From Vallejo: Deep Interdependence

Tiny - Posted on 29 March 2012

March 29, 2012

Image: Plans for the Vallejo waterfront

At the worst time of Chris Bennett's life, he “just needed the right medication and someone to make [him] feel like a human being.” At that moment he was houseless in Vallejo, recently released from nearly thirteen years in the criminal punishment system, addicted to methamphetamine, and torn apart as a survivor of police abuse and childhood abuse. He had been sleeping in a friend's storage facility, working to find income. He says his parents would “feed me under the garage door like a dog.” Going through an ordeal like that was the worst time of his parents' lives, too—wanting to help their emotional and volatile son, but not able to work through all the layers of systemic problems just by themselves. In Vallejo, it seemed like there wasn't anywhere for Chris to get in safe relationships: with friends, family, state health institutions...

Now, over a decade later, Chris does have people in his life that make him feel like a human being: his wife and kids. Chris' wife Sue, with unstoppable determination and wisdom, helped Chris get back on his feet and raise their family together. “He was self-medicating. He didn't know what was wrong and he didn't know how to get help. So we needed to find different things that could help ourselves,” says Sue.

He, like a lot of other folks without access to reliable mental health resources, had suffered a lifetime of being blamed for the strong emotions he felt, teachers calling him too crazy or too unstable to function, a lifetime of limited options for understanding his strong emotions. Without support, he floundered in school and at home, becoming a survivor of neuro-normative oppression and trauma. So he worked on the street, creating underground economic strategies to support himself, but getting criminalized for doing what he needed to do to survive.

The City of Vallejo not only lacks basic resources for poor and houseless folks, but also keeps the cycle of trauma active by regularly bulldozing houseless camps, illegally sorting through people's tents and carts, throwing their stuff on the ground, and actively seeking to criminalize and incarcerate people in the name of "cleaning up the waterfront." Meanwhile, there is only a single temporary housing facility in Vallejo: a hundred beds administered by a private Christian organization with strict rules. People who choose to sleep there must also cook and clean, attend various meetings, wake up by a certain time, and be back in the facility by curfew. In addition, folks are not allowed to bring in animals, many of whom are the closest family people have. People are often deterred from staying there for that reason.

Now that Chris and Sue have figured out a mental health plan that works for them and their kids, they are working to help other people who experience houselessness in Vallejo. Doing something about the cyclical and systemic abuse of poor people with emotional or mental “irregularities” has become Chris' life mission. Out of a house inherited from Sue's parents, they have built a vast operation to respond to requests from folks living in houseless camps by the waterfront and other parts of town. Their efforts are amazing: healing, humanizing, and fierce.

When Chris was locked up, “I wanted to help troubled teens,” Chris recalls. “But it's a lot bigger than that.” After being released from prison eighteen months ago, when he had been clean for four months, he was driving down the street and noticed all the houseless people down by the water. “I started walking to the camps, talking to people, a lot of them I knew from when I was homeless. I wanted to start making them meals, especially when it was cold and rainy.”

When he did start cooking, Chris says “the way it made me feel in my heart” kept him going. “Cause in my past, I was a very violent addict. Of course my medication helps a lot, but [this work] has opened my heart up and I think I am a better father and husband, and it makes you realize how lucky we are.” Sue and his daughter Kelsey started helping, too. The family agreed to cut back on expenses and use some of the disability benefits that Chris gets so they could take food and other necessities to people living in the camp.

Now they buy or collect donations of necessities from the community, enough to bring everyone two meals a day, seven days a week. “I can do a lot with pinto beans,” jokes Chris.

In their visit to POOR Magazine's Community Newsroom, Chris and Sue reiterated that it's about making human connection and poor people claiming our humanity for ourselves. “These are people, and sometimes they just need an extra hand,” observes Chris. They need basic stuff like socks, shoes, feminine hygiene products, hand sanitizer, and tooth paste. It makes a difference, to afffirm that people's bodies still matter—their survival and health still matter.

Chris and Sue want to take their food and supply donation further—to challenge the po'lice abuse of houseless people in Vallejo, and to push the City to provide better health resources for those who can't afford them. Chris asserts that the abuse (the bulldozing, the tent searches) “is illegal and it's bullshit. It needs to go public so it can be stopped.” It's especially unjust and irresponsible of the city “to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on beautifying the waterfront with palm trees, but we can't do nothing for the homeless?”

An understanding of how the system abuses houseless people and addicts, makes them feel like their bodies are not worthy of care and keeps them houseless on the margins of survival, drives Chris to share the blessings that have met him lately in life—the support and interdependence of Sue and his kids, as well as the house they inherited. At it's heart, this project is about sharing resources as an act of reasserting and celebrating our collective right to survive. If they hadn't inherited the house, they “wouldn't have the finances to do what we do today. Something so horrendous like a death in the family has turned out to be a godsend to so many other people...Life has blessed me in so many ways, and that's why I say this is my calling. I got shot four different times, and did thirteen years in the state penitentiary, and survived. Because all along I've had a higher power that has me doing what I'm doing today.” Chris brings the beautiful interdependence that his family has shown him, back to the houseless community he is still connected to, even after finding stable housing.

Chris and Sue are looking for support to get the city to provide physical and mental health resources for poor and houseless people. They need basic advice and information about how to get this project going. They will also accept supplies to be used by houseless people in Vallejo. Call this number for questions about donations: (707) 384-1399.

"It makes a difference, to confirm that people's bodies still matter—their survival and health still matter."

I'm really grateful for this article. The Bennetts' are inspiring!

I too am grateful for this article - it's a great mission and really great cause. Real people WILL make the mission come to life, but not Bennett. A lot of folks in Vallejo know Bennett, he's not what he wants you to think. Most of what he says is just for attention and makes your cause look bad. Bennett never did 13 years in jail, he's surely never been shot and his parents never fed him like a dog under the garage door! I sure hope they don't see this article!!
I hate to see you loose momentum cuz of this guy... Just sayin


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