by Miguel Garcia
photo courtesy of Gloria Sandoval
Gloria Sandoval, 66, just retired from being a high school counselor in Merced, but her work towards a more just society for all doesn’t have an expiration date. Sandoval is an activist and advocate. She has run for city council, and though she narrowly missed a seat she is a constant fixture at local demonstrations.
A strong voice against the harmful effects of poverty, Sandoval identifies homelessness as a key issue in Merced. The 2014 Merced County Homeless Count and Survey found 768 homeless individuals in our county. Sandoval insists that humanizing the homeless rather than ostracizing them is a key step in bringing them back into the fold of society, but local actions and policies ignore this.
We’Ced spent an afternoon interviewing Sandoval about her thoughts on homelessness and poverty in our area. She believes that as citizens, it is our duty to look at the economic policies that have put people in these situations in order to find a real solution.
How long have you been working to help the homeless and what inspired you to do so?
I’ve always been involved in the issue of poverty. I feel that I came from a very low income family and it was difficult to make it. So I feel that I’ve been involved with it all my life. My recent interest in homelessness is that I keep hearing that it’s increasing more and more. I’m trying to find out why [it’s increasing] and why it hasn’t been resolved.
What type of work have you engaged in to help the homeless?
My interest is finding out what resources are available because I know that there’s millions of dollars that come into the county. About 15 or 20 years ago, I participated in a Affordable Housing Task Force with the city of Merced. There were people there with real estate interests, with construction interests, and a couple of us were from the perspective of community involvement. It was sad that it was dissolved. I think that if it had been continued there would not be as many homeless now.
Is there a stigma that makes people feel that the homeless are to blame?
It’s awful to say it this way, but I think animals are treated better than some human beings. They’re treated with disgust and it has to do with a person’s suspicion of someone, like fear of being assaulted. But I think the other kind of fear I’ve been hearing of recently, and this is from the downtown merchants, is that they’re losing business because of these people that sit around. They’re all scraggly, dirty, and are not kept up. If they don’t have a place to go and shower and clean up, why would someone pass judgement on someone like that? They are human beings.
I’ve heard a phrase you and others use repeatedly: “One paycheck away from being homeless”. What does that mean?
That means that there’s a lot of people that are very vulnerable to losing their jobs. Right now, I’ve seen in my lifetime and I’m 66 years old, there’s been a slow transformation of using robotics and automated machinery. I go back to the days when every box and can in the store had a price on it and somebody had to put that little sticker on it. Even in Food4less, you bag your own groceries but at Raley’s you see people still bagging groceries and they’re paid individuals. So it’s a slow conversion that is happening everywhere. My point is that jobs that used to exist no longer exist. I’ve read reports that say we’re just at the beginning. Across United States we lost like 5 million jobs and they’re always saying “Oh, this unemployment has really improved” and it’s because people aren’t registering for the unemployment office anymore. They’re tired and they can’t find anything. Sometimes they try to figure out how to make a living on their own.
According to National Estimates of Homeless People, about 610,042 people were homeless on any single night (in January 2013) in the U.S. What comes to mind when you hear statistics such as these?
You know, I really think it’s more than that, because it depends on what definition you use. Sometimes, people don’t consider themselves homeless when their kids are living with an aunt and you’re living somewhere else. They don’t call themselves homeless but they are homeless. So it depends on what it is – I think the statistics should count people that can’t afford to be living on their own, to afford being with their kids. I think it’s a greater problem than that figure. I’m more interested in the issue of homeless – not to manage the homeless, but to abolish homelessness. I’m not talking about sweeping it under the rug. I’m talking about questioning why this isn’t a priority.
What resources are available in Merced and are they easily accessible?
It’s hard without having outreach efforts. I know that there are some programs such as Sierra Saving Grace – they have money to maybe house some people and help them get better. It’s a temporary thing and they have to meet deadlines in order to assist people. We do need different kinds of programs that provide different services such as addiction services and counseling, and job searching. But there really isn’t enough. I wanted to mention that there is this Loaves and Fishes program at Friendship Park in Sacramento where day services are offered. We should try to do something similar in Merced. It’s a park where people are free to rest and shower. It helps get services connected up to you. People can get a meal. I do think the Sacramento model is excellent. They receive no government funding and it’s all based on donations from churches.
A new study from the UC Berkeley School of Law analyzed California laws and concluded that more policies are being made to criminalize the homeless than give them services. Here in Merced, the homeless have been removed from encampments and parks in the past. Is Merced County is also guilty in making anti-vagrant laws?
I’m very familiar with that. In fact, Oregon and Colorado have had similar laws and I think nationwide you see that the “solution” of some of our elected officials and law enforcement is to fine people. That is actually a higher cost for the public because if they do it again they are put in jail and that is more expensive. So, we actually went to Sacramento for the hearing for the Right to Rest Act which was presented by Senator Carol Liu from Southern California. There were perhaps four different proposals to stop the criminalization of the homeless but eleven people on that committee decided that they couldn’t vote on it. It’s obvious that all these new ordinances and vagrancy laws are criminalizing people and yet our elected officials couldn’t see that. That is because they also have prejudices against homeless people or don’t understand the urgency of it. More than a hundred people lined up in support but only maybe six spoke against it. Yet, you could see who they were representing and it was those who thought this wasn’t a good law because it would restrict law enforcement from doing what they need to do. That is really disgusting to me. And our local senator, Anthony Canella, was there. So was, Galgiani, who used to be our Senator here. I don’t have a lot of faith in our politicians because they usually represent the moneyed people, not the poor people. I think the homeless have an opportunity to be heard and maybe this bill can be a way their issues will be represented. We need to find ways to prove to people that we care about them. They’re still human beings.