The recent court order abating the practice of criminalizing homelessness, and the immediate reaction by San Luis Obispo city officials to reinstate that short-sighted approach should cause all of us in our community to do some soul searching.
The San Luis Obispo City Council’s resolution, which was printed in the paper, repeatedly cites health and safety concerns, as though people sleeping in their cars were the only local litterers, and bathrooms were inherently connected with homes. City leaders’ swift and decisive action does nothing to address the real issues that led to the restraining order.
Clearly, much of our local homelessness is not the type of problem that can be solved by market economics, since some of those involved are disabled and not really employable, and many do not have skills that are currently marketable.
Homelessness and its causes affect the entire community. Our current methods of addressing street living cost the taxpayers’ money and demean not only the homeless, but all of us. Many of our poorest citizens already have debts or fines they are having trouble paying. Some who have mental illnesses need to pay for medications to be able to live in the community. Some are just temporarily out of funds.
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If these “offenders” are cited for living in their camper, they are subject to a fine (which is unrealistic when they can’t even afford a motel room), and if they don’t pay their fines, and/or they are on court probation, they can be jailed. This misuse of our criminal justice system is much too similar to England’s debtors’ prisons for Americans to condone it.
The current policy of targeting those homeless who at least own a car or motorhome is particularly pointless, counter-productive and inherently cruel. Telling people who have no other home to “move along” just shifts the problem to another place. When they are rousted, the homeless go into hiding in our neighborhoods, or along the creek, the railroad right-of-way or in arroyos. Sometimes they stay up all night and then sleep in areas such as public parks or beaches during the day.
Besides being un-American, the current system is not cheap, since we taxpayers pay for all of the related police time, court time, street cleaning, etc., associated with this shifting population. Wouldn’t that money be better spent by providing and maintaining night-only parking areas with portable bathroom facilities? The community does this for music festivals and athletic competitions; why not for the sake of respecting our neighborhoods and human dignity?
Any large area that is not occupied at night (for instance, shopping mall parking lots or campgrounds) could be rented for the purpose. Obviously, maintaining security at one site would be a more efficient use of police and maintenance manpower than trying to flush out and then clean up after offenders all over the city.
We don’t have to look far to see that Americans do find the money to pay for the things we find important; just look at the popularity of various expensive electronic devices and the salaries of professional athletes.
Hopefully, the citizens of San Luis Obispo consider both human dignity and safe neighborhoods to be important enough to financially support long-term ways to serve both of these core human values.
Carol Nelson-Selby is a retired Ventura County deputy district attorney who lives in San Luis Obispo’s Historic Railroad District with her husband, Michael Selby. Since her retirement, she has been active in coaching students involved in Mock Trial programs, has been a guest lecturer at Cal Poly and co-authored a recently published article on forensic psychology.