Monthly Archives: June 2012

Homeless in Paradise

There they were. Two women in their late 20’s walking down the ocean front street in front of my house. They were followed by 7 or 8 kids, some on foot, one on a bike and two riding tricycles. They were new to town. I waved.
“Good morning”, one of the women said. Their family had passed by our house many times before. The more vocal woman had an accent that suggested that they were probably from the Northeast part of the mainland. For certain, they weren’t from Hawaii, but the family seemed to fit into our culturally mixed neighborhood of transplants and locals.
There was a certain look in the adults eyes that peeked my interest. After working outreach with people experiencing homelessness in Albuquerque, I knew that troubled gaze well. Their eyes showed that controlled fear of survival mode, that contained panic in search of a safe place to sleep. A twinge of compassion warmed my heart as I looked at the struggling family.  Seeing the kids having fun gave me hope for them.
“Yep, those are the squatters. They took over that big two level house down there,” my neighbor said as she pointed to the dwelling two blocks away. “We tried to buy that house out of foreclosure, but the bank never got back to us. These women must be very experienced at squatting because they knew just when to move in. Who knows how long they will be there.” 
Many neighbors expressed fear and anger about people taking over a house that was not theirs. The broken system which favors unresponsive and uncooperative banks leaves plenty opportunity for people to squat in  foreclosed houses. My head was hot with agitation at the lack of respect of these mothers exploiting a loop hole. 
“This is unacceptable,” another neighbor said. “Who’s to stop them from robbing our houses if they seem so comfortable being in a house that’s not theirs? I know for a fact that they’re not renting because I had my real estate agent look into it.” His face got noticeably red.
Another neighbor also felt angry. “There are a lot of people who come here from the mainland. They save their money to come here, and then they live off the system…you know, shelters, food stamps… They have no intentions of getting a job. The newspaper said over 40% of homeless people in Hawaii are from the mainland,” the Hawaiian auntie said with a furrowed brow. Her family had been on this land for several generations, paid their taxes, and watched more and more people become homeless in paradise. 
It was a hot button issue for our neighborhood. Most people viewed anyone experiencing homelessness as a cheat, a drunk, or jobless loser. But after my work at First Nations Community Health Source in New Mexico, I knew that generalization did not hold up for most of the recently homeless. The people our team helped were more often single mothers escaping domestic violence or untreated Veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). A spike in the number of teenagers on the street escaping sexual abuse and broken families was alarming. Perhaps the most surprising demographic was how many people with Masters degrees we were finding in shelters and couch surfing at a friend’s house.  Hearing their stories face to face opened a wellspring of empathy in my chest.  I couldn’t shame them for surviving events that were often out of their control.  In many cases, choosing to be homeless got them out of more dangerous situations.
The instant shaming of the homeless was a quick response of any prideful American. But new circumstances have produced more homeless than ever before. The recent turn in the real estate market and dishonest banks has left piles of families on the street. Half of the homeless we saw actually worked at least one job, sometimes 2 jobs. At least a quarter of all homeless lost their jobs and pension to layoffs, while a CEO jumped ship with their multimillion dollar golden parachute. Doing Homeless Outreach showed me that the growing numbers of homeless citizens were not the stereotypical untreated schizophrenics and chronic alcoholics. These days, far too many families are suffering from the mistakes of Wall Street. 
But it still bothered me that these two women were essentially stealing a rental. It made our neighborhood feel unsafe. How dare they do this! Since they weren’t Native Hawaiian, their story was not connected to the painful history of this land. They weren’t the people sleeping on park benches or the friend who needed a couch to sleep on. Perhaps they were escaping abusive partners, but this did not excuse squatting.
My own judgments of these women began to surface. What were they teaching their kids?! What would happen to the kids if they were reported? Is the social and legal system equipped to handle this situation if these squatters have lived here for months already?
But for me, it really boiled down to one question. How do I protect my neighborhood, my home, yet still show compassion to these homeless children?
Categories: alcoholism, bailout, evicted, eviction, foreclosure, foreclosures, hawaii, homeless, native, ocean, outreach, squatters, wall street | 2 Comments

On the Road to Ojai, Ruach Nashim 2012

This week’s blog was written by a fellow Healer, Dina Bernat-Kunin, about her recent trip to gorgeous Ojai, California for a powerful and fun Women’s retreat.

The road to Ojai is very familiar to me. I call it freedom road. I usually avoid being the driver because I just hate driving. Being the passenger allows me to relish the relief I feel while traveling. But on this trip, I offered to drive a close friend to the Ruach Nashim women’s retreat up at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. My friend, Andrea, was in no condition to drive as she was experiencing the trauma of having to move out of her house almost immediately after her home was flooded. How ironic for her that the theme of this retreat was water. As I thought about water, images of the spray from the Banyas waterfall flooded my mind. As a Healer and an Ima, I am always working on cleansing and clearing, both physically and internally. 
I couldn’t wait anymore for my freedom! My anticipation built as I exited off of the 101 freeway to the 33. It would not be long from here. The flood of memories began. My husband and I have a history of coming up here for our getaways. Sometimes we’ve made it a family trip, but more often Ojai is our couple’s refuge.  I felt my heart beat with more excitement as we passed the Blue Iguana Inn. A big exhale pours out of me with a sigh. I was waiting for that exhale all day. “We’re free! We’re free!” I yell. Andrea’s understanding smile is happy for me, even though she was still recovering from a hectic week. I took another long breath, releasing the “Aaahhhh” of relief. For some reason, I was happy to be driving. Huh, new experiences were already happening. 
I did not grow up at this camp, but my kids have. They live for summer at Ramah. When they ride this road, they have a different flood of memories. Their Ojai freedom came from being a child in a place that they’ve always felt safe, independent and joyous. Don’t we all want that!
Andrea and Shawn had been encouraging me to come for quite a while. This women’s retreat has been going for 7 years. Family, finances, and work always presented obstacles to going. But a voice inside of me insisted on coming this year.
 As I sat in the introduction circle of 75 women of various ages, I noticed how busy my head had been. My brain was still working, still prioritizing other things that were not at Ojai, and still a little unsure of what was to come. I didn’t want to experience this weekend with all that garbage talk in my head. I wanted to be here, to truly be present with the women in front of me. With determination and some trepidation, I stepped into the circle.
As the workshop progressed, we met each other through song, dance and Moving Torah. This was Andrea’s amazing creation as she brought a unique life to each word, to every song as the Torah moved through our bodies. All together, we mimicked, sculpted, and flowed with the feelings and meanings of our words. Like the waving of hands which welcomes in Shabbat, a spirit of joyous womanhood entered the collective body of the group. I loved the feeling of being fully immersed in the spirit and energy of women. What a gift. As my mental resistance melted, I allowed the current of Shabbat to carry me into an ongoing rush of amazing davening, incredible learning, and the joy of hanging out with great people. I was just soaking up each moment!
Prior to coming on the retreat, I had asked Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, the Retreat Coordinator, if there was any opportunity for me to offer a learning session at the retreat. “Yes!” she responded with great enthusiasm, “Shabbat afternoon, for Spa Ramah, people offer different kinds of relaxing and nurturing sessions”, Shawn shared. I was so excited. It was a chance to share the work I had been developing in my private practice as a Healer called Deep Body Listening and Body Dialogue. At lunch, I told the group about the newly offered session, gushing with enthusiasm.
Then, panic struck! So many women came up to me saying, “I’m coming to your session!” I had assumed that everybody was going to take a Shabbat nap! It turned out that the idea of being gently guided to connect deeply with our bodies was very appealing. I had mentally prepared for maybe eight people showing up. 
Twenty eight women poured into the workshop space! It was the first time that I would be presenting my new work to a group, and 28 women show up. To calm my pounding heart, I gave myself a pep talk. “Be open to having a new experience, Dina”. 
Something clicked as I stood before this group feeling confidence and joy. I brought them to feeling our hearts, asking them to feel their chest in a more intentional way. Textures, colors¸ temperatures, shapes, and emotions arose in the women. So rarely do we, as women, get to focus our full attention on our own bodies. So often, we are caring for others. But today, it was our turn to feel the warmth of our own hearts. Using specific breathing techniques, I guided the group to bring this warmth to the bottoms of their feet as we touched upon each body part. “Do this slowly and thoughtfully so that each place in your body feels received”, I kept repeating. “Now, ask your body where you need attention the most. Just listen and receive whatever message your body has to give you. As the participants learned to listen more deeply to their bodies, I directed them in bringing their heart energy to each neglected spot. “Feel the gift of bringing that warmth to your OWN body.” Women shared how nurtured their body felt and they expressed gratitude for being able to attend to their body in this new way. The feeling of exhilaration washed over me and I felt so energized leading this incredible session. 
Shabbat came to a close, allowing us to participate in an evening of arts. There was something for everyone; writing, drama, Moving Torah, ceramics and silk painting. The rooms were just vibrating with an intense creative energy everywhere. 
In return for the enormous gift of participating in this retreat I expressed my gratitude and enthusiasm by asking to be included in the planning and coordinating team for next year. To all those who will be at next year’s retreat, I can’t wait to see you next year on the road to Ojai!                                                    
Dina Bernat-Kunin, LCSW has a private practice in the Pico/Robertson section of LA. Her sessions offer Intuitive Exercises, Energy Healing, Talk Therapy, and Deep Body Listening and Body Dialogue. She can be reached through her website
Categories: Bernat-Kunin, camp, jewish, Ojai, rabbi, Ramah, Ruach Nashim, shabbot, women, women's spirituality, workshop | 1 Comment

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