Learning From History

Posted: February 24, 2008 in Bureauacracy, Government, Homelessness, Housing, Morality, Politics

In my opinion, one of the most historic and beautiful locations in San Luis Obispo is the Mission de San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. It is certainly one of the central focal points of the city. Founded in 1772 on the site of a Chumash village site, it was the fifth in a chain of 21 Spanish missions that were established in California.

With the founding of the Mission, a new community was born.  

According to the "Brief History" page on the City of San Luis Obispo’s official web site, SLO was first incorporated in 1856 as a General Law City, and then became a Charter City sometime in 1876. Needless to say there is a lot of history in San Luis Obispo. And, new history is being made all of the time. That’s just the way things go. Yet some things never change.

For example –

Just about a week ago, I published a post called, "Chronic vs. Pathologic." In it, I gave form to my thoughts about chronic homelessness. I pointed out that I thought we should differentiate between people who were chronically homeless and those who were pathologically homeless.

To me a chronically homeless person iis someone who may not necessarily want to be homeless, but despite all of their best efforts can’t seem to find a way off of the streets. Or, if they do find a way off of the streets, they somehow find themselves back out on the streets again. The result is a "chronic" battle with homelessness. I’ve met a number of people who fit into that category.

On the other hand there are homeless who are pathologically homeless. They choose to be homeless – and they generally fit into the stereotypes of what most people think of when they think of a homeless person.

All of that aside… the post came about as a result of an article in the SLO New Times called, "Where To Go?"

One of the things that has been gnawing away at me since I first read it, is a line from the article’s third paragraph,

"According to local law enforcement officials, homelessness in SLO has been a major issue ever since the city was founded."

If that indeed is true, then I’m really disappointed in all of our elected leaders – past and present.

There are three dates associated with San Luis Obispo: 1772 when the Mission was founded, 1856 when the city was incorporated as a General Law City and, 1876 when it became a Charter City.

If we take the last date, then homelessness has been "an issue" in SLO for 132 years – give or take several months. That’s an outrageous thought!

I took two years of Political Science in high school. What I came away with from those classes was the belief government’s entire purpose is to provide for the safety, betterment and welfare of its citizenry – ALL of its citizenry. That’s a sacred duty.

It shouldn’t matter if some of those citizens don’t have as much as others. It shouldn’t matter if some of those citizens don’t have anything. And it most certainly shouldn’t matter if some of those citizens are homeless.

Considering that homelessness in SLO has been "an issue" for at least the last 132 years, you would think that local government would have done something to significantly reduce the numbers of homeless. But they haven’t. It makes me wonder what’s been going on in this community for the last one and a third centuries.

I’ve done some searching and have yet to find any substantial legislative actions that have been designed to help the homeless find a way out of homelessness. What I’ve discovered instead are laws and ordinances that penalize the homeless for being homeless.

It seems that local elected officials have historically had this naive belief that if you make it hard enough on the homeless that they will just pick up and head off into the sunset. Those are the only solutions that this community’s administrations have ever been able to come up. Yet, those solutions have done nothing to end homelessness in SLO – let alone reduce the numbers of homeless.

It’s a wonder that none of our elected leaders have had the insight to take a look at history and recognize the truth: laws and ordinances that penalize the homeless do nothing to reduce homelessness.

What is needed is legislation that will establish, fund and promote programs that help reintegrate the homeless back into the community. That’s the only way to stem the tide of homelessness: by helping the homeless reestablish themselves as productive members of society. But none of that can happen if we don’t have leaders who are willing to make hard choices. It can’t happen so long as we have leaders who see passing ordinances that criminalize homelessness as the only viable solution. Those solutions only serve to create more problems.

Currently in SLO County is the talk of a "10 year plan to end homeless." Supposedly the plan has already been approved by the County Board of Supervisors. However it will be another 6 or 7 months before they meet with the San Francisco based consulting group HomeBase and attempt to put the plan into action.

Yet, I wonder if the county would even be considering the 10 year plan had it not been for Federal mandate and the threat of losing funding?

While I applaud the idea of the 10 year plan, it will not solve the problem of homelessness in the community. It will not increase funding to current homeless services. Nor will it help those homeless who "fall between the cracks" and are desperately seeking a way to raise their standard of living. Furthermore, it will provide "services" to only a miniscule number of the area’s homeless. It will be nothing more than window dressing.

In short, the 10 year plan it will do nothing to significantly reduce the numbers of homeless in our community. And that’s the keyword: significantly.

Even with the 10 year plan in action, the overwhelming majority of our community’s homeless will continue to be ignored. They will continue to be consigned to suffering and living in abject poverty. Men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds will be forced to sleep out of doors, hoping for whatever table scraps we happen to throw their way.

That’s a bleak future for this community. But that’s what’s in store for us unless our elected leaders realize that they must take actions that are proactive rather than reactive. It’s time for them to take a good look at history and learn from it.

I just hope that it doesn’t take another 132 years before they wise up.

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