Sunday, September 17: We celebrate the Living Peace Wall and honor homeless advocate Susan Chunco
Last Saturday Alice Waco gave an introduction to Susan Chunco, one of the 4 honorees whose names were inscribed on Sebastopol's Peace Wall. Susan was nominated by the Peace and Justice Center Board of Directors who recognizes her lifelong service to the people of Sonoma County and her work with the un-housed. Susan was inducted along with Daniel Ellsberg, David Harris and Norm Solomon.
Here are excerpts from her introduction by Alice Waco and Susan's acceptance speeacH
I look at all those names on the Peace Wall realizing how moved I am by the people I have had the privilege to work with, side by side, in the Peace and Justice movement here in Sonoma County, and especially our very own Susan Chunco.
Susan's life speaks for itself. She has taken that care on her life’s journey, even her employment, and into many social justice endeavors by being an activist working for immigrants rights, working with the May first coalition, being a board member of the Peace and Justice Center, a National activist with the Green Party, and her most involved commitment with the homeless /the unhoused of Sonoma County.
She cares! And its …up close and personal
Susan as a young mother was unhoused once in Venice CA but not for a long time because a woman volunteer gave her the assistance she needed to get a job, find a place to live, and know her resources. Here in Sonoma Co we average 4,000 unhoused; think how many volunteers like Susan we might need.
She knows the homeless, the sites where they set up their tents, their names, and what they still need. She doesn’t live by the NIMBY values (NOT IN MY BACKYARD). Actually every once in a while you might see a homeless in her backyard/home. They know she cares.
She helped out at Camp Michela both at their site on Guerneville Rd and the legally accepted one behind the Dollar store on Sebastopol Rd. She never forgot them and when they moved onto the Rodoto Trail she would visit them there where she once again brought her heart and her wisdom to them. She remains their advocate wherever they land.
Susan is deeply humble and if you tried to get her to talk about her compassionate care mission, she wouldn’t tell you what she was doing but she would tell you what the county wasn’t doing and what the homeless needed. She’s brutally honest when it comes to justice for all. She was banned from Palms shelter and again from Rise and Shine shelter for speaking her truth. Susan credits her mother with the title of Rabble Rouser but I believe she has earned the title also. It doesn’t stop her from doing the work. It might even motivate her to step up more.
Let us honor Susan Chunco
Excerpts from Susan Chunco Speech at the Peace Wall
8 years ago, Carolyn Epple and Mikeal O’Toole asked for help in creating an encampment on a parking lot at the Sonoma County Water Agency in Santa Rosa, in response to the growing crisis of homelessness in Sonoma County. This encampment was named Camp Michela, after Michela Wooldridge, a homeless woman who was murdered while living on the streets.
Helping there, watching how the County and City used law enforcement to shuttle people around, how they didn’t help, but hindered, listening to the lies and outright contempt, quickly turned me into an activist and advocate. As Camp Michela was being created, the County, through the CDC, declared it a failure. They didn’t approve of encampments – only shelters were acceptable – so they did what they could to make sure it wouldn’t succeed.
Working at Camp Michela, which was forced to move to a spot behind the Dollar Tree in Roseland, taught me many things. Number one: Every unhoused person needs a psychiatric evaluation to find out what is needed to help them get off the streets. There is no one answer. There are unhoused people who do not want help. There are those who want a place to stay, but with no rules, and those who want rules. There are those who have no interest in ending their addictions and those who want help becoming clean. There are those who are clean and sober. There are those who have jobs that don’t pay enough. Many suffer from trauma, as the result of abuse. Most have landed on the streets for multiple reasons. It is my experience that all these groups should not be housed together. One group may hinder the progress of another.
At Camp Michela, there were people who cooked, others who washed the dishes, others who cleaned the camp and others who were part of a loose government. They were not treated like children, but like adults who had a role to play in improving their circumstances. It didn’t work perfectly. There were ups and downs, but it was better than the camps in which people are given everything and never required to give anything back.
The camp began to fail when Santa Rosa decided to sweep downtown and cop cars kept showing up and dumping homeless people at our door. The numbers became untenable. Encampments need to be small and personal.
The second thing I learned, and I can’t say it enough, is, “Services. Services. Services.” We all hear that there aren’t enough. In fact, they hardly exist and are actually decreasing. Case workers are rarely seen. Psychiatric help hardly exists. Drug rehab programs keep losing beds. Everything has been too little, too late. We can’t end this crisis without services. A country that can perpetually prepare for and wage war can pay for services, but the unhoused are considered expendable. Your elected representatives may not say that, but actions speak louder than words.
The third thing I learned is that we must listen to the homeless. They have things to explain to us. Most of us have not been homeless and are viewing this crisis from the outside. My daughter and I were homeless for 2 weeks many years ago and were rescued by a kind woman. I was lucky and didn’t become an expert on the subject. Camp Michela was a model – homeless advocates working together with the unhoused themselves, making decisions together. Not perfect, but better. And not just listening within an encampment, but listening at the city and county level and involving them in decisions. They are the real experts.
And a final thing I believe with all my heart is that no elderly or sick or disabled person should be living on the streets. Whenever I see an old woman with a walker, pulling her belongings behind her, I know that it is a sin that our government allows this.
Some of the people I met at Camp Michela have died. Several have stayed at my apartment for varying lengths of time. That was enough for me to learn that just housing is not enough. Some still stop by. Some are housed; some are employed; many are still struggling, mostly with addiction. Some are lifelong friends.
My very good friend, Ka’Lane Reposa is a success story. I met him at Camp Michela and he is now well-housed and continues to work uplifting others.
And what can you do?
First, don’t be a NIMBY. Many of us are closer to being on the streets than we know or would like to think. Those at the top of our inhumane economic system can end our comfort at any time.
Second, empower the homeless, don’t infantilize them. Most are capable of more than we or they believe. But learned helplessness is real.
Third, though it sometimes feels pointless, let your representatives know how you feel. Speak up for, not against, the unhoused.
Fourth, understand that homelessness is a human-created condition; not created by the people who are unhoused, but by those who place profit over people. We need working class solidarity, whether you consider yourself working class or not. We need to prevent homelessness in the first place.
No matter what, do something! Thank you.