Coming from the desert of Las Vegas, the ocean and mountains of Pismo Beach were a welcome change. Pismo is a wealthy community nestled in the coastal mountains outside of Big Sur, California. The town is characterized by both the surfer community and the retirement community, a strange juxtaposition. Most of the houses are large with perfectly manicured lawns. It is not a place you would envision the homeless. This pursuit of a perfect, almost Stepford-like city creates a strange and detrimental attitude toward the poor and homeless which we discovered through volunteering at the Community Action Partnership.
Our communication with the Community Action Partnership (CAP) was tumultuous at best. We never received any confirmation of our volunteer time, but we showed up at the main office in a nice residential neighborhood at 9:00 am nonetheless. We were warmly received, but told to go to their other site where the clients are served breakfast. We hopped back in the car and drove fifteen miles or so to the outskirts of town. We got out of the car and immediately noticed a horrible, rancid smell. We wondered at the cause. We also noticed the dilapidated building the CAP was working out of. It appeared to be a converted old house. There were clients milling around, either eating or chatting with friends. We went inside to a surprised coordinator. She was never told we were coming. She seemed hesitant to allow us to serve. Sensing her restraint, we asked if we could just ask her a few questions about what she does and the CAP.
We went out to the parking lot to discuss her organization. The CAP serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 70-200 homeless individuals every day. They provide mental health screenings and counseling once or twice per week, healthcare and dental once or twice per month, and case management services. The clients can eat, do their laundry, and have a safe place to spend their time at the center. They also have a shelter, but it is three miles away from the day center. Clients have to walk to meals if they sleep at the shelter. When asked about where their funding comes from, she responded, “We’re broke.” In a city characterized by wealth, one of the only organizations serving the homeless is in dire need of funding. She opened up to us and explained how difficult it is to provide what they want to their clients without the support of the community, both financially and otherwise. The community pushes back against the homeless, perpetuating stigma and stereotypes. The smell at the center was the sewer. The CAP was placed literally next door to the town sewer. We felt a deep sadness that the homeless were marginalized to the same place as the city waste.
After our conversation, the CAP coordinator felt confidence letting us interact with and serve clients. We served breakfast to the last wave of people coming in that morning. We spoke with people of all ages and backgrounds. There were young 20-somethings living out of their backpacks and cars. There were older single men who have lived on the street for years. There were families with young children who had never been homeless before. Everyone was very polite and grateful to us for serving.
Our main take-away from our experience in Pismo was the importance of community support for the homeless and organizations serving them. The difference from the “food bank, Vegas style” to “oh, that smell is the sewer” was shocking. The Community Action Partnership was not the well-oiled ship we have previously seen in Greely or Vegas, but it is fighting an uphill battle against poor funding and lack of support.