Open Trench
What Could Go Wrong / by Bob Andrews / March, 2017

The meals immediately got a good reputation among local junior college students who, although not exactly destitute, easily grasped the “free” concept.

Let’s start with a true story about one small California town’s attempt to provide a free weekly meal for needy persons in its community.  Although this was a private non-governmental program, it has lessons for governmental efforts “to help.”

The plan was simple: provide a free Wednesday night meal for up to 200 needy persons, using donated food and labor. On a rotating basis, the duties of menu creation, food sourcing, food prep, food serving, set-up and clean-up were handled by service clubs, churches and other private volunteers.

However, the plan didn’t proceed exactly as expected. The meals immediately got a good reputation among local junior college students who, although not exactly destitute, easily grasped the “free” concept.  Student diners overwhelmed the meals, sometimes challenging the supply of food.

Further, there was no control on how long diners could sit at the limited number of tables‑think of Internet users at Starbucks‑and nothing to keep early diners from lining up for more food, thus dominating both seating and food supplies.

Desserts were another challenge. Organizers thought they could put out desserts on separate plates for diners to pick up, one each. But almost immediately some diners picked up multiple desserts saying, “I’m getting these for our table.”  Other diners would pick through desserts, looking for a somewhat larger piece or pieces.

Main course food was served by volunteers who attempted to put the same amount and combination of foods on each plate, but diners immediately requested changes. They wanted more meat or no meat, more potatoes or no potatoes, more vegetables or no vegetables and so on. Some diners wanted a larger serving of food “to go, ”or two servings to go for their “roommates who can’t get here due to class schedules.”

Some people complained about the selection of foods, and about the temperature at which foods were served, and about disposable versus non-disposable dishes and eating utensils, and about whether enough was being done to get the meals to homeless persons, and about whether the volunteer in charge of the project had too much authority, and about whether the project needed “more community input”, and about what was done with unused food.

I thought of all this while reading today of one person’s suggestion that Sonoma County use hundreds of horse barns at the fairgrounds as housing for the homeless. As one reader wrote in The Press Democrat, “The county or city could place portable toilets and a dumpster nearby.   Have a person designated to monitor the situation and help the homeless keep it clean.”

As I read those words a question kept ringing in my mind:  What could go wrong? I began a mental list.

No heat. No light. No ventilation with the doors closed. Health Department rules. How to sanitize areas used by horses since 1935.  Hanta virus. The propensity to use candles, or have open fires. Having both inside and outside locks on the stalls. The modest cost of adding fire sprinklers and smoke alarms. Adding showers and clothes washing facilities.  Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Politely asking everyone to move out when horses arrive for the fair racing season. Massive liability issues. Food? What could go wrong?

All I know for sure is the county will have no trouble filling the position of “monitor” for the Horse Stall Homeless Project.  Of course, the county will need to offer “competitive” pay and benefits “to attract qualified candidates.” I’m thinking a base pay of $185,000, full family medical coverage (costing $32,000 annually), pension contributions ($41,000 annually), 15 paid holidays, four weeks paid vacation, two weeks paid sick leave,  a county car and a county golf cart (both electric), and a health club membership for “hot yoga” or Tai Chi.

We’ll need a similarly well-paid and well-benefitted assistant, of course, “to maintain coverage” during vacations, holidays and sick time.

And finally, we’ll need a large committee, headed by the logical choice from county supervisors, to determine which homeless people are eligible to enter the Horse Stall Homeless Project.   The committee will consist of progressive union members, progressive homeless advocates, progressive lawyers (to deal with liability issues), and progressive members of the public-at-large.

What could go wrong?

Bob Andrews is a native Santa Rosan and a graduate of Santa Rosa High School, Stanford University, and Stanford Law School. He was a trust officer at Exchange Bank and then a long-time co-owner of a retirement plan administration firm. He lives in Santa Rosa with his wife, Karin, and more than a few bottles of wine.