A couple of months ago Sacramento, California made headlines when one of its "tent cities" was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Amid public outcry and criticism – not only nationally, but internationally – Sacramento’s Mayor Kevin Johnson tried to salvage the city’s reputation by dismantling the tent city and pretty much coercing the homeless to take refuge at a number of the city’s homeless shelters. There was also much talk coming from him and his spokespersons about finding permanent housing for those homeless who were being displaced by the dismantlement of the tent city.
Apparently the permanent housing never materialized, because many of the former residents of the tent city have unfortunately found themselves back on the streets without a roof over their heads.
Because the shelters which they were sent to were only "winter shelters."
What that means is that during the summer the shelter isn’t in operation. It closed down for "summer vacation" on June 30th. It won’t be re-opened until some time later this coming autumn.
As a result, and since they had no where else to go, some of the homeless set up another tent city near Loaves and Fishes – a non-profit organization which provides some services to the city’s homeless population.
But, guess what?
According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, that "tent city" has also been dismantled by the Sacramento Police Department.
Despite not having anywhere near the shelters beds needed to accommodate the numbers of homeless in Sacramento, in typical bureaucratic fashion Joaquin McPeek, a spokesperson for the city’s mayor, justified the action by saying:
"The law is very clear. Camping is illegal in the city limits of Sacramento. We want to be compassionate, but we have to have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to those who are not abiding by the laws."
So – let me see if I have this straight:
Sacramento most definitely does not have enough shelters to offer a place for the homeless to sleep. However, they also do not want them sleeping in public places or setting up homeless encampments. But, neither have they come up with a reasonable alternative or solution.
It seems to me that Sacramento doesn’t have a "zero tolerance" policy. What they have instead is an attitude of intolerance toward the most vulnerable of its citizens.
But, Sacramento isn’t the only U.S. city which exhibits an "attitude of intolerance" toward its homeless population.
For example –
In Anchorage, Alaska, the city’s Assembly unanimously approved a new law last week which gives local law enforcement the authority to give homeless campers a 12-hour notice to clear out and take their belonging with them. If they don’t, "… police will clear everything out themselves."
The previous version of the ordinance used to give the homeless 24-hours to clear out.
And, once again, in typical bureaucratic fashion, Assembly member Elvi Gray-Jackson stated that she was worried that folks would conclude that Anchorage was "… trying to outlaw homelessness."
It seems rather hypocritical for her to have made such a statement, especially since she voted in favor of the "revised" ordinance.
Then, as if to add injury to insult, she continued by saying,
"This law, I’m sure, needs some fine-tuning, and will have some fine-tuning, I can guarantee you that."
Call me an idealist, but perhaps the Anchorage Assembly should have "fine-tuned" it before passing it.
If they’d taken the time to really consider their less than humane approach, they might have even come up with a way to help – rather than harass – their local area homeless.
Another city which is also using "anti-camping" laws as an approach to the increasing numbers of homeless is Des Moines, Iowa.
An article in the Des Moines Register said that city leaders "… intend to fight the spread of homeless camps amid reports that more have popped up along the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers."
According to the article,
"City leaders said the camps have grown gradually over the years, partly because stronger policy has not been enacted to discourage them."
Perhaps it isn’t that Des Moines lacks a "stronger policy" to discourage homeless camps from sprouting up. Maybe tent cities are popping up because the city lacks adequate resources and services for its homeless population.
Within Des Moines’ metro area, roughly 175 people live in some type of homeless encampment.
That’s actually a very small number considering that the homeless population within the city’s metro area is estimated somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500.
As for the number of available shelter beds, the article says this:
"The metro area has about 400 emergency beds for the homeless, but many camp dwellers, who often have addiction and mental health issues, often oppose efforts to put them in shelters."
I may not be a math whiz, but by looking at the numbers, I can reasonably conclude that it may not be so much that folks don’t want to go into Des Moines shelters as much as it is that over 60 percent of them can’t get in to begin with.
Is it just me, or does it seem that perhaps Des Moines city leaders shouldn’t be too overly focused on discouraging the homeless from setting up camps?
Wouldn’t a community – not only in Des Moines, but throughout the nation – be better served if city leaders worked toward providing the types of services and resources that would help their homeless become housed?
Doing so would remedy two issues with one stroke.
It would reduce (and possibly eliminate) the numbers of homeless encampments. But more importantly, it would repatriate our homeless citizens.