I was reminded of Henry Ford’s observation “most people spend more time and energy going around problems than trying to solve them” when reading Liz Foster’s December 5, piece on the impending “cleanup” of the homeless encampment known as “the quarry”.
Homelessness is a problem. It is a complicated problem. The homeless: Seniors, adults, men and women, students, children, without brick and mortar homes often are seen as dirty, scary, drug-laden, unsafe, and certainly not belonging. And when we are honest, homeless folks are seen as “less than” because we attribute their plight to a lack of character that keeps them from becoming responsible citizens i.e., living like the rest of us live.
Explanations abound for why communities have this homeless problem. Whether one believes the root cause of homelessness are veterans not getting proper care, inadequate social services to help folks on the fringes, lack of affordable housing, abject poverty, or drug and alcohol abuse, the “go to” response is the same — criminalize behaviors the homeless utilize to survive on the street and that will solve the problem. Such response has not, will not and cannot solve the problem. Don’t be tricked.
Residents of “the quarry” are asked to voluntarily “move on”; if they don’t, they will be cited for trespassing. Criminalizing all aspects of behavior required to “live” as it were, on the streets without shelter, food, a place to rest or access to mental health services sidesteps the problem. We should not be fooled into thinking these laws shape a workable, sustainable plan to effectively address how to help one of the most defenseless and marginalized group of citizens in our communities.
Criminalization responses to homelessness have been around for years, and the data unmistakenly shows we still have a growing homeless population and, as much as we wish these citizens to be invisible they are not and no laws can make them invisible.
The homeless “problem” clearly has not gone “away” nor have our elected officials focused on solutions. Instead, for example, three cities in Colorado (Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs) alone have passed 37 ordinances criminalizing a variety of homeless behaviors. My favorite is outlawing “junk”. Please. Really. Don’t believe me, look it up.
Foster’s article quotes Andy Phelps, the city’s homelessness and outreach coordinator: “We do have available shelter”. Not so fast. Many people experiencing homelessness do not qualify for beds for a host of reasons as shelters often have rules about who cannot stay: folks with alcohol/drug problems, people with children/pets, persons with disabilities are a few examples. Even if all in the encampment do qualify, they cannot stay indefinitely in shelters. Then what?
One line of thought behind criminalization efforts sounds something like this: “Civil” societies need rules, and the most basic of these rules include where people can eat, sleep and take care of their bodily functions. If not for adherence to such fundamental rules, no society could exist.
Of course, societies need rules. It is doubtful anyone seriously disagrees with that premise and such proclamations do nothing to advance thoughtful conversations focused on finding viable solutions to reduce our homeless population; they simply create other nonsolutions — jailing the homeless or moving them “on”. To where? Then what?
Sorting out sustainable solutions is tough work and becomes more difficult when no viable goal is set. For example: Many communities in Colorado assert their goal is to connect people with services, shelter and housing so they are not in an unhealthy, unsafe and unsanitary situation.
How do you connect people with services when communities deem them, and their belongings, deserving of being swept? How do you connect people with housing when shelter space and affordable housing is lacking?
How do you connect the homeless to mental health services when our cities, counties and states under-resource them?
Homelessness is a reality and will not go away based on our inability to stomach it. What will it take to have our legislatures, civic organizations, community leaders and other coalition groups come together and finally say we are working on long-term solutions to the homeless problem.
One incentive for undertaking a focused problem-solving pledge might be the recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals September decision, which reminds communities they may not criminalize a homeless person for sleeping outside when no other alternative exists because it violates our civil right to be protected against cruel punishment (Eighth Amendment).
Don’t be silent. Call your lawmakers and tell them you want them to stop dancing around the problem of homelessness because we all know criminalization is not getting us to where we want to be. When the desire is strong enough, solutions are possible.
Kathleen Hynes, Ph.D, has been a Colorado resident for almost a half a century. Hynes is a former small-business owner, and for over a decade an ACLU of Colorado community advocate/speaker who uses facts to inform others of social justice inequities.