July 13 2016 01:53 PM

Policies like Homelessness Whack-A-Mole don’t work

The “rock garden” at the Imperial Avenue underpass
Photo by Ron Donoho

Last week, another one of our homeless neighbors was attacked and died in the hospital after being beaten and burned. If that wasn’t gut-wrenching enough, it came on the heels of three other attacks on homeless men that occurred during the Fourth of July holiday weekend—and two of those victims are dead. (On July 7, a suspect was arrested, then released on Monday.)

These acts of violence make this column that much more important, and even though it’s a difficult story to write about, I want to convey the significance of how we think about the people who struggle to live day-by-day on the streets of our city.

No matter how earnest we are when we talk about solving homelessness, we continue to fail to make serious progress.

It seems the community’s perception of people who are homeless and living on the street is getting worse in San Diego. I see pages popping up on Facebook that show people who are homeless at their worst.

This is not surprising. The last homelessness count in San Diego showed that the number of people who are unsheltered—that is, people who are literally living on the streets, rather than staying in shelters—has risen. As this population grows, it further frustrates business owners, housed residents and elected officials, some of whom are calling for increased crackdowns instead of proven solutions.

I talk to a lot of people about homelessness, and I’m often told that “these people” want to be homeless.

This is a myth. Some of those who do say they don’t want to get off the street are simply frustrated—with wait times for getting housing, or with rules imposed by some shelters—or simply don’t trust the process or the people trying to help them. Others have so many years on the street that street life is all they’re comfortable with, or they’re mentally ill, or they suffer from substance addiction.

Most people who are homeless would rather not be homeless. Believing otherwise doesn’t hold water, but it does make it easier for people to ignore these suffering souls.

This negative perception makes it easier to deploy or accept the kind of punitive tactics that we have seen in San Diego, which simply drive the problem into someone else’s backyard. For many people, these tactics are acceptable because, well, it means these homeless people are not in their backyard anymore. The problem is the whole process starts over somewhere else.

When the city recently installed jagged rocks to dissuade people from camping under an overpass near downtown San Diego, an adjacent community celebrated—until they realized that the people who’d been living there moved deeper into their neighborhood. You might call this “Homelessness Whack-a-Mole.” It’s not a solution.

Efforts to push people around often backfire, as do measures that effectively criminalize homelessness. Punitive tactics, such as citing people for what’s known as “illegal lodging” or “encroachment”—criminal-justice terms that essentially mean sleeping outside or blocking the sidewalk, respectively—exacerbate the problem. They contribute to a spiral effect that makes it increasingly harder for people to escape homelessness: These citations become failure to appear in court, which becomes an arrest warrant, which becomes jail time. People who are frequently in jail aren’t exactly the best candidates for upward mobility.

The carrot-and-stick approach has been tried in cities across the country, failing to ever solve the issue but successful in making it a neighboring community’s problem.

Cities that have successfully reduced homelessness are those that have provided genuine solutions—real paths from the streets to housing.

Cities with misguided policies—driven by negative perceptions of people who are homeless—can even block the progress of people who are working hard to improve their lot in life.

I met John and Jennifer back in March. They were friendly and open to sharing their struggle to escape homelessness. They both collected recycling, and John worked as many odd jobs as he could find.

Someone who works with homeless people once told me, while gesturing toward a large encampment where John and Jennifer lived, that everyone “over there” are substance abusers.

Well, in the three months I had known John and Jennifer, I never suspected they were substance abusers. I got to know them pretty well and believed they were doing everything they could to get off the streets. Here’s the thing, though: They weren’t operating within the system created ostensibly to solve homelessness. They were doing it on their own by constantly trying to earn enough money to get housing.

One day, I learned that John had found a full-time job. But it meant that he would have to leave Jennifer and their belongings on the street while he went to work or pack up every morning and find somewhere to store their belongings. Leaving her with their stuff where they camped risked getting cited, which would only sink them further into homelessness.

Happily, advocates raised enough money to get them into a long-term motel room, which enabled John to get to work on time, well-groomed and without worry that Jennifer would get cited or, worse, have their belongings removed by the city.

I also met a veteran, James, and his girlfriend Michelle during a recent sweep. They were quickly accumulating tickets for encroachment because they were living in a tent on the streets while the San Diego Housing Commission and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs were helping them find a home. They, too, were lucky. As the jail time drew nearer, the Housing Commission and a helpful landlord managed to get James and Michelle off the street in the nick of time.

These are not people deserving of our scorn. These are folks that have not been as fortunate as you or me. They’ve grown up in abusive or poverty-stricken households, they’ve fallen on hard times and lost jobs. And, yes, sometimes they are mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Are they helped by our contempt?

No, and this is what keeps me advocating for real solutions to homelessness in San Diego. Solutions like rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing. Solutions that are proven. Solutions that are effective. And perhaps most importantly, solutions that are compassionate.

Michael McConnell is a philanthropist and advocate who serves on multiple local and regional homelessness advisory committees. He can be found on Facebook at Homelessness News San Diego and Twitter at @HomelessnessSD.


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