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Opinion: Loaves & Fishes’ new-park project is wildly expensive and serves little or no purpose

bignewpark2Libby Fernandez, Executive Director of the homeless-services non-profit Loaves & Fishes, has been making the rounds. Not to stir up donations for Thanksgiving and Christmastime meals and events – though those matters get discussed – but to put forward a big construction project: replacing L&F’s Friendship Park with a brand-spanking-new Park at a new location that is projected to cost a staggering $1.75 million.

Fernandez was a guest on two radio programs in the middle of last month – “Afternoon News with Kitty O’Neal” on KFBK and “Insight” hosted by Beth Kuyak on Capitol Public Radio. She also pitched the park project at an assembly in the River District, attended by citizens and officials of the area.

The function of a homeless-people’s Park
friendshippark - Opinion: Loaves & Fishes' new-park project is wildly expensive and serves little or no purpose
Friendship Park as seen from 12th Street.
Click to enlarge.

From my experience of three years utilizing Friendship Park, its function is very much primarily a place for homeless people to physically be, when being elsewhere in public subjects you to being harassed by business owners and police. Also, importantly, it is a place to be dry and near heaters or get cold water to stave off misery during extreme-weather months.  Too, it has bathrooms that can be unavailable elsewhere for homeless people, particularly so in the morning. And, it is a place (for men) to gain access to essential morning grooming services: a shower, a shave and a possible exchange of dirty clothes for clean ones.

Women, of course, have morning primping services made available for them, as well. For those who have lockers in the park, it’s a chance to get what documents and other things you need to get your day on. For many, it’s the first stop on the way to a job, important appointments or for other activities afar from the Loaves & Fishes Compound.

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For those who stay the morning at the Park, usually through until lunchtime, the Park is a place to socialize, have free cups of coffee and possibly some of the morning desserts that substitute for breakfast. Slightly stale whole pies and cakes can be made available that some homeless people will wolf down in one health-endangering quick feed. There are also likely to be card games; chess games; rigorous discussions and boisterous laughter. And, likely, somewhere, there are ne’er-do-wells planning things sly and scandalous.

Certainly, too, people fan out to other areas of Loaves & Fishes to read (in the library), get counseling, and attend meetings to overcome addictions or subdue anger or be empowered to meet life’s challenges. There are many services that a homeless person can hope to plug into to improve his/herself and to use to get his/her life operating on a higher plain. But contrary to the tenor of  Fernandez’s pitch for a new park, Loaves & Fishes’ Friendship Park serves primarily as a place to get a midday meal and for folksto organize their morning. In aggregate, homeless people are not in thrall of L&F’s Services, nor to they plot use of them all to make a quick escape to the Middle Class. Any replacement park would end up serving the same function as the current park. Homeless people’s needs determine its role.

Rationale of the need to replace the current park

In the two radio interviews, Fernandez’s primary talking point is that the new location will be more convenient for homeless and other poor people to use and would reduce distances they would typically traverse for services within Loaves & Fishes’ four-acre compound.

On the O’Neal show, Fernandez expressed this sentiment: “… by relocating [the park to] the interior of our property, [homeless people] can better access the dining room; our Wash House for showers for men; our library for our homeless guests; our mental health; our housing resources. It really will make it very very much consolidated and easy access for our guests.”

lfmappp - Opinion: Loaves & Fishes' new-park project is wildly expensive and serves little or no purpose
This is a crude map of the Loaves & Fishes Compound. The current Friendship Park is in RED where No. C Street abuts 12th. L&F services and others’ services are in ORANGE. The replacement park in in BLUE. We’re told the new park will be on one of the corners where Ahern intersects with No. C Street. [Click map to enlarge.]

Homeless people walk miles and miles to get to Loaves & Fishes, which is plenty compact already. The charity is fully the opposite of sprawling. Long distance walking (or rolling, for those in wheelchairs) within the compound has never come up as a problem point in my experience. Several of the localities of the services that Fernandez mentions are closest to the current park than the envisioned replacement park’s location on one of the corners of Ahern and North C Street. The dining room, showers and housing resources are nearer to the existent park. Other services which Fernandez too-conveniently fails to mention are in immediate proximity to the current park and wouldn’t be at the planned park: Clean & Sober; Women’s services; Women’s Empowerment; and the Mercy Clinic, to name a few.

All that happens, from homeless people’s perspective, is that the park gets moved about 70 yards from where it is now (mostly to the west of services), to where it is planned to be (mostly to the east of service providers). Fernandez’s it’s-so-much-more-convenient argument has heart-strings-tugging appeal, but no basis in fact. The only good effect for homeless folk is that a new park can be experienced that, we’re told, is a bit bigger than the current one Fernandez hopes to abandon. But if the new park is the stunningly barren big slab of concrete that her architect envisions, then it’s better as an open parking lot than a place anyone would want to visit. That would be a little $1.75 million parking lot, by the way.

Fernandez also insists the new park will make people safer. In the “Insight” interview she says, “We want to build a new private park for our homeless guests to be and access services. So they can actually go from the interior [of the L&F compound] to the dining room; to the library; to the housing office – instead of going around on 12th Street where it’s a very difficult and unsafe, along with traffic coming in on 12th Street.”

People now go from Friendship Park to the library and housing office most easily without the indirect route of walking along 12th Street. And the walk to the dining room doesn’t endanger anybody when folks walk twenty yards, at most, along a sidewalk. The route to the dining room can easily be changed if there is any real danger issue.

What is unsafe about 12th Street is the five-way intersection south of the underpass, to the southwest of the L&F Compound. The need for people to make their way through the intersection on foot won’t change one iota as a result of the intended relocation of the park. There are dangers from thoughtlessly daring homeless men darting across traffic on 12th Street, but that won’t change with a park relocation. And if 12th Street is to be walled off from the Loaves & Fishes area, it could merely serve to move some of the dangers to busy 16th Street.

In the interviews, Fernandez talks constantly about the services that Loaves & Fishes and nearby and affiliated organizations provide. Kudos to Beth Ruyak late in the “Insight” discussion when she says, “To clarify. It’s not an expansion of services, at this time.” Grudgingly, Fernandez admits the truth of Ruyak’s statement.

The Bottomline

Put starkly: The creation of a replacement park does nothing to improve homeless and other poor people’s experience at Loaves & Fishes nor does it do anything to improve their lives “down the road.” Fernandez’s project comes at an incredible high aggregate cost to donors. Paraphrasing Shakespeare: “It is a plan that is idiotic, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Potential donors to Loaves & Fishes’ knuckleheaded project would do the world more good by simply burning their currency in a fireplace.

The Expansion of Empire topic is one that should have been explored on the radio programs. Just a few years ago, Loaves & Fishes begged the unwitting public for money to build a warehouse to replace a perfectly situated and useful one that L&F rented from Mo Mohanna, directly across the mostly-just-foot-traffic street from the chow hall. But agreement on terms for continuation of the rental agreement couldn’t be found and arbitration, for whatever reason, wasn’t used to find a compromise. So, what the heck, donors’ money grows on trees, doesn’t it? So, Loaves & Fishes got much more money than it needed and built a high-tech warehouse with offices for top administrators with all kinds of groovy surveillance features. Also, from what I’m told, the warehouse is fit for keeping things dust free, which is far too fancy for just keeping foodstuffs refrigerated that L&F stores.

Kind Sacramentans: This time, keep your wallets in your trouser pockets and your purses closed.

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