Saturday, November 3, 2018

• Better Know a Local Non-Profit: The SWAG (Social Worker Action Group)

Have you heard of The SWAG? They are a group of people that are on the frontlines in Wildomar when it comes to addressing the impacts of homelessness in the community. 
The SWAG team, Summer 2018.

I sat down with Aaron (studied sociology at Cal Baptist university) and Adrian (substance abuse counselor for the last ten years) at The Bean and asked them to tell me about themselves and their mission. 

The other key members of the group include Monica (masters in social work), Kendra (licensed substance abuse counselor/eighteen years), David (bachelors in sociology) and Ricky (substance abuse counselor).
Group shot on location.

They worked in governmental homeless social services for many years before taking the step of creating a nonprofit to serve the people that are in need. 

My first question was...

 WR  How did The SWAG come about?
 SWAG  We worked in governmental homeless services and there are a lot of gaps [in what is needed]. So we all took the bold step [...] of doing this on our own, as a nonprofit, to serve the people that are in need. 

 WR  What are the types of homeless people that you encounter in this area?
 SWAG  If we're talking about those on the streets, definitely a high concentration are both mentally ill and addicted to a substance. There is a correlation to drug abuse and mental health because [...] to shed the basic self preservation skills we have, to not sleep outside in the rain and weather [...] you're at a level of depression, even if it's undiagnosed, you're severely depressed. That's the largest portion [of homeless people]. 
We are also dealing on a daily basis with families, seniors, people that are facing homelessness —at risk because of economic issues.
Wildomar Rap clarification time

This part of the conversation was far more detailed than the paragraph above. However, mention of the criminal element, those released from jail or prison early due to AB 109, Props 47 and 57, weren't brought up here.
In the field.
 WR  What is it that SWAG does on the ground level?
 SWAG  On the ground level it's relationship building. The people on the streets, generally speaking, they're not looking for help or they're so lost they don't even know how to begin finding that help. A lot of their interactions on the streets are negative interactions. Law enforcement, code enforcement, public works, business owners saying 'get off my property'. So much of their daily experience is negative they have their guard up [when we first approach]. 
We have a commitment to always be connected to the work and the work happens out there (referencing to a nearby encampment) not in some office.  —Aaron of The SWAG
 WR  How many are on the streets because they "missed a paycheck"?
 SWAG  (Adrian) Typically, someone who "missed a check", and that's it, their homeless episode will not last very long. Someone who "missed a check", who's had an ongoing check, they're used to working, used to making it work, that [still have the] survival instinct [...] might just need a leg up and connected to a short term program that's going to assist them getting on their feet.

(Aaron) We like this question, we talk about this a lot. That's a common misconception. We use that analogy [to illustrate the point]. If I were to lose my paycheck, there're safeguards with unemployment. Hopefully I was doing things right and I have some savings, or I have something I could sell. But even if all that was gone and I even lost my house [...] I still have a support system [...] we have some safeguards still in place.

Someone that's on the street has burned their bridges with friends and family. Rarely do you find someone who grew up an orphan that has nobody. It wasn't one decision that got them on the street, it's a process of bad decisions —relationships, mistakes, addiction. We like that question because it's not that "one flat tire away from being on the street'. 
Meeting the people where they "live".

 WR  What about people that want to give food to the homeless?
 SWAG   (Aaron)would never deny anybody food, but [suggest] let's go eat together —it's feeding with a purpose. I'm not going to tell you what to do (the homeless person), but I'm going to tell you that you're better than this. We're in the greatest country on Earth, everybody can, and should have a place to stay, let's help them find that.

(Adrian) I've watched people do feedings before, and groups that have gone and fed families and I've watched them, in the trunk of their car, carry the food that's wrapped in a foil lid. And I've watched them grab food with their hands. 

This isn't sanitary. There are [proper] temperatures for food for a reason. You're quite possibly putting someone else in a position where, if he doesn't have medical insurance or doesn't have a clinic available, to get sick and go back out to the cold streets.

Between April (2018) and October 31st- 152 individuals and 24 families off the streets in the area.
 WR  What's your experience between homeless, panhandlers and scammers?
 SWAG  Awhile back I worked for a lady that was Romanian and she let me know about the travelling Gypsies and I've never seen a family —a mother and children panhandling that were really homeless; they've been professionals. There are professional panhandlers, because it pays well. Again, I've never once met a family that was homeless who was panhandling.
The SWAG team, all smiles, in September 2018.
 WR  What authority does SWAG have? You work with the cities, you're not just a group of do gooders, how does that break down?
 SWAG  That's what makes us different. We're full time professionals. This is like our trade, and this is like our craft. There are a lot of well intentioned people who do [this work] part time, and that's good —we need that, we absolutely need that, we want to team up with them. But we also want to team up with government because they have [authority]. We want to continue to inform both government along with the [volunteer] citizen that feeds on Saturdays in the park, and everybody in between.

It's our mission to inform everybody, and be true and accurate with the data. So the cities we work with, we provide them monthly with demographics.

 WR  In the early going of The Swag has been the greatest challenges to overcome. Conversely, where have things gone smoother than expected?
 SWAG  I think one of the biggest challenges [as a nonprofit corporation] is bringing in money to pay qualified employees who are professionals. Funding for homeless services hasn't been traditionally through the cities. Big cities like Riverside or Los Angeles contribute, but all these other cities [increased homelessness] is brand new. It's kind of a new norm and having cities understand that this is something they need to help, because the county can't do it by themselves, and geographically we're a big county.

On the positive side, unexpectedly, cities are understanding. The wheels of government turn slow, we know that —it's hurry up and wait. On the flip side, things have moved quickly. The challenge and the benefit has been seeing cities on board with "helping" [homeless] versus just an enforcement [approach].
Working directly with those in need.

 WR  How do people donate time or money to The SWAG?
 SWAG  You can contact us through our website (link is below). You can reach out the anyone of us with our tollfree number​— 1 (833) SWAGORG • 1 (833) 792-4674.  We work with a lot of faith based organizations, community members. We look for people that are passionate about giving back; anybody who'd like to help. 
Wildomar Rap opinion time

What most of us remember as "homeless people" of the past has greatly changed in California over the last decade or so. Compassion for people in need is a good thing, but misplaced compassion can have the bring the opposite desired results.

If you want to help do not, repeat, DO NOT hand them money. You should assume that the money will be going directly to a drug habit... you might as well be handing them a dose of heroin (or whatever substance they prefer).

Instead, donate your money or time to a vetted organization, that is dealing with the homeless in a strategic way, that will minimize the attraction of more people to this area.

•                •                •

For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Wildomar Rap suggests that a close second to letting it rain when it's raining, is to use an umbrella or just stay inside from the get go.

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