Trends suggest having to face the challenge head-on
■ By Chris Smith / Advisory Editor
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the homeless crisis in other parts of the country and how local areas are dealing with it.
Since we first reported on the homeless encampment in Minneapolis, four persons have died there.
The city is really struggling because it is committed to doing something to help people – but what? The people there don’t want to move because they say they feel safe when they are all together. Out on the streets, each on his or her own, will they be the victims of crime? There is pressure from the elements, however. This is Minnesota, and it’s getting colder quickly.
The encampment has grown to more than 300 people. Minus the four who have died. There are a lot of sick people there. There is a team of medical personnel who are going from tent to tent diagnosing and sending those with the worst symptoms for treatment. And there is a lot of drug use, something the city seems unable to deal with short of locking people up. There is some talk about having a safe injection site, since so many are addicts, and overdosing seems to be common.
Interestingly, there has been very little crime other than drug use. This is due in part because there is oversight by a group of people in the camp, Natives Against Heroin (NAH).
The city is planning to move the residents to another site where residents can have showers and toilets while they look for permanent housing. One site was rejected. It was next to a school, and parents and administrators didn’t want a bunch of homeless addicts getting too close to young students. Another location looks promising, however, but it will take some preparation. The city council doesn’t seem to be balking about spending money to address these people’s needs.
The food that we brought to the residents was met with extreme gratitude – not so much for the food, but the idea that someone – anyone – out there cared enough to give them something they actually could use.
Since our first article, my sister has found that the father of one of the children for whom she is a guardian ad litem (court appointed independent adviser) was living in the camp. His parental rights have been terminated, and the children soon will be adopted by either their grandmother or foster parents. The father presents himself as very nice man, she reports, but he can’t bring himself to leave the children’s mother, a woman who has issues with addiction, among other health problems.
It’s a community that has no place else to go but up.
Being homeless could be one of the worst things that ever happens to you. And it’s a fate that many are struggling against as if they are in a small boat furiously paddling upstream as the quickening river gradually slides them ever closer to Niagara Falls. If you’re homeless, you often lose all your belongings. Can you really keep up with those storage locker payments indefinitely? Once your stuff is in a storage locker, you’ll be one of the lucky ones if you ever move it back into a house. A few months of missed payments, and all your belongings will be auctioned off. If they aren’t stolen out of the poorly secured lockers first.
Housing insecurity is a term that is still finding its own meaning. It has been defined a number of different ways, but current thinking leads to an all encompassing look at a variety of characteristics including housing instability, affordability, safety, neighborhood quality and, yes, homelessness. An individual is considered housing insecure if they spend more than 30 to 50 percent of their annual income on housing.
California and New York have the highest rates of housing insecurity. Some 20 percent of the population in each state could be considered to be housing insecure and potentially could become homeless in the future. That’s a lot of people – almost 8 million people in California alone. So if you think the few sorry souls you see hanging around street corners are all there is, wait a few years and count the numbers then.
The housing insecure come in all sizes, shapes, and backgrounds. Nearly 60 percent of them are unmarried individuals without children. The next largest group are those with children, who make up more than 20 percent. More than half of the housing insecure are “extremely low income,” which means their annual income is less than the federal poverty level of 30 percent area median income. While many families who are housing insecure – roughly half – have no college, ironically, some 18 percent of the housing insecure do have a bachelor’s or graduate degrees. Whites comprise more than half of housing-insecure households.
Make it easier, not harder
While individual cities each struggle with their homeless, the emerging theme that seems to permeate areas having any success at all is that cities need to help the homeless – not make life harder for them. Adopting policies that criminalize homelessness simply make it harder for people down and out to raise themselves up. Most have suffered either with economic loss or personal loss – such as a divorce – and many are mentally ill. Closing or failing to support health programs and clinics that treat the mentally ill inevitably will exacerbate the homeless problem.
The forces coming to bear on cities aggravated by their unrequested homeless populations are leading them to invest in this population rather than shun it. Last September, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cities can’t criminalize homelessness if there are no shelters available where the homeless can sleep. It’s cruel and unusual punishment. In a 32-page opinion, the court rejected the claims by Boise, Idaho, that its ordinances making it a crime to sleep or camp in buildings, streets, and other public places are constitutional.
“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the court ruled. The ruling could have widespread significance in how the homeless are treated since the number of bans on camping in public has increased by 69 percent between 2006 and 2016. Bans on sleeping in public places have increased some 31 percent during the same period. Most of these laws are now null and void.
Las Vegas pilot program
Apart from the examples cited in Part 2 of this series, one of the more successful experiments in dealing with the homeless is in Las Vegas. A series of murders of homeless men shocked the city into addressing the problem and set up a program to connect homeless people with housing, healthcare, and other services.
The city set up a “homeless courtyard” where people can use portable restrooms, take showers in mobile shower stations, and connect with healthcare providers and job referral agencies. Gates at the courtyard are open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the city estimates it serves some 300 people daily. The courtyard is staffed with round the clock security and provides a place where the homeless can feel safe.
Only a year into what was billed as a pilot program, the service has met its informal goal of getting 1,000 people off the street into jobs and their own place or back with family.
Given the cost of new construction, the rising cost of existing housing, as well as the federal government’s other priorities, it would appear the homeless “crisis” is here to stay. Whether cities are early adopters and deal with the affected people and issues now, or whether they are led kicking and screaming into spending money on solutions they feel they can’t afford, the homeless problem isn’t about to go away without some kind of intervention – either private, public, or a combination of both.