Root Causes?

Posted: March 27, 2008 in Bureauacracy, Discrimination, Government, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Money

On page 1 of the 2006 Homeless Enumeration Report for SLO County, it states that on the date of the enumeration count – October 26, 2005 – there were 2408 persons who had been identified as being homeless.

On page 10 of the same report there is what is referred to as the "Primary Results Table." The number of persons who were identified as being homeless just within the city of San Luis Obispo was given as 473!

The Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter has the on-site capacity to provide overnight shelter to only 49 persons, with a potential of 20 to 30 additional persons – generally women and children – provided shelter at the "overflow facility."  

Because the "overflow" is hosted by local area churches – with each church "hosting" the overflow for any given month – the numbers of persons who can find shelter will fluctuate based on the available space that each church can provide.

At most, in the city of SLO, only 79 individuals will have access to shelter through homeless support services. This means that on any night of the year at least 349 people – men, women, and children – will find themselves having to sleep out of doors.

Because the homeless do not have housing, the majority of their activities occur "in public."

Unfortunately, the SLO City Council’s method of "dealing" with homelessness comes in the form of legislation and ordinances that penalize its homeless population for not having a place to live.

Anti-loitering ordinances have become more stringent. A person who violates the one hour limit on a downtown area public bench will find themselves subject to receiving a ticket. For a second or third offense the fine is increased.

Although panhandling – or "solicitation" as it is referred to in the city’s municipal code – is protected under the 1st Amendment as a protected form of free speech, the city has been thus far been able to enforce its anti-panhandling ordinance by disguising it as a "traffic flow ordinance." Violation of the ordinance inflicts high fines for those homeless who are caught panhandling in certain locations such as entrances and exits to shopping centers or within 10 feet of an intersection.

Despite the disproportionately low number of shelter beds available in comparison to the high numbers of homeless, police "roust" those homeless they find sleeping in "public places" – even when those "public places" are beyond the view of the general populace. Warnings are given, with the threat of issuance of citations or confiscation of personal property. In some instances, the homeless are made to "vacate" the area immediately – even if such encounters occur in the middle of the night.

All of these ordinances are nothing more than a feeble legislative method of harassment of the homeless with the intent of persuading the homeless to "move on" – preferably to some other city.

The problem is that these ordinances do not make the homeless leave. Nor do they reduce the numbers of homeless. Moreover, they do little or nothing in the way of creating avenues of advancement for those persons who genuinely desire to be free of homelessness.

The irony is that enforcement of these ordinances costs taxpayer dollars through court costs, processing fees and even the cost of arresting and jailing those homeless who cannot afford to pay their fines. All of that, is money that could be better spent by providing funding to local homeless support service agencies.

A further disruptive factor of these types of ordinances is that they create a new "criminal class."

For those homeless who receive citations for violating any of these ordinances, the chore then becomes to find a way to pay the fine. Those who cannot pay their fine may find themselves with warrants for their arrest or summary judgments issued against them. These "convictions" serve to make it all the more difficult for the person to find employment.

In the February 5, 2008 SLO New Times article, "Where To Go?" Prado Day Center Director, Dee Torres is quoted as saying,

"When I first started working here nine years ago, we would service 80 people a day. Now, we’re averaging over 110 a day. Times are getting tough."

Ms. Torres further said that was difficult to help the additional homeless people because there isn’t enough funding.

Within the next few months or so, the County of San Luis Obispo will unveil its "ten year plan to end chronic homelessness." The problem is with the Federal definition of "chronic homelessness" – which the county will have to adhere to if it expects to receive funding to finance the "ten year plan."

According to the report: Questions and Answers about the "Chronic Homelessness Initiative" published by the National Coalition for the Homeless,

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."

By definition, the "chronic homelessness" initiative EXCLUDES the following groups of people: children (with disabilities and without disabilities) who are homeless with their parents; parents (with disabilities and without disabilities) who are homeless and who have children with them; youth on their own with disabilities who have not been homeless long enough to fit the federal definition; youth on their own without disabilities; unaccompanied individuals with disabilities who have not been homeless long enough to fit the federal definition; unaccompanied individuals without disabilities; and unaccompanied individuals who are unwilling to be declared disabled.

Because of the list of those who are excluded from being considered chronically homeless, is seems to me that the overwhelming majority of homeless will not be eligible for aid under the county’s "ten year plan." Additionally, none of the funding slated for that program will go toward expanding current services. Their plan is to "…get to the root of homelessness rather than boost existing current services."

To me that’s very much like closing the barn door after the cows are gone.

Although all homelessness is locally based, its root cause is at the national level.

So unless SLO County has enough ducats in its coffers to jump start and stabilize the national economy, it seems to me that the money would be better spent at providing the funding to promote and maintain programs which help those local homeless who want a way out of homelessness.

That’s the only way we’re going to reduce the numbers of homeless in our community.

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