they were tourists waiting to get on a cable car. Almost as an afterthought it occurred to me that they had a handwritten sign, so I turned back and confirmed that they were asking for help. It turned out that they have been homeless for about a month. According to her, the family came from another state to CA because of her husband’s job, which for whatever reason didn’t happen. They don’t know anyone in the area, don’t have money to go back and are sleeping in shelters and churches. The husband goes to a labor office every day. She told me that when they do manage to get a bed in a shelter, they can’t go to sleep until 10:30pm and have to wake up at 6:30am. She said the boy has changed dramatically – became more aggressive and defensive. I was absolutely heartbroken, the feeling amplified by the fact that I have my own 4yr-old, who means the world to us, as I am sure her son does to her. All I could do at the moment was to give her some money, as well the phone number of United Way.

I have their first names and she gave me the phone number of organization, where she calls every day to find a bed. I should have asked for more information, but I was just flustered, I guess, and wasn’t thinking clearly at the moment. I can’t stop thinking about them and the little boy who might or might not have a place to sleep tonight. While I understand that I couldn’t just take them into my home, I do feel tremendously guilty for not doing more. But what? We are by no means wealthy, just your average four-people, one-income family. I called and emailed several organizations and received one not very promising response – the family should call such and such number to try to get into a long-term shelter, but there is a very long waiting list. I am not sure what I expected – someone to tell me, oh yes, there is a vacant apartment and a free day care, send them my way. I understand that this family is just one of many struggling families, and the little boy is one of many-many unfortunate kids. But this fact doesn’t make this particular situation any less sad and frustrating. I will try to locate them and would like to learn from this community about meaningful ways to help them if I do manage to find them.
the world is not fair

Here were the responses:

Bless your heart for the care and concern you have taken for this family – I’m not sure I would have been so thorough had I come across them myself. I can’t offer much advice, but I will mention the Bay Area Crisis Nursery in Concord; it’s worth a call. (925) 685-8052 (0-5 years) (925) 685-3695 (6-11 years). They help families during times of crisis, and although it’s a bit of a distance for this family to travel, I believe they offer BART and cab vouchers. From what I remember, it’s mainly a safe, nurturing place for the child to go while the parent finds work (or works out whatever crisis is occuring). Children stay for the day or overnight for several weeks, and while it’s not an ideal situation for this family (the whole family can’t stay together), it makes sense to call them and see what they can tell you. Best of luck.

Hi, I work at Compass Community Services and our Connecting Point program manages the waiting list for all families seeking shelter in SF. Yes, the wait is long and unfortunately with the current economic climate the demand for shelter has almost doubled since this time last year.

There are things, however, that you can do to help – building awareness of family homelessness, knowing what resources are out there (great job calling the United Way!!!) and of course volunteering. If you want to find out more about family homelessness in the Bay Area, please feel free to contact me.

In the early 90’s one of our board members ran into a family on the street almost identical to the one that you described. She was so shocked by their situation that she decided that she had to act. She then helped to create our family transitional housing program, Clara House, which has guided hundreds of families out of homelessness to self-sufficiency!

Since they’re in San Francisco, the family can call the Connecting Point for Families crisis hotline at 1-888-811-SAFE (7233) for immediate referrals to services which will help them find shelter as well as a bunch of social services and case management. Connecting Point is the front door to the family shelter system. The office is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed for lunch noon to 1 p.m.

For shelter the same night, they can call the Hamilton Family Emergency Center at (415) 292-5228 at 11:00 a.m. SHARP for available one-night and 60-day beds.

There is also child care available for homeless families who have at least one child under age 3 via the Children’s Council of San Francisco at 445 Church Street, San Francisco, (415) 343-3300 or It sounds like this child might be too old for that, but I wanted to put it out there in case anyone else would find it useful.

You may not be able to help this particular family right now, but over time you can help all families who are homeless by becoming proactive. Too often people who can help spend their time talking to friends and family about how they wish they could help.

The reality is that to help, we need to leave our comfort zone and start making phone calls, knocking on doors and talking to people we wouldn’t normally talk to. I suggest that you volunteer for a political cause that will prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place. Or volunteer for a non profit that works directly with homeless families to get them off the street. Write letters to politicians at the state and federal levels urging them to pass bills that will help families who are on the verge of going homeless. Get your family and friends involved. You may not have a direct impact on that family right away, but in the long run you will have an impact on all families.


first i want to say how touched i was by your compassion – it is inspiration and reminds me where my focus should be. your son is learning from your actions and will in turn be a giving person i am sure.

i just learned about a free service to help people for low income housing (and other resources). their number is 211 — or one could go online at but i heard their 211 number has more info.

amen for people like you!
in gratitude

I know it sounds crazy, but you can actually have people come stay with you. My parents helped out homeless people in this way (we had a very big house, 5 kids, and lots of pets) and my brother and his wife do this too. I think it’s crazy! But, I also greatly admire my brother and his family. They have a medium sized house, three kids and regularly bring people home. Yes, they are taking a risk. But, they are both Christians and take the Biblical mandate to care for the poor, widowed and orphaned very seriously, and I think that God is protecting them for doing this. I think that it’s great that you are so concerned and that you even took the time of day to hear their story. May it continue to move you toward action.

I hope that I don’t sound cold-hearted, but please realize that many (!!!) of these cases aren’t real. My husband worked for the city of Alameda and went to a special meeting about homelessness in Berkeley. Apparently, more than 70% of homeless people in Berkeley aren’t homeless. They, in fact, do have a home, but are able to make so much money on the street. So they make their way to certain areas and hold up their signs for donations. And according to the same study, more than 90% of those people don’t even live in Berkeley. They come from surrounding cities.

When we lived in San Francisco, a girlfriend of mine was dating a guy who had divorced his wife. They shared custody of their 3 children – all under the age of 5. He caught his wife numerous times begging for money on the street. She would put her kids in dirty, old clothes and take them barefoot onto the bus. She would take them to the Union Square area and make money using her kids. At first I didn’t believe the story. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have children of my own at the time, but it seemed incomprehensible that a mother would use her children like that just to support her cocaine habit. But I ran into them on the muni system one afternoon after they had been on the street with their mom for the day. I knew the kids, but didn’t know their mother. The kids were oblivious about what was going on since they were still quite young. All 3 were barefoot and filthy.

The sad thing is that it is probably impossible to know which story is real and which isn’t. It pulls on your heart strings and you naturally want to help.

What say you, MotherTalkers?


John Robert McGraham

As I drive home from work everyday, I look for the homeless man who sits in the same corner. I don’t know why I look for him…I just do. If there is a lot of traffic on the street, I take the time to really look at him. I look at his face and his dirty clothes – I study him. Something about him is familiar. But, what was it? Then I realized what it was. It was his sadness.

I never saw him interact with anyone. He always sat, alone, outside of an empty dental office. Sometimes I saw him outside of a donut shop, sipping what looked like a cup of coffee.

Thursday, October 9th, on my drive home from work was the last time I saw him. He was killed at 9:30pm that night.

someone threw gasoline from a red canister on the homeless man who seemed rooted to the corner of 3rd and Berendo streets, in a densely populated, diverse neighborhood west of downtown. Neighbors rushed to save him in the Thursday night darkness. But his body had been charred, and he died.

When I heard the story, I stood frozen. Could it be “my” homeless man? That’s when I learned that “my” homeless man had a name. His name was John Robert McGraham, and he was 55 years old.

We soon learned more about John.  He was the second-youngest of six children and was regarded as the “good-hearted one” by his mother. He had an alcoholic and abusive father.

His sister stated that John’s sensitivity seemed to bespeak of inner turmoil. Troubles that others could shake had a way of embedding themselves into his soul. He worked as a bellhop at the Ambassador Hotel (where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated), and was a well-regarded employee. He fell in love, but when the relationship didn’t work out, he became depressed and lost his job. He saw a therapist, but when the therapist took a month-long vacation, John became “utterly lost”.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “homelessness results from a complex set of circumstances that require people to choose between food, shelter, and other basic needs. Only a concerted effort to ensure jobs that pay a living wage, adequate support for those who cannot work, affordable housing, and access to health care will bring an end to homelessness.”

With today’s economy, homelessness and depression have become an all too real possibility…

I don’t know why I felt a need to share this story. Perhaps it is because of my guilt…I’m haunted by John Robert McGraham, and wish that I had done something. Or maybe it’s that we all need a bit of reminding that homeless people are human too.


Weekend Open Thread

Newsweek ran a trend story about ivy league schools lowering tuition and giving out generous financial aid to middle class families. As the experts in the article noted, these institutions ran the risk of taking in only two types of students: those whose families could pay full tuition and everyone else who was forced to take out student loans to obtain an education.

But now that these schools are poised to take in more middle class families, state schools and second and third-tier private colleges will lose their smartest students. Nonetheless, there is a college crunch for the children of baby boomers and less money, overall, for young people to study.

Sex Toys Allowed in Texas: (Editor’s Note: This item was corrected.) I did not know this, but a Texas court struck down the state’s ban against dildos and “pocket pussies” on, of all days, Valentine’s Day, according to Slate. Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi also ban the sex toys.

Phasing Out Plastic Bags: Whole Foods plans to stop bagging in plastic on Earth Day, April 22, according to the Washington Post. It will become the first American grocery store to phase out plastic bags.  

Patrick Swayze Has Cancer: Actor Patrick Swayze has pancreatic cancer, according to USA Today. While it appears that he is responding to treatment, this bit of news left this Dirty Dancing fan crestfallen.

Update On J-Lo’s Babies: It is official. Jennifer Lopez and husband Marc Anthony did have twins, a boy and a girl, according to People magazine. As expected, they named them Max and Emme.

The new parents welcomed their son and daughter on Feb. 22. Emme was born at 12:12 a.m. and weighed 5 lbs. 7 oz., and Max followed at 12:23 a.m., weighing 6 lbs.

Homeless Pets: These are the stories that give me faith the American people will vote a Democrat into the White House. John McCain talks a lot about his military service, but what does this mean for the American family on the brink of bankruptcy and home foreclosure?

Apparently, even our pets are feeling the effects of an impending recession. Low-income families on the brink of losing their homes are abandoning their pets at an astronomical rate, according to Newsweek. The National Humane Society even issued tips on how to find pets temporary homes in the event someone is facing foreclosure.

What else is in the news, MotherTalkers? Have a good weekend all!


How to Help the Homeless?

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has touched upon a lot of hot-button issues, but an especially fierce debate as evident in the online comment boards of the San Francisco Chronicle is how to care for the homeless.

If there is one shameful facet of Bay Area life is the amount of homeless people here. Maybe it’s the nice weather, our generous services, or both, but I get hit up for money on the street at least a few times a day. I am already trained to look at the ground when I enter Walgreens or the supermarket as the same scraggly individuals — yes, there are more than one — ask me for “spare change.” “No thank you,” I murmur as if they offered me something.

The problem is so prevalent that I am struggling to find ways to explain to my four-year-old why some people live in the street, and even worse, why mami who asks him to share won’t give them money. The other day we walked out of a bakery in Oakland and a bedraggled man with beer-smelling breath asked me for change. “No thank you,” I gave him my pat answer.

Ari piped up, “Mami, what did that man ask you?”

“For money.”

“Because he doesn’t have any?”


“So you gave him money?”

“Ari, look, it’s Gwen Stefani!” I cranked up the radio and changed the subject. I wasn’t sure how to explain that I would rather pay taxes — an abstract concept at this age — to give the homeless services rather than give each of them a dollar every day. That I think it is condescending to give them a dollar because they cannot live on it in the Bay Area. Also, many of the homeless have mental and drug problems, and I do not want them to use my money to buy beer and drugs.

While Gavin Newsom’s proposals have been controversial — like everything else in his life — I am actually in favor of his initiatives.

He was responsible for introducing — and voters passed — the “Care and Not Cash” initiative. He was called a “Nazi” by homeless advocates for his position, BTW.

The mayor recently undertook an effort to remove homeless campers from Golden Gate Park, which is nice because people should be able to visit it without worrying about stepping on human excrement or encountering a mentally unstable person.

But rather than send the homeless packing to shelters, Newsom wants them to receive treatment there and face consequences when they don’t follow through on a program. This is a turnaround from Willie Brown’s administration, in which the city would spend a lot of money — including cutting checks to the homeless — without any accountability to taxpayers. From the December 6 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Trent Rhorer, the executive director of the Human Services Agency, and Newsom’s point man on homeless issues, says the reform will be about “not making the shelters a way of life.”

“The idea of expecting something for nothing is not a direction the mayor wants to go anymore,” Rhorer said. “It’s a two-way street, and you have to meet us halfway. The idea would be that if you’re in a shelter, you’re in a care-management plan.”

In other words, the shelters would not only be a gateway to services like drug treatment, there might be a requirement of sticking with a program in order to stay.

Of course, I have no illusion there won’t be any homeless people in the Bay Area — I am sorry, but this seems to be a monumental and daunting task! — but I am glad to see at least one of our legislators tackling the problem. With all due respect to the homeless activists — I can’t imagine how hard their line of work is — but it is condescending to let the homeless live on the street like dogs. This is one example, in which violating a group of people’s civil rights might be good for them.

Can you imagine how sad it must be for the parents of the homeless to know their children sleep in their excrement on the sidewalk? For those of you who live in the city, how do you explain homelessness to your young children?