Graze More, Give More

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Shaun Morrisey, Vice President of Advocacy and Community Engagement for Union Station Homeless Services,says that the key to resolving the growing crisis of unhoused people in our region and beyond is “authentic conversations.”

And what better opportunity to have authentic conversations than at the Seventh Annual Masters of Taste, our region’s premier outdoor luxury food and beverage festival? Taking place on Sunday, April 7, between 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM on the field of the iconic Rose Bowl Stadium, this year’s event will be hosted by Executive Chef Bret Thompson and “Pez Boss Lady” Lucy Thompson-Ramirez, who recently opened their new seafood-centric eatery, Pez Coastal Kitchen.

The Pez Coastal Kitchen, at the corner of North Raymond Avenue and Union  Street, is meaningful since  Union Station got its start (and its name) from the fact that the 501c(3)’s outreach began with “handing out egg-salad sandwiches on Union Street to unhoused gentlemen” a half-century ago, according to Amanda Green, Chief Operations Officer for Union Station. As has been the case for the past six consecutive years, all proceeds raised by the event will directly benefit the work of Union Station Homeless Services.

This year’s event is expected to draw 3,000 food and beverage enthusiasts, which will feature fancy fare from more than 100 culinary and mixology masters. It will include a 50-Yard Line Cocktail Bar and live music, drawing attendees from all over Los Angeles County and beyond. Each guest will receive a personal set of utensils and hand sanitizer to use during the event.

Attendance and scope of the festival continue to grow each year, matching the expansion of outreach offered by Union Station, which has now gone far beyond egg-salad sandwich distribution. Today, the nonprofit’s facilities include a women’s dorm, a family shelter, and services for seniors, including pandemic-triggered emergency food deliveries for individuals who are experiencing food insecurity and are not mobile.

Union Station is now recognized as the lead County agency for Service Planning Area (SPA3), coordinating homeless services in 38 communities from Eagle Rock to Pomona. The nonprofit reports a 97 percent success rate in providing permanent housing to previously unhoused individuals. Both Green and Morrissey attribute the agency’s success in large part to the “Housing First” model, which Morrissey distinguishes from the compliance model employed by many organizations attempting to tackle the crisis of millions of unhoused children, teens, women, families, veterans, and elders.

Morrissey shares that he arrived at Union Station in 2002 unhoused and struggling with what he characterizes as “chaotic substance use.” He describes the “Housing First” strategy as more effective than programs that insist on sobriety as a criterion for providing shelter; this is the case with many public facilities, and the policy effectively ejects some of the people who need services most desperately.

“People who have never been without a home, and perhaps have no direct experience with substance use and abuse, are baffled by what they see on the streets,” says Morrissey. “The conclusion they come to most often is that people are unhoused because of addiction and because of mental illness. Witnessing this devastation in our neighborhoods and possibly losses in our families and circles of friends triggers a tremendous amount of frustration, stigmatization, and moral outrage, and it is indeed painful to witness. But condemnation helps no one.”

“Housing First” programming emerged on the East Coast in the 1990s, based upon the reasoning that any human being will stand a better chance of gaining self-determination and well-being if they have a roof overhead, a clean, safe, dry, warm bed, and access to a bathroom as a place to start. For individuals who enter Union Station, the successful application of these principles confirms that the comprehensive support services and treatments that follow, including medical and mental healthcare, education and employment opportunities, are more effective than requiring that an unhoused individual resolve all problems before being housed.

Morrissey describes the programs as “low barrier,” allowing the Union Station team to “meet people where they are.”  “Harm reduction” is the term used to describe Union Station’s approach to substance use, which may not be defined as complete abstinence from a given substance. This specific point gets lots of people riled and may result in “compassion fatigue.”

Morrissey cites the brilliant work of neurologist Dr. Gabor Mate, who traces addiction back to the pain caused by trauma of all kinds.  The “A.C.E”  test, standing for Adverse Childhood Experiences, may offer insight by asking a series of 10 questions about an individual’s early-life memories.  The A.C.E. template correlates many conditions, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, with the pervasive effects of childhood trauma.  

“Short of a hurricane Katrina-type natural disaster, the path to the streets is usually a bit more complex than a single mistake or twist of fate.”

Shaun Morrisey

“Trauma, pain, and stress are among the forces that lead to substance use, loss of employment, ruptured relationships, and loss of housing,” he says. “People on the street will tell you about the domino effect that put them there. Short of a hurricane Katrina-type natural disaster, the path to the streets is usually a bit more complex than a single mistake or twist of fate.” 

Quoting the work of Dr. Mate and others, he says, “Trauma literally infiltrates our body’s tissues. Neurologists talk about a reduction of volume in the hippocampus, and atrophy in this area of the brain may be observed in cases of schizophrenia, severe depression, and PTSD. Disruption of the hippocampus is also being studied as playing a role in Alzheimer’s disease, for instance.”

He adds, “Science is just beginning to document conclusively addiction as a kind of brain disorder, evidence of a dysregulated system. The long-term stress of living on the streets, surrounded by constant threats and danger, no sleep, exposure to the elements, poor nutrition and all the rest, contributes to elevated cortisol levels along with other glucocorticoids in the brain, sometimes making the atrophy process worse. This is why the rather punitive approach of denying housing and resources unless a person is clean and sober ultimately negates any real likelihood of successful recovery.”

Amanda Green explains that today, Los Angeles County-based funding streams, which once were available specifically for families experiencing homelessness, “…do not exist anymore.” Morrissey further adds that the “Housing First” model “…has recently taken a severe hit.”

“Still, we move forward,” says Morrissey, who has discussed the value of “Any Positive Change,” including incremental changes in condition, environment and thinking around drug use and misuse as part of Union Station’s “Changing the Narrative” podcast series. “Connection is the opposite of addiction,” he says, “and each day, we create more connections through authentic conversations and relationships.”

We feel flummoxed by the unrelenting reality of unhoused people on our streets. What should we do? What should we feel? The good news is this Sunday at the Rose Bowl, as you hoist that cool, frosty ale from a local craft brewery or nibble that delectable sweet from a community confectioner, you’re already part of the solution.

And, courtesy of Pez Coastal Kitchen owners Lucy-Ramirez Thompson and Chef Bret Thompson, here are two original recipes for you to whip up in your own kitchen this summer and share with family and friends.

Masters of Taste 2024 is a 21+ event. Tickets are available.

Union Station Homeless Services
825 E. Orange Grove Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91104

The short URL of this article is: https://localnewspasadena.com/tutz

Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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