By David Thomas
One on One with California Homeless Activist Adrienne Mei Hwa O'Reilly
1. How long have you been an activist in California and what got you started?
I've been volunteering with California's homeless community since I moved to the state in early 2020. I was first inspired to begin working with our homeless neighbors in 2017, when I was living in Texas and had moved to an area surrounded by homeless neighbors suffering with heroin addiction. People were dying of overdoses and exposure literally right in front of my fancy new apartment building, and the inequity of that situation drove me to begin volunteer case management.
2. How bad is homelessness in California?
Homelessness in California is at a devastatingly all-time high, in part due to pandemic-related restrictions and increase in mental health issues, including substance abuse. In addition to a pandemic and inflation-related mass exodus of California residents from the state, we see a heart-breaking increase of California residents who can't change states go from housed to unhoused literally right in front of us, on our streets in our neighborhoods.
3. Are people leaving California because of it?
Absolutely. I personally know many individuals who were fed up with seeing the increase of homelessness and related crime in what once were their high-end, safe, beautiful neighborhoods. Couple that with the ludicrous rent/mortgages and taxes California residents must pay for the privilege of living in these crime-ridden areas, and it contributes to the daily departure of Californians to other states and better ways of life. In what used to be beautiful, peaceful areas of Los Angeles, and outside of the outreach work I do, just in my daily life in my neighborhood, I have seen people urinating in the middle of the road, known individuals who died of heroin overdoses on the sidewalk one street away from my home, and have experienced a notable increase in confrontational occurrences in just a mere matter of months. I worked with a homeless neighbor suffering with heroin addiction in my neighborhood whose wife had recently been kidnapped a few blocks away and sold into sex trade. The fact children live in this area with me, this area we are trying to call home, and are exposed to the same amount of nudity, violence, drug use, drug paraphernalia littering, and confrontations I experience in my neighborhood keeps me up at night. We must find a way to reduce homelessness-related crime while addressing the needs of our homeless neighbors, helping them transition to alternate lifestyles while simultaneously addressing the root causes of both homelessness and crimes committed by our homeless neighbors.
4. How is the government trying to respond?
The government is responding with mainly unhelpful measures such as decriminalizing certain types of theft and creating flashy community housing that has long wait lists despite having stringent acceptance criteria that many of our homeless neighbors can’t meet without first receiving other types of assistance. For example, many community housing units do not allow drug use or drug trade on-site, which creates a helpful and safe environment for those who are not drug users, but does not accommodate current drug users who are trying to overcome their addiction. It is extremely hard for those individuals to find housing, and so then they’re faced with attempting to overcome their substance abuse issues while still living on the streets in extremely difficult physical and mental conditions, not to mention while still typically surrounded by the drug users and dealers they had once cohabitated and used with. These new housing units make for great photo opportunities for our politicians and community leaders, but what we need for them to be focusing on is enabling more privately-funded needle exchange programs, public transportation to places like methadone and suboxone clinics, community drug rehabilitation housing (for neighbors who can/want to overcome their addiction by themselves), formal drug rehabilitation centers (for those who want/need to overcome their addiction with medical intervention and other therapeutic services provided by professionals), encouraging more individuals to become social workers, psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists, and promoting and engaging in volunteer case management.
5. Five years from now what do you think California will be like?
Chaos. If we don’t take steps to mitigate the rapid decay of American culture we’re experiencing, by valuing traits such as mindfulness and compassion, we’re going to continue to see an exponential increase of selfishness, excessive consumerism and corresponding waste, divisive thinking such as racism and elitism, and irresponsible fiscal decisions. If we don’t take care of our own minds and our communities and shared culture, we will continue to see an increase in mental health issues including substance abuse, and an increase in neighbors choosing or being forced to experience homelessness. If we don’t decrease selfishness and increase compassion, and continue to make addressing homelessness “somebody else’s problem”, or relying on our government to take care of the issue, we will never find a lasting solution. We as a community are all part of the problem, and so we must all be part of the solution.
6. What do you do as an activist to stay grounded?
I meditate and study Buddhism daily. In order to spread and promote peace, we must first be peace ourselves. This can be accomplished in many ways, such as practicing gratitude daily, and realizing we were born with infinite stores of compassion and altruism.