Once again an army of grinches has emerged as reliably as the changing of tides. There's something about large numbers of people attempting to find a bit of happiness and joy in a major religious holiday that sets off alarm bells in a population segment always offended by something. If they can't find anything to be offended about, it depresses them further until someone somewhere makes the mistake of attempting to celebrate or commemorate what is a special day for their family and community.
For instance, this month an elementary school principal in Omaha, Nebraska, was terrified that someone might notice that children are celebrating Christmas. To prevent this heinous crime against preferred cultural conformity and absolute blandness in everything, the principal tried to ban the colors red and green, singing of anything resembling a Christmas carol, even the secular ones, along with candy canes (if you turn a candy cane upside down it looks like the letter "J," which might be interpreted for the first initial of the name Jesus). The list of banned objects and activities is too long to print, but the policies were clear violations of multiple rulings by the federal courts that are supposed to enforce neutrality toward religion, not hostility. At any rate, this time of year produces grinches aplenty, disguised as self-important bureaucrats.
On the home front people are at war over solutions to the ever-increasing number of transients populating our communities, especially how do you treat them humanely when the weather turns bitter, but also adopt workable solutions? The state's answer is pending legislation (SB 48) that creates a "right to shelter" for "unhoused residents throughout the state" including "reasonable access to shelter." That "right" will include a safe place to sleep and keep their belongings, an ability to access the shelter without having to sign up daily, and an ability to remain with one's partner. Sounds altruistic enough, except the part about how to make it work, let alone pay for it.
The Dec. 6 issue of New Times carried a column I wrote ("Why the armory is a bad idea for a shelter") regarding the rationale for the city of Atascadero's denial of using the National Guard Armory as a temporary warming shelter and the risks that it posed to school children and the public. One writer was incensed that I suggested that the population in question had anti-social, even violent behavioral problems, and that it was un-Christian for me to take the stand I took. Being a Christian doesn't require adopting muddle-headed solutions that ignore facts and the reality on the ground. A portion of the population in question was turned away from existing shelters for the very reason of their sometimes-violent tendencies. They didn't obey the rules regarding drugs, alcohol, or other anti-social behaviors and posed a risk to other shelter occupants and volunteer staff. Numerous pastors involved with this population confirmed these assertions along with local law enforcement officials. So how are we to deal with the problem?
Unlike other armories located in industrial areas or locales away from sensitive populations, the Atascadero National Guard Armory is surrounded by schools, youth centers, and vulnerable populations. Its location is problematical and totally unsuitable for housing a socially borderline population. To do so would be to unnecessarily put at risk children whose parents were promised a safe place for their children to engage in organized recreation, not to mention a designated drug-free zone by city ordinance. Why would you want to concentrate an anti-social population well known to use hard drugs in the midst of that environment? There was also the matter of cost to the city, starting with a $35,000 unfunded requirement, not including costs for security, janitorial services, and facility upgrades. Which city department or program should the City Council cut to fund this service? The proponents of using the armory were silent on this issue.
The armory isn't the only solution, and workable solutions exist. For instance, the transient problem isn't just a local problem but a state and county issue as well. A small community like Atascadero cannot be expected to bear this burden alone; most of the recipients of local aid aren't local residents at all.
Instead of using the armory, how about spending a few thousand dollars to purchase general purpose medium tents from the National Guard and installing them on the abundant vacant land—State Hospital property—at the southern end of El Camino Real? Soldiers use these tents all the time, and certainly what is good enough for the troops should be good enough for transients. The hospital has its own police and fire services on-site, and the displaced could easily be transported 2 miles down the road to a safe locale for all concerned. Volunteers can staff the tents (temporary warming shelters), which can be heated. The city can provide porta-potties and, with state assistance, perhaps a portable shower trailer (used by deployed military units). If the site is too intimidating, I suppose they could just as easily be transported across Cuesta Grade to SLO or Morro Bay where the nighttime temperatures are milder; perhaps they could be permitted to camp on a section of Morro Bay beach? The armory is neither the only solution nor is it only the problem of small cities to resolve on their own.
It's Christmas, and I don't like emphasizing politics this time of year, so I'll conclude by wishing all of you (even my critics) a Merry Christmas. Δ
Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.