Opinion » Shredder

Nowhere to go

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"Brother, can you spare a buck?" (Inflation, amirite?)

I think all can agree that SLO County's homelessness problem is a big-ass issue. Do you like seeing people living on the street or panhandling? Do you want people camped in public parks and along waterways surrounded by trash? Pretty sure nobody does! What we can't seem to agree on is an effective solution.

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Some "bleeding hearts" see the unhoused and feel deep compassion, wondering why as a society we can't collectively do more, or, more importantly, why what we are doing isn't working.

Some "heartless" others look at the unhoused and see the lazy, mentally ill, and addicted, and feel nothing but a massive empathy deficit. Such people—like retired attorney John Donegan who wrote this week's Rhetoric & Reason column ("The homeless,")—think we should "isolate them and protect ourselves" before there's an "outbreak of al fresco cannibalism."

That "out of sight, out of mind" approach seems to be the city of San Luis Obispo's preferred method. It has an ongoing pattern of breaking up homeless camps, only to have them pop up again in another location. I guess the idea is if you hassle the homeless enough, you'll ... what? Drive them out of town? Inspire them to "get a damn job!"? Seriously, what's the point?

I'm not a big fan of our litigation nation, but sometimes court remedies are all we have. Recently, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), Public Interest Law Project, and the Law Office of Babak Naficy filed a lawsuit against SLO city to stop what they argue has been an unconstitutional criminalization of homelessness.

The lawsuit points to SLO's myriad municipal codes that seem clearly aimed at harassing the homeless, such as the prohibition against camping or sleeping overnight in vehicles, the ban on being in public parks after hours or open spaces overnight, the rule against staying and camping overnight near a creek, and, more recently, the ban on tents in public parks and unsanctioned shopping cart usage.

The lawsuit also points to the Fourth Amendment—"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures"—arguing that confiscating the unhoused's possessions is a clear violation.

Here's the notice the city posts when demanding homeless encampments disperse: "Failure to comply with this order will result in the arrest of your person and the seizure of your property. If you leave, and in so doing, abandon your belongings ... the belongings will be removed and discarded. You will be prosecuted for the abandoning of the belongings ... the abandoning of the belongings shall establish your intent to give up all rights of ownership of said belongings to the city."

How's that going to solve homelessness?

The city predictably calls the lawsuit unfair. According to SLO Public Communications Manager Whitney Szentesi, "This lawsuit is especially discouraging because the city is doing more now than ever before to increase housing here and provide public services to unhoused and unsheltered community members. We will defend our community in court, and we ask the community to refrain from passing judgment until all facts are fully vetted through the legal process."

I like this "day in court" idea. It's about time the city's practices be legally vetted. The problem is even if the lawsuit wins and the city has to stop harassing the homeless, it will do nothing, and I mean literally nothing, to solve the homeless crisis.

Guys like Donegan look around and see "tent cities springing up in our parks, creeks, and roadways, and legions of drug-crazed zombies lurching about and ranting incoherently."

He thinks the homeless problem is unsolvable because the "real problem is addiction, and homelessness is just one of the symptoms."

Yeah, OK, but part of the practice of medicine, for instance, is to alleviate symptoms while trying to treat the underlying condition. If someone's hacking his lungs out from tuberculosis, you administer a cough suppressant. You don't say, "As soon as you stop coughing, I'll help you with your lung infection."

So the real question is how do we actually fix this mess?

Hey! What do Finland and the state of Utah have in common? Both have virtually solved their homeless problem. How, you ask? By getting rid of the temporary solution of homeless shelters and unconditionally offering people housing.

"Give them free housing?" Donegan scoffs. "Providing housing to the addicted merely enables them by providing a comfortable location to continue their downward spiral of self-destruction."

Sigh. If someone's mentally ill or addicted to drugs, it's a lot easier to address those issues when they have a roof over their heads and some stability in their lives rather than when they're living on the street with nowhere safe to go.

How much does SLO Town spend enforcing all these municipal codes, driving out homeless encampments, arresting the homeless, paying for incarceration and court costs, and generally playing homeless Whac-A-Mole? Would it be less costly to approach the problem by providing housing? Finland and Utah clearly thought so.

I have a sad feeling, however, that Donegan and his ilk would rather spend more money punishing the homeless than helping them. Δ

The Shredder likes to plan ahead in case it falls on hard times and is homeless. Send rants and raves to shredder@newtimesslo.com.

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