Two days ago I spoke with one of SLO’s local journalists.
He’d contacted me to ask if I knew about local law enforcement’s practice of "rousting" homeless encampments and the confiscation or destruction of their personal property. Although I told him what little I knew of the situation, I’m not sure I was able to be of much help.
At one point in the conversation, I said something to the effect that I was disappointed in government’s approach to "dealing" with homelessness. And, therein is the problem: the methodology typically used involves reactive measures rather than proactive solutions. However, using reactive tactics to "deal" with homeless isn’t unique to SLO – it happens with regular frequency in most cities.
With regards to homelessness, I monitor headlines from all across the nation. It is not unusual for me to come across headlines which tell of cities implementing or strengthening ordinances which prohibit "urban camping." These types of articles are becoming more common place – particularly with the increasing numbers of folks who are finding themselves homeless.
Local shelter systems have not been able to keep up with the growing numbers of homeless. Lack of funding prevents them from being able to expand their services. Folks are turned away – and because sleep is a human necessity, those who cannot find refuge at the shelters must use pubic places to bed down for the night.
At this point, you’d figure that common sense would kick in. It should tell us that if we didn’t want the homeless sleeping in public places we should increase funding to create the availability of additional shelter beds. That would be somewhat of a proactive solution.
However, for some unknown reason, politicians seem incapable of using common sense when it comes to the issue of homelessness. Their usual reaction to an increase of folks sleeping in public is to have local law enforcement chase them off, confiscate or destroy their belongings and issue citations. What makes even less sense is that these citations usually involve some rather hefty fines – and, in some cases, even arrest.
In SLO, for example, the fines for urban camping are more expensive than those for a parking ticket.
Good luck collecting.
But, it isn’t just the prohibition of urban camping which most cities have gotten wrong. Some municipalities have actually adopted laws to prohibit charitable organizations from feeding the homeless in public areas. Others have made it difficult for churches to even offer meals on church premises. And forget about new shelters being built or allowing them to expand their services. City councils all around the nation are making that near to impossible.
And, to add insult to injury: even though many cities are adopting "10-year plans to end homelessness" – those same cities are also adopting more laws to criminalize homelessness.
Even when cities commission studies on how to best address homelessness, politicians don’t seem able to mentally process the data. The result is that they revert to their old habits of passing laws to make life for their local homeless as uncomfortable as possible.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that these tactics are not designed to help the homeless. Their goal is to have the homeless move on – preferably to some other city or town. Yet, if history is a reliable teacher – reducing the numbers of homeless will never be achieved by creating laws which do nothing more than harass them.
The reality is this: despite city after city attempting to "legislate" a reduction in homelessness, the numbers have continued to rise steadily. The reason is because homelessness is not something which can be deterred by the passage of laws. It is an economic condition. Some folks simply cannot afford housing. And lack of housing is not a criminal offense – nor can it be made into one.
That government officials seemingly haven’t been able to recognize that reality boggles the mind. They have failed to recognize that the only solution to reducing homelessness requires finding ways of creating the potential for those folks to acquire suitable and affordable housing. Anything less is doomed to failure.
If local governments have a genuine desire to reduce homelessness in their communities, the first lesson they must learn is the difference between help and harassment.