Serving the Women Who Served

March 25, 2014

The other day I wrote about the Coordinated Entry System serving people coming out of jail who could be homeless. The same system now also serves veterans as I learned at the Women Veterans Summit. Here’s my account of that event as it appears today in LA Progressive.

Yolanda Shelton came out of the Army after 8 years service and found herself in Los Angeles down to her last $7 with no place to go. Shelters and facilities that house women won’t accept a male child over the age of 12 so she and her son spent months in the street.

Mika Montoya joined the National Guard at 17 thinking she would defend the nation. Six months later she found herself in Iraq. On her return she had another surprise: her child is a daughter, but she found programs for vets rarely if ever accommodate mothers.

Both women told their stories at the Women Veterans Summit held on March 19 on the campus of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center.
Callie Wight, the Women Veterans Program Manager Greater Los Angeles, agreed. She has a long list of providers of residential treatment centers but can’t name a single one that takes women with their children. How many beds are there in permanent supportive housing for women with kids? None.

A year ago when Julie De La Mora of the CA Employment Development Department brought servicewomen together, Wight told of vast improvements in women’s access to necessary health services. The day was a celebration of military women’s accomplishments. This year, Wight and De La Mora were hosts of the event but so was Tracy Satterfield Tordella of the Homeless Women Veteran’s Collaborative. Along with recognition and celebration, they joined forces to put the focus on the most vulnerable military sisters.

All day, panelists representing agencies and service providers discussed housing, law, health, employment and education, their best practices, gaps in service, and future plans. If your priority is not the full report but rather in knowing what you can do now to address homelessness among women veterans, please feel free to skip to the end of the article for an Action Alert.

Women Attend Marine Boot Camp At Parris Island, South Carolina

Military Sexual Trauma as a Barrier to Being Served

A high percentage of homeless women vets suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) or are survivors of domestic violence, said Cacilia Kim, an attorney with the California Women’s Law Center. Because male veterans so outnumber females, a woman may find herself alone and isolated in the settings intended to help her. If a woman doesn’t feel safe in transitional housing or permanent supportive housing, Kim said, “she won’t see it as a viable option.”

Similarly, Dr. Jeanette Lantz, VA psychologist, noted that a woman with MST severe enough to require treatment on an inpatient psychiatric ward may find herself housed on a floor with men. Anne Hudson-Price of Public Counsel is concerned when MST survivors in Family Court seeking to regain or keep custody are stuck in a waiting room for hours with men charged with domestic violence. When women are placed in trigger situations like these, they are unlikely to access possible services.

But specifically, when it comes to housing, government programs as well as private landlords fear violating the Fair Housing Act if they provide gender-segregated facilities. Kim, however, interprets the law to ask whether women have equal access to housing under conditions which feel unsafe or can retraumatize.

In the meantime, providers can be urged to assign women quarters near the security office, or on separate floors of a shared building. Kim would like to see separate facilities for women vets, but for an exception to be made, you need a “damn good reason,” and anecdotal accounts won’t cut it. Right now, data isn’t being collected, and Kim says empirical evidence is needed to make an effective argument.

“If there’s a survey, even if it takes 45 minutes or an hour, fill it out,” requested Stephanie Stone of the LA County Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Register with the VA even if you have other insurance,” Wight said. Funding for programs depends on enrollment. “Even if you won’t use all the services, enroll so that your sisters can.”

One service on the West LA VA campus is Naomi House, said Natalie Wells of VA housing programs. The Salvation Army operates this all-woman bungalow but as Congress has cut funding, its future is uncertain. Sharon McLendon of the New Directions Women’s Program told of their two houses in Mar Vista, home to 14 women who receive wraparound services:
clinical support, tutors to prepare for a return to school, employment preparation including vocational certificate programs, assistance with family visitation and reunification and
moving expenses.

Los Angeles does have programs that work but not enough of them. More units will open in the next year or two but need will still far exceed supply.

Discriminatory Effect of Existing Law

“My personal point of view?” said Wight. “Women need their own membership-based veterans organization with clout to lobby Congress.”
Federal law regulating HUD funds, including Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers use definitions of eligibility that tend to work against the needs of women, and so laws and regulations need to be challenged, amended, or reinterpreted. (see the Action Alert)

One example of creative interpretation was obvious upon entering the conference room. The VA is legally banned from providing “child care” but some women vets could not have attended at all unless they could bring their young children. An area in the back of the room was set aside for “children’s activities” where volunteers kept the kids occupied. The mothers had seating in the back of the room too as they were required to keep their kids in their line of sight.

In many cases, change can only come through the state legislature or Congress and sometimes that’s what happens. For example, Congress has now authorized the VA to cover the first seven days of a baby’s life instead of having to stop care upon the baby’s delivery.

Existing law too often fails to take into account the special needs of mothers, but it ignores the needs of women who want to have children. An audience member told of undergoing 14 surgeries due to what she suffered in Iraq. Her injuries and surgeries left her infertile. Today, she’s happily pregnant, but she and her husband had to come up with $12,000 on their own to cover in vitro fertilization because the VA is not allowed by law to treat infertility–even when the condition is recognized as service-connected.

One-Stop Shopping

Vets are a priority population for the new Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing initiative through which an LA County applicant registers only once to search all appropriate housing available through multiple programs and nonprofit providers. Where to register depends on neighborhood. Veterans can learn where to go by contacting outreach manager Michelle O’Neil at 310.478.3711 ext. 40261 or Michelle.O’Neil@va.gov. (Outside of LA County, try 877-4AID-VET or va.gov/homeless.)

One-stop shopping is now the goal to correct years of vets getting the runaround or being sent from one office to another. There will still be multiple locations for services, but getting help will be more coordinated and streamlined.

Stone reported that the county-owned building, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall at 1816 South Figueroa Street, will soon offer “all things veteran,” – nonmedical, that is – from help with the VA claims process to a place to meet with a wide range of agencies and nonprofits. (As for existing long-delayed VA claims, Linda Benoit, California Department of Veterans Affairs said California has now established three regional offices–one in Los Angeles–to expedite paperwork and get through the backlog.)

By the time everyone has moved into Patriotic Hall–probably in May–a list of providers and a calendar will be available. Not every provider will be on-site every day, however, so once the program is fully operational, vets should check the calendar schedule before making the trip.

Having a central location for services makes a huge difference. When it comes to supportive housing, Dr. Lantz pointed out how much it matters to have services co-located with the residential area. Women who are stressed enough to need support, she said, can’t always be expected to follow up when told “go over there.” At the very least, a case manager or trusted service provider should arrange a “warm handoff” to a second provider.

According to Dr. Fatma Batuman, Medical Director of the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Women’s Health for the VA, women can now have all their appointments (except for some specialties) scheduled at the same place for the same day so they no longer have to travel repeatedly back and forth to get care.

Gaps remain, including the relative paucity of resources in rural and outlying areas such as Kern County. Veronica Lira of FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) resiliency training for service families said the program tries to bridge that gap the best it can be offering sessions via Skype and through other computer technology.

Caring for transgender clients remains new and sometimes confusing both to clinical staff and other vets like the woman in the audience who expressed her discomfort at having a male-to-female transgender vet participate in an MST support group. Policies to ensure sensitivity and the rights of all are still a work-in-progress. Dr. Susan Steinberg of the VA Ambulatory Care Center on Temple Street reported on the individual, couples, and group counseling afforded LGBT veterans as well as referrals for endocrinology, hormone treatment and speech therapy for transgender vets.

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Veterans and the Courts

“Your best outcome is to be represented by a licensed, experienced attorney, which is what our court system was designed for,” said Margaret Little of the LA County Superior Court. In reality, access to legal representation is woefully inadequate not just for veterans but for all Americans of limited economic means. According to Little, in the court that handles probate and family issues, 80-90% of people have to represent themselves.

Many of women vets’ legal problems can be traced back to MST. While the diagnosis is widely recognized now, for years women suffering from PTSD related to sexual violence rather than combat received medical or administrative discharges that disqualified them from receiving VA services and other benefits. (Many men fell into this trap as well, having their PTSD falsely attributed to a preexisting “personality disorder.”) This is one of the reasons about 15% of the homeless vets on Los Angeles street are ineligible for VA benefits according to Dr. Carl McKnight of the LA County Department of Mental Health. The county and many nonprofits try to pick up the slack and do provide free services to any and all veterans, no matter the length of service or type of discharge. Lawyers including Kim have been able to represent some women in getting their discharges upgraded.

When MST or PTSD causes homelessness or substance abuse or other behavioral issues, it too often leads as well to loss of child custody. Vets go to Family Court to retain custody of their kids or to arrange visitation or get their children back. Stone cites the Valor Guide, which lists organizations that provide free legal assistance to veterans. When it comes down to it, however, a woman in need may end up making dozens of phone calls only to find out not one organization has sufficient staff and resources to help her. Despite the crucial nature of custody proceedings, women vets often have no choice but to represent themselves.

Recognizing that it’s not enough but better than nothing, Little hired Kathleen Dixon to set up self-help services and family law facilitator offices in county courthouses. As court employees, facilitators have to remain neutral and advise both parties if asked. They can’t accompany a person into court, but they can provide explanations and guidance in navigating the process. Some of the organizations in the Valor Guide may provide higher levels of guidance when they lack funding to offer full representation. Family law facilitators are a presence in selected courthouses and will offer legal guidance at Patriotic Hall the fourth Friday of each month in the afternoon.

Hudson-Price wants all veterans to be aware of special protections they receive in criminal court–but only if the judge is made aware of the defendant’s military status. For example, under CA Penal Code 1170.9, veterans are eligible for probation or alternative sentencing if they can show their criminal act stemmed from a trauma-related condition such as PTSD. They can claim this benefit in any criminal proceeding, even if they aren’t docketed in the special veterans treatment court. If the court assigns treatment instead of jail or prison, veterans can get the charges entirely dismissed upon successful completion of that treatment. In addition, veterans picked up in the street should identify themselves as such to police or deputies who may in some cases be able to take the vet to the VA instead of to jail.

Hudson-Price drew attention to another legal problem homeless people face. When people are ticketed for minor quality-of-life offenses, due to their complicated lives they are likely to miss or not even know about a scheduled court date. This turns a small ticket into a $10,000 penalty and an arrest warrant. At HALO Citation Clinics, people can find out if they have warrants and can quickly clear any outstanding tickets. Clinics are held periodically at New Directions on the VA campus and at different nonprofits. Vets can find out more at Patriotic Hall.
“Whenever you go to court,” Dixon said, “identify yourself as a veteran” because new laws have increased a number of legal protections. There is now a statewide court form, the MIL-100, which officially notifies the court of military service. Anyone can file it–the veteran, a family member or friend or anyone else acting on her behalf.

All lawyers are required to donate at least 20 hours of pro bono (free) time, said Hudson-Price. She thinks we need to tell more personal stories about women vets, for example, how they desperately need help to be reunited with their children, in order to win the attention–and pro bono hours–of private attorneys.

Jobs Jobs Jobs

When it came time for the Employment and Education panel, Yolanda Shelton who had already told of her anger and frustration when being given the runaround was now able to express her gratitude. “I just want to hug her neck every time I see her,” she said, referring to panelist Maxine Anderson of the CA Employment Development Department.

“I have a passion for my job,” said Anderson who added that in her office, all staff have been trained so they can step in and help even if a veterans service navigator isn’t available. “We work on the whole person,” she said. If a vet isn’t ready for employment, her office doesn’t turn her away but figures out what services she needs and makes the referral. When someone is ready to work, Anderson doesn’t want to see vets stuck in $8/hour security and warehouse jobs. “We come out of the service with more skills than that.” She urges veterans to register with CalJobs where new listings are held up for 48 hours so that vets can see them a day before anyone else.

The Hero 2 Hired website lists openings from 30,000 military-friendly employers. (Don’t confuse it with any of the Hero 4 Hire sites that provide actors dressed as superheroes for parties.) This service initially served only National Guard and reservists but, regardless of what the website may still say, any vet can now register, add her MOS, and then see what jobs are available that match her skill set, said Ilka Davidson. “We don’t do rent-a-cop,” she added. “A vet who’s been a machinist should get $31/hour.” Applications are filed online. “Tech,” said Davidson. “You need to embrace it and utilize it no matter how much you hate it.” And an advantage to filing online instead of in person: they don’t know your age or what you look like.

But when everything is online, Lisa McGlory admits it can be hard to get in-person meetings with HR managers which is what she does as part of the 1,000 vets initiative of the small nonprofit America ICARE. She works with potential employers who express willingness to hire veterans but also say they aren’t sure where to find them or even how to act around them. She’s been asked, “Do I address a Marine differently than Army?” So she offers workshops to be sure employers are ready for vets as well as workshops in resume writing, interviewing, and other job preparation to be sure veterans are ready for employment from Day One.

College for Family Members

The children, spouse or domestic partner of a veteran may be eligible for a full tuition fee waiver at any California state college, according to Benoit, but will still pay for books and fees. There are four different categories of help with different eligibility requirements which can be checked here.

For all the serious content, this year’s summit ended on a celebratory note: letters of commendation from the governor, a gala dinner with music, dancing, and a fashion show. Women vets got to strut their stuff in professional outfits and accessories provided through the Working Wardrobe program that dresses vets for success when they go to job interviews and start new employment.

What Can You Do?

See the letter, below, prepared by Laura Lake of the Coalition for Veterans Land. Her Action Alert is California-specific but includes information that can be adapted to other states and for advocacy at the federal level.

Take the advice of Maricela Guzman who shared her personal experience. Guzman was raped during her Navy service and still copes, years later, with PTSD. She was always known for being highly responsible and driven to achieve but following her discharge, she spent years unable to function, not working, not going to school. She lost a marriage. She made a suicide attempt. Today, Guzman remains affected by the trauma and still receives treatment although she is in graduate school, and employed, and is well known as a speaker and advocate on the subject of MST. One interview didn’t go so well. Guzman walked out of the room and soon broke down in tears after being told, “You look normal. Are you sure you have PTSD?”

When you talk to survivors, she says, remember that “we are the experts. We are the voices.” People shouldn’t speak assuming they know best and without being self-critical. So here’s what everyone can do: “Listen,” Guzman says, “and stand in solidarity.”

ACTION ALERT! California AB 639

Eliminate Barriers to Permanent Supportive Housing For Veteran Families and Female Veterans with MST

Please send this by April 1, 2014 on your organization’s letterhead (or slightly revised to come from an individual).

TO: CalVet Undersecretary Lindsey Sin (Lindsey.Sin@calvet.ca.gov)

FROM: [name of organization]

RE: Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Bond Act of 2014

As members of the veterans’ advocacy community, we wish to commend Undersecretary Sin for working with the Legislature to address the housing needs of veterans. In anticipation of the passage of this historic bond act, we seek to eliminate barriers to safe supportive housing for veteran families and for female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (in Los Angeles, more than half the homeless female veterans have experienced sexual trauma) through the regulations that will implement AB 639.

Most veteran housing has so far catered to the needs of single male veterans, not veteran families or the growing number of female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma. California can once again lead the way by addressing this special need population by:

Including in the NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) veteran families at risk of homelessness or homeless rather than mandating chronic homelessness as defined by HUD. Currently, to qualify for VASH Vouchers (tenant or project-based) or Section 8 operating subsidies, a veteran must have a year of homelessness. Requiring chronic homelessness to qualify veteran families exposes children to a year of homelessness, a trauma that can scar a child and place him/her in foster care. We therefore ask that new guidelines be adopted that eliminate the chronic homeless requirement and add at-risk of homelessness, couch-surfing and homelessness to qualify for bond funds and VASH vouchers. As Housing First has demonstrated, getting these families into safe, supportive housing saves them added trauma and taxpayers additional costs.

Fair Housing: Currently over 50 percent of homeless women veterans are victims of Military Sexual Trauma. Their recovery from PTSD requires that they and their children live in safe, secure female veteran housing (similar to domestic violence shelters). Since no clear legal precedent exists permitting female-only housing for victims of military sexual trauma for permanent supportive housing, it is necessary that regulations implementing veteran housing funds authorize female-only permanent supportive housing as disability-based and in compliance with fair housing laws.

Designate female veterans with children and MST victims, as a special need community. Currently there is no permanent supportive housing for female veterans with children in Los Angeles County. Housing developers need certainty that serving this population will be on a level playing field with traditional veteran housing. These developers need eligibility for state bond funds and/or VASH vouchers due to the high price of land in California and construction costs.

Confessions of a Carnivore

March 17, 2014

I am very happy to be writing this post to say that my novel, Confessions of a Carnivore, will be published next year by Fomite Press. And this gives me a chance to salute the vision of Marc Estrin and Donna Bister who love cats as I do and created this “anti-capitalist” publishing house in the free city of Burlington, Vermont.

The character doing the confessing is Rae. She wants David–but he’s a cult member and gay. Lyle wants Rae–but he’s a baboon. The novel charts human and animal behavior and human and animals rights post-9/11 through life at the LA Zoo and the antics of the Gorilla Theater troupe.

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Marc Estrin–besides being a novelist and musician, etc. etc.–is an activist and a veteran of the great Bread and Puppet Theater, so you can see we’re on the same wavelength. When I showed him the image above–which may or may not end up being cover art and which to me was simply a beehive panel from Slovenia–he immediately recognized it as the “Hunter’s Funeral.” Thanks to Marc, I now know that my painted panel is the folk art version of the original woodcut by Moritz von Schwind that inspired the Frère Jacques Funeral March in Mahler’s First Symphony. You can hear a snippet of it here.

I am looking forward to working with and learning more from Fomite.

By the way, a fomite is a medium capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another. I try.

Sheriff, Supervisors, and LA County’s Most Vulnerable

March 15, 2014

My article in today’s LA Progressive:

There have been more Popes elected than LA sheriffs in the last 80 years.

This year, progressives need to choose carefully in the LA County June election. Not only will we be voting for sheriff but will also fill the supervisory seats currently held by Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavky in the First and Third Districts. There may be low turnout and low interest for these contests but at the March 13 general meeting of the LA Regional Reentry Partnership–”LARRP”– I learned why these offices matter to anyone concerned with social justice, public safety, or the rational expenditure of taxpayer money.

But first, here’s what else I learned.

LARRP brings together service providers, government agencies, advocates, and clients all concerned with the reintegration into the community of the formerly incarcerated in ways that are humane and consonant with public safety.

The first time I attended a LARRP meeting, back in July, executive director Peggy Edwards pointed out, “Our reentry providers haven’t looked at themselves as homeless providers and our homeless providers haven’t looked at themselves as reentry providers.”

That has changed and collaboration is now the order of the day with open communication and computerized and filtered lists of clients and services.

Hazel Lopez of the Lamp Community, which provides services on Skid Row, said, “Reentry and homelessness are not separate issues. People coming out of prison are without housing and that is the definition of homeless.”

Danielle Wildkress of the Corporation for Supportive Housing explained, “The Skid Row Housing Trust didn’t think of themselves as reentry providers, but it turned out 60% of the people in their housing were on probation.”

Lopez described a new initiative, the Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing, which has been funded in part by the United Way, while Wildkress explained the workings of the new Jail In-Reach 2.0 program which seeks to end recidivism and the cycle of homelessness.

On Skid Row

On Skid Row

Both initiatives follow similar models:

“Housing First“

Don’t expect clients to be stabilized physically, mentally, and free of substance abuse before offering them housing. Experience now shows that once people are actually living in permanent supportive housing, it becomes possible for them to get stabilized.

But where is such housing to come from? LA has nowhere near enough to meet the need. Troy Vaughn, also of Lamp, acknowledged, “There’s limited capacity to do development projects” for permanent supportive housing and even when a project can be funded and approved, “it doesn’t get up fast enough.” In the past, he explained, people assumed there had to be a single facility where residents and wraparound services could be housed together. Now Lamp is trying a new approach. Through negotiation, the owner of the Alexandria Hotel agreed to set aside 60
units for chronically homeless people coming out of the hospital. Ten have already moved in. Lamp agreed to find all the supportive services the residents need. Service providers will travel to the client. Vaughn hopes if the program is a success and the residents in the Alexandria remain stabilized, other property owners and landlords will join the effort.

Foster collaboration and streamline services

In LA County, as in many urban areas, people in great need often go without help as they find themselves unable to find their way through a landscape of scattered services and no unified effort. Both of these programs identify clients through street outreach or in-reach into hospitals and jails where they can begin work with a vulnerable person before discharge. Each client is paired with a “Navigator” who helps with documents and ID and makes connections to all appropriate and available supportive services. The Navigator makes sure there’s a bed available–even a temporary one–while actively working toward the goal of permanent supportive housing. When people leave jail, their own Navigator is waiting at the gate to greet them and remains a familiar, friendly presence in the client’s life until new relationships are built with the post-release team.

Put decision-making in the clients’ hands

Navigators offer options but clients are never coerced and are free to accept or reject housing offers. Every step of the way, clients explain what kinds of help they want and need. For example, Kelli Poole, an employment specialist with Chrysalis, who works with Jail in-Reach 2.0, recognizes that many people would write off her clients as unemployable. She said the clients themselves, however–far from wanting to rely on handouts–consider it a priority to prepare themselves for getting and holding down a job.

Prioritize the most vulnerable.

“Usually when a new building comes online in Skid Row,” Lopez explained, “people start lining up 2-3 days in advance to get an application.” Obviously–and as a survey confirmed–it’s almost exclusively the younger and healthier Skid Row residents who get the applications and housing.

People who are chronically homeless, repeatedly incarcerated, and disabled with physical, mental health, or substance abuse issues tend to be excluded. With the new programs, they are the priority. Not only is their need the greatest but, as constant users of ambulances, emergency rooms, hospital stays, jail and law enforcement resources, they are the greatest drain on public funds. Providing the most vulnerable with intensive and extensive services can save lives while saving money. A study of a similar program outside LA found that a chronically homeless person cost $67,376 in public taxpayer monies in a year while housing that person and providing full wraparound services cost only $19,399.

Which brings us to one of the reasons why we need to vote carefully for County Supervisors: What will the Supes do with such considerable savings? Put the money back into housing and reentry services or stash it elsewhere, continuing a tradition of neglect?

Lynne Lyman, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance and LAARP co-chair, Policy and Advocacy, cited other reasons for dissatisfaction with the current board.

Thousands of people in LA County jails have not been convicted of any crime and languish (at considerable taxpayer expense) behind bars only because they can’t afford bail. While the sheriff has stated his willingness to release some under supervision after a careful risk assessment, he does not have the authority to do so without approval from the county supervisors. It has not so far been possible to get a majority vote granting this authority.

While the supervisors were given $750 million by Sacramento to cover some of the realignment costs involved in sending prisoners back to the county from the state prison system, only a small percent was allocated for reentry services. Much of that small amount doesn’t even make it to the service providers and goes unspent.

Then there’s the plight of LA county’s Three-Strikers. In November 2012, California voters recognized the unjust and unintended consequences of life sentences handed down to nonviolent offenders. With Prop 36, they approved a measure that would offer the possibility of release. A year and four months later, 700 Los Angeles county Three-Strikers who are eligible for release remain incarcerated because they have not yet been afforded a day in court to show they have a place to go and a reentry plan. For men and women with chronic medical or psychiatric conditions–which have often been exacerbated during a decade or more in prison–or who have special needs such as wheelchair-accessible housing, a feasible reentry plan can remain out-of-reach, especially because the board of supervisors (unlike their counterparts in other counties) have refused to allocate any funding for Prop 36ers.

As for the race to fill the sheriff’s office, as voters consider the large field of candidates, it’s important to note that while the department has cooperated enthusiastically with the In-Reach program, here, too, there is a struggle over funds and an underutilization of community-based diversion programs.

Lyman notes that 40 women were released under an alternatives to incarceration program but though community placement is considerably less expensive than jail housing, the sheriff’s department money retained the savings and refused to pay anything for the beds. The alternatives program can reach only a limited number of appropriate individuals as long as nonprofits, already operating on austerity budgets, have to offer their full services for free, relying on fundraising and grant writing while the sheriff’s department holds onto all funding.

Lyman and co-chair Peter Laarman of Justice not Jails, suspecting that county officials really had no clue as to the level of professionalism and effectiveness of community-based residential programs, have led people from the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office on eye-opening tours of the Amity Foundation , the Tarzana Treatment Centers, and other programs that should be trusted and funded by LA County. A bed with full wraparound services at the Amity Foundation would cost the taxpayer one-tenth of the what the
sheriff would currently prefer to pay in sending prisoners to Kern County.

The sheriff and the supervisors continue to favor a $2 billion jail construction and expansion plan over the fiscally sound use of split sentencing and community-based programs that offer offenders realistic opportunities to turn their lives around.

There are two chances coming up to hear all the candidates vying for your vote for the office of sheriff.

The meeting concluded with a presentation by Pamela Jordan of A New Way of Life about her work as Housing Coordinator for the Reentry Family Reunification pilot program which now serves 25 formerly incarcerated individuals. The goal is to make it possible for the soon-to-be-released to move in with willing family members in Section 8 housing under the program of the Los Angeles City (not County) Housing Authority.

In the past, even families that very much wanted to welcome a member back home were held back by fear. Could they manage the person’s behavior? Would they be risking eviction if their loved one relapsed or committed a new offense?

The pilot program makes sure that their family member gets all necessary supportive services. The system will also sever culpability, so a law-abiding family will not be penalized if the person they’ve offered a home to should happen to reoffend.

What all three innovative programs–CES, Jail In-Reach 2.0, and Reentry Family Reunification–have in common (besides changing lives and neighborhoods for the better) is that they are small scale and underfunded with no guarantees they can continue.

This is why progressives need to ask direct questions of the countywide candidates well before the June 3rd election. When we simply let an offender out the gate with no place to go and no resources, we are often guaranteeing that he or she will reoffend. Continuing an emphasis on punishing people after the fact of crime instead of devoting resources to preventing crime and reducing recidivism serves no one. Good reentry programs benefit all of us. We need to know which candidates are ready to take an ethical and rational approach to homelessness and reentry and which are determined to continue a system that’s proved itself to be inequitable, ineffective, and unsustainable.

My Writing Process Blog Tour

February 16, 2014

The #MyWritingProcess blog tour is not quite a chain letter. You don’t end up with good fortune or 1,000 picture postcards from around the world or bad luck if you break the chain. It works like this: You get an invitation from an author-blogger to answer four questions about your process. When you do, you also invite three more writers to answer the same questions and carry the tour forward.

And who would know more about writing process than Susan K. Perry, author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity? She blogged about her own process last week here and invited me to chime in this week. You can learn more about her fiction and nonfiction by clicking on her name.

Now, here goes:

1) What am I working on?

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My novel-in-progress, Out of Place, takes place on five continents. Juggling the characters, events, places, and chronology gets me crazy. I first started thinking about it after 9/11 when international scientists working on research projects here in California found they couldn’t continue their contributions because tightened security clearances meant they no longer had access to the necessary data. In the novel, suspicion focuses on Emine Albaz, a Jewish Turkish hydrogeologist working in the California desert; Rennie, the office manager at the research institute, and Emine’s husband, Oğuz, a Muslim Turkish physician volunteering as doctor to a nomadic tribe in India. They are part of a web of relationship with characters around the globe.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

If we consider it literary genre, I’m sure there are other novels structured in similar ways. But if you want to compare it to espionage or political fiction, those would ordinarily have forward momentum in the narrative while my novel is structured more like the challenge an intelligence officer would face. Old School, effective interrogators didn’t torture anyone or rely on brutality. They gathered seemingly innocuous information until the mosaic pieces fit together and the picture emerged. My novel will jump around but all the sections do connect and ultimately make at least some sense. I’m having a hard time deciding on the order of the sections and then I think of Julio Cortázar’s great novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) in which chapters need not be read in the order in which they are printed.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Obsession. Trying to figure out why things happen as they do, whether it’s in terms of relationships or the politics of the world we live in. I’ve written a lot of advocacy journalism in which I report on issues from a progressive perspective–to make sure that point-of-view is available and that un- and underreported stories get covered. Some of the same issues turn up in my fiction but novels and short stories reach a different readership, make it possible to explore more ambiguous and complex realities, and are, for me, simply more satisfying to write because I never quite know where I’m going, where I’ll end up, or what I’ll discover along the way.

4) How does your writing process work?

Ask me again in six months as it’s in transition!

Those of you who follow my blog probably noticed there hasn’t been much new content lately. Well…I’d never made a New Year’s resolution before, but this year I resolved: No more journalism. No more nonfiction. No more using my eyesight for computer-based work unless it’s for FICTION.

So here I am blogging, but how can a person say no to Susan Perry?

And while I’m cutting back on political activity, too, I did go to San Diego to talk about disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline with concerned members of the University City United Church.

UCC
And, yeah, of course I went to Riverside last week in solidarity with the local Guatemalan community. We wanted to observe the sentencing of Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes who was convicted of immigration fraud for coming to the US and covering up his responsibility in the 1982 massacre of the people of the village of Dos Erres.

For a change, instead of charging undocumented immigrants with identity theft for using fake Social Security numbers — an act which harms no one but instead benefits the Social Security system because they pay in with every paycheck and will never collect a cent — the feds were on the right side this time. Assistant US Attorney Jeannie Joseph asked for the maximum — ten years in prison — and Judge Virginia Phillips agreed. Sosa Orantes was also stripped of his US citizenship and, assuming all this is upheld on appeal, will face deportation after serving his time. Present in the courtroom and addressing the judge was Óscar Rámirez Castañeda, who survived the massacre because one of the soldiers took him and adopted him.

Óscar Rámirez Castañeda

Óscar Rámirez Castañeda

He was spared, it’s my guess, because of his light skin at a time when the Guatemalan military was committing genocide against the indigenous people. We were joined in front of the courthouse with survivors from targeted Quiché Maya communities.

Óscar’s biological father was at work away from the village when the massacre occurred and so he, too, survived, but neither knew of the other’s existence until DNA analysis by the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (Foundation of Forensic Anthropologists of Guatemala). The same anthropologists were able to inform my friend Mario Ávila that the remains of one of his brothers who was disappeared years ago had been identified in a mass grave. Mario wasn’t allowed into the courthouse (even to use the bathroom) because of the face paint.

Mario Ávila lying in front of US District Court, Riverside, CA

Mario Ávila lying in front of US District Court, Riverside, CA

OK, I know this is supposed to be about my process, but in Spanish, proceso also means trial. So will Sosa face justice once he’s back in Guatemala? He’s protesting his innocence. In the meantime, former president Efraín Ríos Montt has been repeatedly convicted of genocide and each time the sentence is vacated and the case sent back to court. Some powerful people are no doubt nervous about a conviction–including the current president, Otto Pérez Molina, also accused of genocide and war crimes. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has been a powerful defender of human rights and the rightwing is now trying to have her removed from office before her terms expires. So Guatemalan justice? ¿Quién sabe?

But back to my process: New ideas come from engagement with other people and in the world. But then the task is to elaborate ideas into something imaginative. My process used to be absolute concentration for hours or days (or weeks) on end when I wasn’t working for a living. Especially when working on a novel, I want to remain immersed in the fictional world. But 15-hour days at the computer, what may be the worst ever case of Computer Vision Syndrome damaged my eyesight. It’s limited the amount of time I can spend looking at the screen. Eyestrain also causes fatigue and when my eyes are tired, my brain stops working. My process has become a slow one, taking lots of breaks, creating one piece of the mosaic–whether fiction or nonfiction–at a time.

Revision is something I can do anytime, anywhere but creating new material does require conditions. I used to prefer writing first thing in the morning while still in a hypnogogic state. That changed when I adopted a cat. First thing in the morning, she had to be cuddled and fed. Shower, etc. And then email with my coffee. Once the coffee mug is in the sink, I get to work. That hypnagogic state still opens creative doors only now language, ideas, characters keep me awake at night as I remain stuck on sleep’s threshold.

Since I can’t spend hours at the computer, I do spend time letting material percolate. The unconscious gets to work when I’m doing what I enjoy doing anyway: walking, driving, pampering the cat, doing behavioral observations for the research department at the zoo, or hiking– alone, so there’s no conversation except what’s going on in my head. Working in theater also gets me out of the apartment. My one-act play, Pulga de Dios (Spanish version of God’s Flea) will premiere Friday evening as a Grupo Ta’Yer project at Rubén Amavizca-Murúa’s Frida Kahlo Theater, in a double bill with Fernando Castro’s Blacaman.

Pulga de Dios and BLACAMAN Flyer 2.17.14
And as I’ve been a lazy blogger, let me catch up with a few comments here. Now that I’ve cancelled Time Warner (at last! hooray!), I have no TV and will spend more time reading. On paper, on the page, in BOOKS and not on a Kindle.

I’ll read hoping for more strange synchronicity. It was only after we returned from Belfast to our respective countries that Tania Cañas and I read Nor Meekly Serve My Time and learned that the IRA hunger strike was broken when families removed their sons and brothers to Musgrave Park Hospital–just steps away from where we and the ImaginAction team was housed. (For an account of our work, check the previous blog post called “Provocations.”)

So I was thinking a lot about how we go around often oblivious of the significance of places that hold profound meaning to those who know. In that state of mind, I read Teju Cole‘s novel, Open City, in which the narrator, of Nigerian and German descent, wanders New York City more aware of the forgotten history at every site and of history’s many atrocities than he is of his own story. The brothers in Boualem Sansal’s remarkable novel, The German Mujahid, are raised in Paris, of German (again!) and Algerian parentage. They also must confront hidden and not so hidden histories of genocide and violent intolerance. At the same time, I read (and looked at–since it’s as much a coffee table book as a book-length poem) Susan Suntree’s Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California. Her poem, too, changes the way we feel about the ground we take for granted beneath our feet, first by offering how Science tells the creation (and repeated cataclysmic destruction) story of this region and then how the story is told in the various traditions of California Indians.

Enough screen time!

Next Week: On February 24th, please get to know:

Laurie Cannady, Associate Professor of English at Lock Haven University. Her memoir, Have a Little Piece of Me, is forthcoming with Etruscan Press. It will be published Fall 2015.

(Have a Little Piece of Me is an important memoir by an extraordinary woman. It’s also a tribute to Laurie’s mother who did everything the way you’re supposed to, against all odds, and, instead of rewards, faced trouble after trouble. I was lucky enough to read much of this book while in-progress. For those of you familiar with Nathan McCall‘s classic, Makes Me Wanna Holler, about his evolution from confused and violent incarcerated youth to a respected journalist, be sure to get your hands on Laurie’s book. She grew up in the same neighborhood as McCall, but hers is the perspective of a young woman with good reason to fear the poverty, dehumanization, and misogyny he highlighted in his memoir. They have since met as fellow writers and he is a champion–as I am–of her work.)

She blogs at: http://lauriecann.wordpress.com

Giano Cromley was born in Billings, Montana. He’s the author of the novel, The Last Good Halloween, has been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times’ Hot Chicago Writer Blog, and his writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Literal Latte, and The Bygone Bureau, among others. He is a recipient of an Artists Fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council. He teaches English at Kennedy-King College and lives on Chicago’s South Side with his wife and two dogs.

(I met Giano one cold January in Chicago–is there any other kind?–because he married Naty, the roommate who kept me sane during one of my visits to Colombia. It was a delight to discover that he and I admired the same fiction and had more to talk about than was possible during my short stay. Last year, when he published The Last Good Halloween, I was excited to read it and to see Tortoise Books give it an enthusiastic launch. I found again we’re on the same wavelength. Giano’s insightful, often funny novel illuminates something I think about a lot: how a basically good kid can get himself into lots of trouble.)

Giano blogs at http://www.gianocromley.com/blog-that-g.html

Julia Stein‘s seventh book of poetry, What Were They Like? was published March 2013. She has edited two books of poetry: Every Day is an Act of Resistance: Selected Poems of Carol Tarlen by the brilliant S.F. poet Carol Tarlen who died in 2004, and Walking Through a River of Fire: 100 Years of Triangle Fire Poetry. She is the 2011 Joe Hill Poetry Award winner. She also has been a journalist, literary critic and has just finished a novel about the 1960s.

(What Were They Like? powerfully evokes the lives of people affected by the so-called War on Terror. Let me add that it was Julia who introduced me to Susan Suntree’s work. And besides being a strong progressive voice in poetry and a tireless advocate for the work of other writers, Julia has long been a champion of the rights of adjunct faculty, which includes her fight for what adjuncts sorely need and deserve–union membership.)

She blogs at http://californiawriter.blogspot.com/

Thanks for accompanying us this far. Now my eyes are crossed and I remember why I don’t want to do this!

Provocations – projects in Northern Ireland

February 11, 2014

Hello, all. For those of you still curious about what the hell I was doing in Northern Ireland in October with Hector Aristizabal’s ImaginAction project, here’s my account in Numero Cinq. With thanks, as always, to Doug Glover.

And here’s a happy moment in the North, hiking the Red Trail at Giant’s Causeway. Photo courtesy of Evanne Nowak.

photo of Diane by Evanne Nowak

Midge Raymond interviews me for Among Animals

February 4, 2014

My story, “Alas, Falada!” is reprinted in this anthology about the connections between human and other animals. Here’s the link to the brief Q&A.

amonganimals_250


And, incidentally, Midge Raymond‘s story about a penguin researcher in Antarctica is stunning.

Interview by The Creative Atheist

December 1, 2013

Oh, my. Seems like I’m all over the blogosphere this morning. I just posted my essay in Connotation Press, and here’s Susan K. Perry interviewing me about The Fiery Alphabet. And coincidentally, in the interview I mention an essay about the juvenile in/justice system that Connotation Press published a few years ago.

Without Exoneration

December 1, 2013

Thank you, Robert Clark Young and Connotation Press for publishing this essay about my personal experiences over the years with people incarcerated in America. (This was written before my trip to Northern Ireland and the chance to work in the prisons there.) If you’re interested, read it here.

Panel Discussion on The Point for The Young Turks Network

November 23, 2013

On Wednesday, I joined Ana Kasparian, Priscilla Ocen, and Jody David Armour to talk about incarceration, the sterilization of women in CA prisons, George Zimmerman, and Walmart. I only regret that though I got to mention the school-to-prison pipeline, there wasn’t time enough in the segment to talk about what’s happening now in LA to try to disrupt it. (You can find previous posts here if you’re interested. Here’s a couple of recent posts: Better Outcomes for Juveniles–Maybe. and Restorative Justice in LA Schools.).

Here’s the link for the show.

The Fiery Alphabet in Numero Cinq

November 10, 2013

Thank you, Douglas Glover, for publishing this write-up and excerpt.


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