Caring for the less fortunate, while at the same time building pools for the affluent, provides a striking contrast explains Matthew Batista Naylor. Serving the “houseless” people of Palm Springs, Calif., is a crusade for many concerned local citizens but it has also pitted Naylor and an organization known as “Well in the Desert” against local politicians who he says have demonstrated a stunning lack of compassion for those who need it most.
By Matthew Batista Naylor
“The measure of society is how it treats its weakest members.” – Thomas Jefferson
As a designer and builder of mostly high-end custom pools and backyard environments, I work closely with homeowners who enjoy lives of creature comfort and considerable means. I’ve seen first-hand what having money can do.
That experience is very different from my other consuming passion. For the past seven years, I’ve been heavily involved with an organization called Well in the Desert, a 501c3, non-profit dedicated to providing critical services to the homeless, which we refer to as “houseless.” It was founded back in 1996 by a devoted humanitarian and selfless leader, Dr. Wayne McKinney, who personally inspired me to become involved along with our current President Arlene Rosenthal.
In that setting, I’ve also seen what the absence of money, and resources of any kind, can do to someone’s life. It is a brutally stark comparison to say the least.
I’ve lived in Palm Springs, Calif. for more than 28 years, and work largely in the arid cities of the Coachella Valley, among other areas. For the most part, it’s a beautiful place but one where the temperatures are literally among the hottest in the world, and at times can be lethal.
That’s especially true if you’re houseless. Palm Springs has an estimated 250 people desperately trying to live on the streets. In the summer, most are exposed to temperatures that can exceed 120 degrees, and while that is a severe problem, beating the heat is only one part of the challenge, and their story.
The sad truth is more fortunate people don’t typically give the houseless much attention. It’s unsettling to see them living on the streets and many among us choose to look the other way. It can be hard to face the truth of their dire circumstances and there’s a tendency to simply lump them all together into one category. Nothing could further from the truth.
As the current vice-president of the organization, I’m in daily contact with the people we serve. As I’ve taken the time to get to know them and hear their stories, it’s become clear that like all people, they are not all the same, far from it. The houseless are an incredibly diverse segment of society with vastly different needs. There is no one-size-fits all solution.
We serve houseless families, including those with children, as well as seniors, veterans, and the disabled. There are people with severe mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction, and vocational disabilities. Some have criminal records, while many are estranged from, or are no longer in contact with family. Many have no one to turn to and no place to go.
A MENU OF CARING
Starting with the most essential needs, the Well provides nutritious lunch meals for approximately 200 (six days a week, plus sack lunches for evening and weekends) clothing, showers, water and a 24/7 cooling center, but that’s just the start. We also provide transportation to medical facilities and social-service appointments, one-way tickets home, resume writing assistance, phone and mail services, internet access among many other forms of assistance.
We also help people that are on the fringes of becoming houseless including the Well’s Saturday Food Bank that serves many including seniors.
According to Rosenthal: “People are homeless for many different reasons. Losing a job, then losing your home, then living in your car until it breaks down, then having nothing. You cannot even protect your children. The spiral starts and depression sets in. If you were someone never taking drugs or drinking, it is now something you might turn to blunt the pain. We are a group of many who offer compassion, hope and dignity to those who walk through our doors.”
While our organization strives to help everyone we can, we’re also realistic about the more severe problems some of the houseless will bring to the table. That’s why we maintain a strict code of conduct and will refuse service to people who pose a threat to others. The vast majority of people we work to assist are happy to comply. There is, however, an element of the houseless that are not part of the Well’s services that can disrupt areas of town with theft etc.
We have devoted volunteers who give selflessly of their time, some who themselves were once houseless and benefitted from the services we offer. We have garnered tremendous support from the local community and I have learned just how wonderful many people can be.
NOT ON BOARD
Unfortunately, we have also encountered tremendous resistance from the city council and particularly the mayor, Christy Holstege, and Mayor Pro-tem Lisa Middleton who have personally mounted a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the organization.
At this writing, the city council has unilaterally decided to not renew our facility’s conditional use permit, which in effect means that the organization that serves the houseless with itself become displaced. We are currently engaged with a fight for survival and are determined to prevail.
The source of the conflict is something of a mystery to many of us, because it makes no sense. With less than 300 people on streets, the resources needed to house and care for them is considerably less than the cost of the some of the public artworks that festoon our fair city.
This is by reputation a progressive city that espouses charitable and inclusive ideology, but when push comes to shove, the city leaders have decided to largely sweep the houseless challenge under the rug. We have been part of an ongoing series of painful public meetings and exchanges in the press.
It has, at times, become ugly and the proverbial gloves have come off. We have pointed out that the city has re-appropriated grants to benefit some of their wealthy constituents, committing what I believe is public fraud. Not surprising, we have run afoul of those who seek to conceal their malfeasance and violation of the public trust. These are the same exact “leaders” who should be instead work for the well-being of all our citizens, not just the fortunate ones who live in the nice houses.
We do receive support from a number of local churches and religious leaders in the area and many progressives, but even in this community, we’ve encountered a puzzling sense of detachment by many. In other words, there’s plenty of shared hypocrisy on this issue.
Back in June, the city officially announced it was cutting ties with us, a move that has hit us hard both financially and in terms of our local reputation, but it is our constituents who will be the most deeply affected. We have worked to affiliate with other similar organizations in other cities, many who are reporting that they too are running into local resistance to varying degrees.
Still, we are determined to keep our doors open, the cooling center/service center operating and lights on. As much as some of the powers that be are lined up against, this work is far too important to ever give up. Allowing this sanctuary to be vanquished is not an option. It might move locations, but will remain a voice for those that don’t have one.
Fact is, many people in our society simply do not want a center for the houseless anywhere near them, the “not in my backyard” syndrome. Of course, the brutal irony is that by denying disenfranchised people a safe place rest, bathe and nourishment, they are left to fend for themselves and might literally wind up in your backyard, or outside your place of business or on the sidewalk in front of your home, or sometimes in your swimming pool.
For my part, I hold the belief that all people, regardless of their station in society, should have a safe place to live, lay their head, food to eat, clothes to wear and medical care. It’s not so much a matter of ideology, but of basic human decency and dignity. More than any thing, Well in the Desert provides compassion and it will never run dry.
For more information about Well in the Desert, to make a donation or get involved, click here.
Matthew Batista Naylor is president and founder of Architectural Blue, a designer and builder of custom pools, spas, landscapes and other watershapes based in Palm Springs, Calif. He is also a professional musician/composer and an outspoken advocate for the houseless.