Good intentions meet political reality in MOC quest for shelters
by Peter Seidman
October 29, 2009
The Marin Organizing Committee Foundation Convention held earlier
this week signaled the formal presence of the community organizing
group and the work it already has accomplished. The convention also
presented a study in contrasts between aspirations and realities.
About 1,100 people packed the San Rafael High gym Oct. 25 to share
stories of their lives in the tradition of Saul Alinsky and the
Industrial Areas Foundation, which he founded in the 1930s. Alinsky
believed that by sharing experiences people who felt marginalized
could join forces even though their individual self-interests might
bump up against each other.
Finding the common ground was the goal. The method involved letting
people talk to each other about the issues that engaged them,
consumed them. Reaching into a community's institutions, like
religious congregations, to forge alliances around common challenges
could organize a community, Alinsky said. And encouraging people to
share their experiences can create a stronger social bond than having
aloof leaders dictate an agenda.
The Marin Organizing Committee (MOC) is a continuation of the Alinsky
tradition--but with some essential changes to meet modern reality.
The elements were in place during the convention earlier this week.
"Look around. This is a historic day," said Vicky Otto, pastoral
associate at St. Raphael's Catholic Church. "Why is this gathering so
important? We are here today over one thousand strong as evidence we
have awakened, and by being here we are publicly saying that we want
to be engaged in the civic life in our community."
An essential belief of the MOC and the Industrial Areas Foundation is
that citizens of a community must do more than simply cast ballots
every once in a while for a preferred candidate or two. The
responsibility of living in a democracy rests on the understanding of
how government works, how it's funded and what citizens can do to
effect change that benefits people who usually feel powerless.
And, of course, the stereotypical view of Marin obscures the reality
that social problems run deep in a county that on first glance would
seem an unlikely resting place for a process first started in Chicago
in the 1930s.
Alinsky was a true rabble-rouser. He believed in taking aggressive
action to advance a cause, and that reputation was a peg on which the
Republican Party has hung Barack Obama's hat. During the presidential
campaign, opponents intoned time and again the term "community
organizer" because Obama did spend some time organizing in Chicago.
But to say he was a true down-and-dirty community organizer is a
mischaracterization. Organizing is hard work spread out over years.
It was enough for the Republican spin machine to say "Chicago" and
The model of community organizing that Alinsky created was born in
the tumult of the 1930s. Although the MOC owes its philosophical
underpinnings to Alinsky, the organization is far removed from the
founder's aggressive and confrontational tactics. That doesn't mean,
however, that the MOC will be a pushover to the status quo.
"So now our work begins--the work of doing politics," said Rabbi
Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar, after stories were shared,
concerns expressed. "Are we willing to engage in building
relationships, researching issues, engaging our partners and elected
officials to work together for the common good? Getting a thousand
people in a room is not a small feat. But real politics requires our
ongoing commitment to each other, to investing our money and our time
in what matters, and to developing as citizens in the fullest sense
of the word."
Participants at the convention heard stories, real-life examples of
issues centering on affordable housing, healthcare, immigration, the
challenges teenagers face in Marin. Attempting to understand another
group's experiences is the road to change, according to the community
This model embedded in religious institutions lends itself to
rhetoric that has a glow of religious faith, a pentimento that people
schooled in traditional politics find difficult to grasp. The same
situation exists in trying to explain the bottom-up model of
The challenge of using an essentially faith-based intention to
achieve a political goal is playing out right now in San Rafael over
an issue the MOC first took on last year. It was around the holidays
in 2008, and Marin had no permanent emergency shelter for the
homeless (still doesn't). Homeward Bound, the county's largest
provider of support to the homeless was overburdened. People in
crisis needed a safe place to sleep for a night.
The MOC played a major role in working with the county to open an
emergency shelter at the National Guard Armory as a temporary
solution. When the Armory closed its shelter in February, the MOC,
with its partner congregations and nonprofit organizations, stepped
in and created a rotating emergency shelter for about the next six
weeks. Sixty people found safe places to sleep as congregations
shared the responsibility of providing space for them. From a central
location at St. Vincent de Paul in San Rafael, shuttles took the
guests to the congregations.
The rotating shelter plan served but a fraction of Marin's homeless.
A count of the homeless population during one day in January revealed
that 1,770 homeless individuals live in the county. Even with the
services of Homeward Bound and the emergency shelter, the need
overwhelmed the available services. (Add to that number, 3,028 people
the count classifies as precariously housed. And those numbers,
according to advocates for the homeless, vastly underestimate the
real nature of the situation.)
The rotating emergency offered a modicum of respite. Because it was
an emergency measure, the congregations that offered sleeping space
didn't enter the usual process to secure conditional use permits from
planning departments before opening their doors.
Later in the year, the county pledged $150,000 for another emergency
rotating shelter for this coming winter. A condition: Congregations
should secure necessary permits or waivers.
That presented a problem in San Rafael, which has adamantly
maintained that a rotating shelter within its limits needs a
conditional use permit. According to Chris Highland, director of the
emergency shelter program, up to 20 women a night will be provided
sleeping space in five San Rafael congregations. Between 30 and 35
men will find safe sleep at congregations outside of San Rafael. At
least that's the plan.
Other towns in which the rotating shelter system will run don't have
the stringent requirements that San Rafael is imposing. When
congregations went to San Rafael to begin the process of getting
clearance for the emergency shelter plan, they found that the city
wanted them to pay the usual fees associated with securing a permit.
The rhetoric of listening to stories and sharing experiences was
bumping up against political reality. But in the best tradition of
community organizing, the congregations, members of the MOC, received
a boost when the Marin Community Foundation agreed to contribute
$4,000 per congregation to cover costs associated with working the
case through the San Rafael Planning Department.
San Rafael sent letters to the congregations stating that the city's
zoning policy required use permits, and if the congregations wanted
to continue their shelter service this winter, they had to apply for
them. "It's harder this year because of the resistance from the
city," says Suzanne Walker, associate director at St. Vincent de
Paul. After the city sent the alert about the use-permit requirement,
Walker says, "We tried to play by the rules this year, and it's cumbersome."
Highland and advocates of the emergency shelter want to open Dec. 1.
But the city is requiring the congregations to follow standard
procedure, which includes notifying neighbors and holding
neighborhood meetings prior to going before the San Rafael Planning
Commission. That meeting is scheduled for Dec. 8, according to Ken
Nordhoff, San Rafael city manager.
Nordhoff says the city told the congregations in the summer that they
should begin their use-permit work as soon as possible. He also said
the city has waived permit fees and is trying to expedite the process
as much as possible. The $4,000 per congregation from the MCF will
pay for city expenses during the permit process. Any money left over
will be refunded.
A success for the MOC in San Rafael will come if the planning
commission gives the nod to a rotating shelter, and that's not
certain. Steve Boyer, director at St. Vincent de Paul, says that if
the roadblocks prove too tough in San Rafael, shelter organizers will
find alternate sites in other towns.
Nordhoff says the city and the shelter organizers are talking and
"hopefully we can work with the congregations to let them know what
needs to be done" to meet the city's zoning requirements, which call
for a conditional use permit for "overnight" stays in congregations.
The MOC and its congregations face a big challenge as they spread
into the community to advocate for the rotating shelter plan in San
Rafael. How the strategy of sharing stories and finding common ground
will play in neighborhood meetings is an open question. It will begin
to be answered the first week in November, when the outreach
requirement for the permits begins.
Convincing neighbors a rotating shelter will not ruin the
neighborhood isn't impossible. According to Boyer, when the rotating
shelter operated last winter, there were no complaints until after
newspaper stories described the program.
Highland says neighborhoods can rest easy. "It's only one night a
week [at a congregation for four months. We're busing people in, and
we have paid staff working with people on those sites. The guests
cannot leave during the night, and the staff have themselves
experienced homelessness. I think it's a good program and it runs
well." Fifteen congregations in Marin have pledged to offer space for
the emergency shelter program. In addition, other congregations will
provide meals and other contributions.
Meredith Parnell, director of communications at Congregation Rodef
Sholom, says the founding convention provided a stage for people to
share "very powerful stories, and stories that are not usually told."
Among those hearing the stories were Assemblyman Jared Huffman,
Supervisor Steve Kinsey and candidates running for the San Rafael
The convention presented "a hugely diverse group of people
representing Marin. It was celebratory," says Parnell. It also proved
that MOC has the juice to rally more than a thousand people, a
significant increase over the 600 who attended the organization's
last big meeting in May. That kind of public turnout doesn't go
unnoticed in political circles.
Unlike the raucous and disruptive Town Hall meetings staged by
Republicans during the summer over the issues of healthcare and
insurance coverage, the MOC meeting, while turning out a large group
in front of politicians, took a significantly different track.
No yelling. The politicians were invited to hear the stories. MOC
members hope the politicians will begin to commit themselves to an
agenda that recognizes their community organizing doctrine and goals.
But there was no browbeating.
"We can show politicians that here is an organization of motivated
citizens interested in leadership who can work to help them
understand issues and come up with solutions," says Parnell. "We are
very pragmatic. We are looking for winnable issues. We're not
interested in just protesting."
Call it Alinsky redux for the 21st century.
When the San Rafael Planning Commission hears the use-permit issue,
members of MOC will have a chance to see how well the rhetoric and
the community organizing strategy affects reality in Marin.