There has been a lot of handwringing and gnashing of teeth recently about the homeless problem. Who are they and what should we do about them?
The most visible and problematic homeless are the substance abusers and mentally ill. The problem seems to be getting worse, as we see tent cities springing up in our parks, creeks, and roadways, and legions of drug-crazed zombies lurching about and ranting incoherently.
The problem is the worst in our "progressive" cities, which have thrown massive amounts of money away in providing homeless services and in aggravating the problem. In San Francisco, the deterioration of public places has grown so severe that I wouldn't be that surprised to see an outbreak of al fresco cannibalism. So, before Tony Bennet's crooning about "leaving his heart in San Francisco ... " takes on a darker meaning, maybe it is time for us to take a realistic look at the problem.
To hear a liberal tell it, all homelessness is merely the result of high housing prices. Now, when I see someone ranting incoherently, or lying face down on the sidewalk in urine-soaked clothing, my immediate impression is not, "Gosh, look what the high cost of housing has done to this poor fellow." No, I tend to reflect on substance abuse, and on a person throwing their life away getting high.
In their case, the real problem is addiction, and homelessness is just one of the symptoms.
We can't do much about addiction. Getting high is fun and feels good, at least momentarily. We've tried to interdict the supply of drugs without success. Getting high appeals to the bored and directionless, a population growing as our schools fail and many are seduced by a toxic popular culture.
You don't just "catch" a drug or drinking habit—it involves choices. A friend once described his sole experience with crack cocaine by saying "I liked it too much," and chose to never use it again. Another friend who is an alcoholic keeps assuring me that he plans to stop drinking, but has spent around 30 years telling me that he is "working on it." Another choice.
Most of the addicted and mentally ill homeless reject any sort of long-term residential treatment, the only type of treatment with a reasonable chance for success, and the law prevents involuntary institutionalization. We do not have the ability to "fix" them.
Give them free housing? Providing housing to the addicted merely enables them by providing a comfortable location to continue their downward spiral of self-destruction. Conquering addiction takes an immense amount of willpower and self-discipline, something which society is unable to provide. Some have mustered the will to kick their addiction from the shock and shame of hitting rock bottom. A comfortable person is less motivated to conquer their addiction.
Housing that prohibits the use of drugs or alcohol will usually be rejected. Consider the vacancies in the 40 Prado shelter, even in bad weather, shunned because it will not allow residents to drink or take drugs on-site and controls behavior. And the impossibility of controlling drug and alcohol use inside of a private residence is obvious.
It is reasonable to expect the government to keep the badly addicted and demented out of our public places. Their occupancy is incompatible with use by the rest of us. The primary duty of all government is the security of its citizens, and the focus should be on the needs of the many, not the few. How much must society sacrifice in order to accommodate the addicted and the crazy? Should a community be expected to give up their parks and public areas, to accept danger to their children and themselves, and to accept the deterioration of their quality of life from human waste, needles, crime, and craziness? Using an isolated location like the Kansas Avenue lot for camping, and by enforcing quality-of-life ordinances to control behavior in public areas, is probably the best solution.
There are other elements of the homeless population who do not create a problem. For example, the older nomadics depicted in Jessica Bruder's book Nomadland (and made into an excellent movie). These older folks typically are functional, live in their RVs, trailers, and vans; stay in campgrounds, trailer parks, and on open public lands; and travel around the country to seasonal jobs.
The employed and unaddicted homeless are not the folks creating the big problems. The only thing that will solve their problem is cheaper housing. But since we live in an area in which far more people would like to live than can be realistically accommodated, I can't see this problem being solved.
The addicted homeless are not necessarily dangerous and are often kind and sympathetic people. Many have heartrending stories and can be truly pitiful. Still, they are on a downward trajectory that we can not fix, and as harsh as this sounds, the best we can do is to isolate them and protect ourselves. Δ
John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach who is grateful that his instinctively cautious nature protected him from some of the dumb ideas that appeal to the young. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.