There is a deepening ambivalence about homelessness in our community. Increasingly, this has led to expressions ranging from frustration to fear to hostility. This gradual shift in public sentiment is not unique to us, or our times, and there are reasonable explanations for such antipathy from citizens and community leaders.
There have been greater impacts from an uptick in the number of homeless individuals that inspire little to no compassion in many: transients from elsewhere, the mentally ill often with addiction problems, and people who have seemingly surrendered their independence and self-reliance.
These effects can be seen in the increase in public safety responses to everything from vandalism to break-ins to fires and injuries to unpleasant encounters to robberies and even violent crime. Our downtowns and shopping centers sometimes seem populated with panhandlers; creeks and other outof-view areas are often the sites of encampments; and in parks, some feel frightened by the presence of obviously homeless persons.
Then there are the philosophical/political rationales for the increase in antipathy, whether it’s a belief in smaller government or a belief that government does poorly by the poor by enabling dependency, or the common attitude that only the deserving poor should be helped (families, recent victims of economic hardships).
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Any of what I’ve just cited can certainly validate the exasperation and animosity I’ve seen in opposition to ongoing or increased services and programs to the homeless. As someone who has been an advocate for the homeless, it would be wrong for me to not understand this or to insist that pure human compassion must win out no matter what. Not closeminded nor naïve, I still remain hopeful that we can do better by the worst off in our community.
But real changes are needed in how we deal with the challenges of homelessness. While we could engage in deep debates about the nationwide effects of rampant inequality, the systemic failure of mental health care, and the dismantling and disinvestment in anti-poverty initiatives — including low-rent housing, it won’t help us agree on local actions.
It is reasonable to expect that our services and sheltering be designed to require case management, drug and alcohol treatment, and transition to housing.
It is reasonable to expect that disincentives accompany this, meaning that people who do not choose to enter into programs leading to self-sufficiency will not be further enabled in behavior that adversely affects others.
It is reasonable to expect more accountability of results from the money and time spent on services.
But — and here’s what else you have to expect — doing this takes many more resources than are currently available. We need first to demand that the current allocation of increasingly scarce resources is geared to measurable effectiveness and an agreement to shift to true selfsufficiency models of assistance.
We need to agree that doing nothing or doing less will not make the problems go away; they will only worsen.
We need to agree that helping mentally ill and/or addicted homeless people off the street requires a much greater commitment of resources for case workers and treatment providers, but that doing so will save much more money in the long term.
As we enter the season of holiday giving, I hope our community will step up its generosity while strongly advocating for services and sheltering that measurably help people transition out of terrible circumstances. And advocate the same from your local governments.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to reduce homelessness, all of us will be better off by asking for more and demanding better results.
Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the county Board of Supervisors.