Sound Off: Conversations on homelessness are difficult

By Vivian Rogers Decker

This newspaper was more kind than I deserved in the article a week ago Saturday. I appreciate that. I lost my composure, which is never a good way to encourage a conversation about a difficult topic, and there is no doubt that homelessness is hard to talk about.

Regretfully, I didn’t say then how much I appreciated Chief Kevin Dresker’s presentation on safety and trespass. Local governments are doing some great things to make our community a place where people want to be.

At SPIN Café we appreciate the positive interactions with police officers and new embedded mental health worker. This gives our guests, staff, volunteers and neighbors a greater sense of security, and helps with interactions between law enforcement and the homeless community.

I hope that all members of this beautiful island feel passionately about having a community where we feel safe and our children are safe. I want that just as much as the next person, so it was good to hear from Chief Dresker that, despite perceptions, Oak Harbor is one of the safest communities in Washington state.

Before, during and after the chamber conversation, one theme I heard repeatedly is fear; fear of being hurt, fear of rejection, fear of shame and fear of scarcity. History supports that, in most major tragedies created by humans, fear is the underlying cause. More often than not, it is fear that inhibits our ability to have a meaningful conversation about homelessness; because we either have been there, know someone who is there, or are afraid we may end up there. But if we can’t talk about the issues of poverty, addiction and homelessness in a civil and respectful manner, without pushing people out, then we are going to have a very hard time addressing it.

Another theme that emerged is the idea of denying services to people because they aren’t “from here.” This attitude, ironically, is rarely directed toward tourists, military and their families, potential employees and new business owners. Instead, it’s aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable among us. It would not be a stretch to say that the majority of the people in Oak Harbor are, or were, transient at some point. They stayed, in part, because they were appreciated and accepted. All people want to feel welcome, wanted, and have a sense of belonging.

A sense of belonging is a key factor in helping people overcome fear and adversity. People who feel connected are more likely to improve self-esteem, find meaningful work and make healthier choices. When we have positive meaningful relationships with caring people, we are less likely to feel lonely, develop mental illness, commit crimes or use illegal drugs. In fact, two meta-analyses from Brigham Young University reveal loneliness and social isolation may increase the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent, more than almost all other major health conditions.

For all of these reasons and more, connection is a core value underlying the creation of SPIN Café. At SPIN, we believe that offering people opportunities to connect to others and access important basic resources in a welcoming and beautiful environment, will result in healthy people with better quality of life. And, as a result, we will have a healthier, happier, more connected community.

What would it take to create a thriving community where everyone feels connected and has their needs met? I have some ideas about that and if collaborative partners want to get together and work to nurture a community that is inclusive, I will be there. It is exciting to think about how we can help people get connected to each other and create the resources to meet the needs here on Whidbey. But, it is inconceivable to me that our community could tell people they are unworthy of love and belonging. I care about this community, and have no doubt we can do better than that.

• Vivian Rogers Decker has lived on Whidbey Island for 29 years and currently resides in Coupeville. She works with disadvantaged populations through various nonprofits and in local school districts.

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