A man in the back of the room, wearing a sports jersey and looking to be about 35 or so, stood up and grabbed the microphone. He used to be as liberal as they come, he told a crowd of about 100 people in a small auditorium at Petco Park last Saturday morning. But, it seems, this guy's ideologies crumble as soon as they're put to the slightest test.
“You can't be a bleeding heart and solve the problem,” the man declared, explaining how he became a hawk on homelessness the moment he encountered it up close and personal. He sang the praises of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's efforts to sweep from Times Square the homeless and other people deemed unsavory. Look at 42nd Street now, the man crowed: “It's like Disneyland.”
Of course, Giuliani didn't do anything with homelessness other than spread it around to other parts of New York. And this man on Saturday was fairly typical of the people in the room who'd like to do the same with the large concentration of homeless people in Downtown San Diego's East Village—without regard for where they go or what happens to them or whose problem they then become. As long as they're gone.
Remove all public benches, a young woman suggested. Don't give them a place to rest. If you stop giving them money, they'll leave.
Can't the city just ban all those unsightly tents? asked an East Village property owner wearing a suit and tie who said he was missing his daughter's communion to gripe about the homeless.
The comments about benches and tents drew applause, and each of the numerous complaints about “poop” deposited by homeless people on sidewalks drew giggles, although there was nary a mention of public bathrooms until the man skipping his daughter's big day complained about recently installed bathrooms near the Neil Good Day Center. No one acknowledged the obvious indignity of having to relieve one's self in public.
It's notable when the most liberal-sounding person in the room is the local policeman—in this case, Capt. Chris Ball, who, despite saying, “Don't think I'm some liberal, softhearted person who doesn't want to handle a problem,” told the crowd flatly that they can forget about the idea of rounding up homeless people and boarding them onto a bus bound for Elsewhere. He reminded them that homeless people are someone's parents, someone's children, someone's brothers and sisters. They are most often mentally ill and / or severely addicted to drugs and / or alcohol, he rightly noted. “They're lost out there,” he said, adding that oftentimes the only relationships they have are with cops.
“The answer is not law-enforcement,” Ball said; policing is just part of the puzzle.
Ball's comments apparently had no effect; they were made before the audience had a chance to speak.The intent of the meeting was to give East Village residents and business owners, most of whom moved into the neighborhood amid revitalization—the homeless were there first—a chance to help brainstorm solutions to the problem. It was no doubt partly fueled by a Union-Tribune story relating a claim by resident / condo Realtor Connie Ellis that she'd been hit in the face by a homeless person who was talking to himself.
Judging from the tone and content of the meeting, the broad-brush profile of a homeless person in San Diego is that they are violent, drug-dealing, graffiti-spreading animals compulsively crapping and peeing on everything in sight. Collectively, the people in the room were a few notches more civilized than some of the people who commented on the online version of the U-T story, one of whom suggested luring the homeless into a wood chipper and then selling the resulting “Bum Chum” to local fishermen. “And yes I'm serious,” he wrote.
There's a line of thinking that most homeless people are just lazy, and if they're willing to clean themselves up and get a job, a home will follow.
On Saturday afternoon, a bearded, middle-aged man with close-cropped hair crossed a Hillcrest street, barking angrily at a provocateur that existed only in his mind. He was so mad that he felt compelled to kick over one of those heavy metal public garbage cans. Just a shower and a shave and he'll be all set to knock 'em dead at that big job interview, right?
Next month, the city will receive responses to a request for proposals for homelessness services that would include both an intake center to help homeless people deal with the root causes of their situation; permanent housing for the worst of the worst, staffed with people who can help them keep on a program; and, ideally, temporary shelter for anyone who needs it. Only when adequate shelter beds are available can the police morally—and legally—arrest someone for sleeping in public or remove their tent, as long as it's not violating some other law.
Done right, an intake center and supportive housing will help countless people who are causing the folks in East Village and elsewhere so much grief. Obviously, the people who want help will be the easiest to treat and will be the first off the streets. These people are just as fearful of the more volatile, antagonistic street dwellers as anyone else is. That's the thing that seems misunderstood: There's a wide spectrum of people who don't have homes. The unanswered question is, what will become of the people who are hardest to reach? The severely schizophrenic man in Hillcrest. The person who allegedly punched Connie Ellis in the face. You can't force medication down people's throats involuntarily. Sadly, the scene at Petco Park is surely a sign of ugly things to come—only a lot less intense than it will be when it comes time to site an intake center and supportive housing. These folks will apply serious pressure to City Councilmembers Kevin Faulconer and Ben Hueso to site these services elsewhere; no council member will want them in his or her district.
The best place will not be where residents and business owners speak with the softest voice and have the lightest bank accounts come election time; it'll be where there's available property close to public-transit routes. The mayor and City Council have to tune out the angry NIMBYs and do the right thing for the city as a whole.What say you? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.