Chronic vs. Pathologic

Posted: February 19, 2008 in Bureauacracy, Government, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Misconceptions, Stereotypes

A couple of weeks ago, the SLO New Times ran an article called, "Where To Go?"

The article created a portrait; a type of "day in the life" of one SLO’s public parks: Meadow Park. The article focused primarily on the use of the park by local area homeless. It’s a park I know rather well. It was actually my first "office."  

For, what seemed like the longest time, I used to go there most every morning around 5:00 AM to write and publish my posts for this blog. The so-called "convention center" mentioned by the article’s author, Kai Beech, isn’t actually a convention center, nor is it big enough to host a convention. It’s more of a community center than anything else. But it does have a couple of outdoor electrical outlets where I could plug in my laptop and write.

It wasn’t unusual for me to arrive at the park on any given morning and find one or more of the local homeless asleep and rolled up in their blankets or sleeping bags. On mornings when it had been raining throughout the night, I’d find them huddled as close to the walls under the eaves of the community center.

There were a couple of things about the New Times article in particular that caught my attention.

The first is a statement at the end of the article by one of the homeless, who calls himself "Shaggy." He is quoted as saying,

"They need an easier solution… Give us a designated area and facilities next to a liquor store, and we’d be cool."

I’ve never met Shaggy, so I don’t know anything about him. But based on his statement, he would seem to be one of those homeless who fits the stereotype of what people envision when they think about what a homeless person is.

The article’s photograph shows two homeless men, one who I recognized. He also fits the stereotype. In fact, he is homeless by choice. He receives some type of disability check each month. But rather than use the money to find housing, he chooses to live on the streets so that he can have money to get high and drunk. In fact, July of 2007, I wrote a post called "The Way I See It…" which was about this specific homeless man.

The second thing that caught my attention about the article was the mention of SLO county having approved a 10 year plan to end chronic homelessness. When I first heard about SLO County hiring HomeBase, a San Francisco based homeless advocacy group, to help them draft a 10 year plan, I was hopeful that it would lead to helping significantly reduce the numbers of homeless in my community. Now I’m having doubts about it. And, it all has to do with the phrase "chronic homelessness."

The more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to have problems with that phrase.

In the National Coalition for the Homeless report, Questions and Answers About the "Chronic Homelessness Initiative," it says,

A "chronically homeless" person is defined as "an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years."

Using that definition, the homeless man who I recognized from the article’s photograph would be viewed as chronically homeless, despite that his homelessness is by choice. As a result, he would receive "preferential" treatment over a homeless person – or even a family – who doesn’t want to be homeless. There is something extremely skewed in trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Wouldn’t the community be better served by providing the help to those who genuinely want it?

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks that the "Chronic Homeless Initiative" may not necessarily be a good idea. In the report, Poverty Versus Pathology: What’s "Chronic" About Homelessness (also on the National Coalition for the Homeless website) it says,

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has serious concerns about the "chronic homeless" initiative because 1) the terminology distorts the history, causes, and nature of homelessness; 2) the policies that accompany it pit vulnerable populations against each other in competition for scarce federal resources; and 3) the initiative as a whole – terminology and policy – is short-sighted and likely to exacerbate, rather than end, homelessness.

In the SLO New Times article, County Planner of Housing and Economic Development, Morgan Torell, is quoted as saying,

"We want to get to the root of homelessness rather than boost existing current services"

While I think that it’s a good idea to try and "get to the root of homelessness," I also think that there is an absolute need to increase – and strengthen – the homeless support services already in place. They go hand in hand. It’s naive to believe otherwise.

One of the definitions of the word "chronic" is,

"Being long-lasting and recurrent or characterized by long suffering"

Using that definition then, I’ve met quite a number of homeless who are chronically homeless BUT who don’t have a "disabling condition." They are folks who have hit a rough patch in life. They would love to find a way out of homelessness. However, since current homeless support services are seriously inadequate to meet their needs and provide them with the help necessary, they are finding themselves homeless for longer periods of time.

Perhaps we need to reassess our definition of "chronic homelessness" to differentiate between those who have been homeless for a long period of time and those who have been homeless for long periods of time through their own choice.

It’s a matter of coming to the realization that there are those who are "chronically" homeless, and then, there are those who are "pathologically" homeless.

Maybe by keeping that in mind, we can actually begin making headway toward helping those homeless who truly want help.

As for those who are pathologically homeless, well… as Forrest Gump would have said:

"Stupid is as stupid does."

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