New info on homelessness in Benicia

[Editor – Did you know that in Benicia “ten homeless individuals live on the streets and…between fifty and seventy women and men live in cars or hotels, couch surf on a friend’s sofa, camp in someone’s garage, or shelter in a storage unit.”  Read on….  – R.S.]

VOICE OF THE VILLAGE – Oh, what I learned last week!

The Benicia Herald, by Judie Donaldson, November 26, 2021

            Carquinez Village recently formed an “Over Ninety” group that Janice Magner leads in conversational exchanges. I heard that one question Janice posed to everyone recently was, “What is one thing you learned this week?” That sounded like fun, so I added it to my weekly routine. Thanks to Carquinez Village member Pat Plant, I sure didn’t have any trouble answering the question last week!

What did Pat have to do with my learning? She organized a program for the Heritage Presbyterian Church that was so interesting, compelling, and heartfelt that I went overboard taking notes. What was it that stimulated me? I bet you’ll be surprised. The program focused on Benicia’s homeless population and our police department’s relationship with it.

Were you also surprised that I used those three adjectives––interesting, compelling, and heartfelt–– to describe the program? I was surprised. I felt proud to be a citizen of Benicia as I listened, learned, and enriched my understanding of our police force’s response to our homeless population. I believe that we are all in this world together, and the better we understand one another, the better the world will be. So, I want to share a little of what I learned.

For starters, although I don’t have time to do justice to the topic of homelessness, I want to at least mention that it is typically a multi-faceted problem that stems from factors such as a lack of affordable housing, evictions, and foreclosures; unemployment and job loss; poverty and the high cost of living; and violence, drugs, and domestic abuse. Some believe homelessness is a failure of capitalism.

Last week’s program featured Police Officer Maricella Ticknor. What an impressive young woman (and young mother, by the way).  Maricella joined the Benicia police force four and one-half years ago and, along with serving as the police department’s School Resource Officer and assuming patrol duty as needed, Maricella is the Police Liaison Officer with Benicia’s homeless population.

Maricella spent the evening fielding questions that provided insight into the overall philosophy of our police force­­ as a team of officers responsible for keeping us safe, but also committed to assisting Benicians––including members of our homeless population––in whatever way they can. As Maricella described her work with our homeless, I reflected on our good fortune to have someone so empathetic and committed in this role. She spent the evening offering a kind of “Homelessness in Benicia 101” perspective.
When she joined the force, Maricella recalls that Benicia had a homeless population of three. She estimates that today it has skyrocketed to between sixty and seventy. COVID bears significant responsibility for this escalation. Many of our homeless grew up in Benicia. Approximately ninety percent suffer from some form of a mental health problem.

Maricella depicts Benicia’s homeless population as consisting of two categories. First, approximately ten homeless individuals live on the streets and reject any effort that entails going into a shelter. I am guessing they might be described as chronic homeless. It may be hard for us to understand, but shelters feel unsafe to them. (Stealing is a frequent problem.) Shelters also represent a situation in which their autonomy and agency are threatened. Maricella explained that there are dozens of revolving hidden encampments in and around Benicia where they reside. Out of respect to those living in encampments, she declined to identify their locations.

Second, between fifty and seventy women and men live in cars or hotels, couch surf on a friend’s sofa, camp in someone’s garage, or shelter in a storage unit. She considers them to be our biggest problem. Many are homeless because of a job loss, drug problem, poverty, housing eviction, or mental health condition. Most are in search of housing and seek to return to a stable life. Unfortunately, the lack of affordable housing is a significant barrier. Maricella pointed out that some of those in this situation have a car and shop in Safeway and other stores as an unrecognized part of our general population.

In her liaison role, Maricella builds relationships and trust with members of the homeless community. Her goal is to connect them to resources and place them in a housing situation. We have resources available through the county and the state.

A member of the Solano County Outreach office joins Maricella once each month, bringing with her the paperwork needed for individuals to apply for various benefits.  Maricella and the Outreach representative meet with as many of our homeless as possible and encourage and help those interested in completing applications.

Maricella works persistently to get our homeless individuals into shelters. There is a shelter in Fairfield that offers extensive resources once a homeless person is staying there. Benicia covers the cost of one bed in the shelter, but Maricella said she has never been turned down when she has requested space for several people on the same night.

I think of Maricella as the caretaker of Benicia’s most vulnerable population and, by supporting them, she serves all of us. So, what does all of this mean for you and me? Of course, I can only speak for myself. Every day I give thanks for my privilege. I never want to forget that there are those, including our homeless, who have been less fortunate. Let’s all hope their situations change and one day they, too, will be able to count themselves among the privileged. Wouldn’t that be great? After all, when each of us does better, we all benefit.