The Donald can't solve homelessness. I can.
So the White House Occupant, Donald Trump, has declared homeless people to be “unsightly”. OK. Who didn’t know that contemporary “Hoovervilles” were a problem? The homeless know that. They live with it.
Trump’s “answer” to this growing catastrophe is to round up the homeless and warehouse them where he and his ilk don’t have to see them. Ever. Well, the homeless know that’s no answer either. That’s concentration camps for them, mindless dismissal of the problem for the privileged. Will that help? No.
Back in 1982, Ellen Goodman, then a columnist for the Boston Globe, asked of Ronald Reagan’s “solutions” for poverty, “Why do the rich need incentives but the poor need desperation?” The GOP at least, and perhaps many others, still believe this is the path toward solution: make things as unpleasant as possible for the poor, and they will be somehow galvanized to succeed in life, attain riches.
What will solve the homeless crisis is not one thing. It’s a complex problem born of soaring housing costs, lack of jobs, job unavailability for aging veterans and others, health and mental health crises, . No single solution will help all people.
On the Left side, we do promote governmental programs to assist those living in dire poverty, residing in tents or just under dirty blankets, those in campers and cars, those with and without kids. We do this from compassion, yes. But far too many of us do it to wash our hands of “those people” so we don’t have to concern ourselves with them as human beings.
I take very seriously the charges against liberals that while we profess to love humanity, we actually can’t stand people. I decided some years ago, mostly by default, that the only way to put my money where my mouth is was to know homeless individuals living around me and deal with them as I would any other neighbor. It got started by a young couple who held a Christmas Day dinner in our corner park. Many of us joined in, prepared food, set up tables and chairs, donated money to buy socks and warm gloves, hats, scarves. We also had doggie treats since many of the homeless take care of equally homeless pets and need the help.
From that rather glorious day, I discovered a number of homeless people were fascinating people: competent, had amazing life histories, had many skills going wanting, were not trouble makers or addicts, but were in fact – just like my other neighbors. I never looked back. The young couple has moved on, we haven’t done that Christmas Day dinner again, but we have done many other things.
You can do them, too.
I started housing homeless people when one of the men I’d befriended died in our alley. I was heartbroken, but I also worried about his dog. I found that another homeless man had taken Puppy (OK-lack of imagination isn’t a crime), so I found him and her and started giving him money to help feed Puppy. The man then got sick, overheated while recycling, and I let him stay on my porch with Puppy. One thing led to the next, and he moved into the backyard. Then he moved out, reunited with his wife I helped find, and others moved in. Over the past few years, 10 people have lived out back, some in the garage, some under the gazebo. They have electricity thanks to several outdoor cords and power strips, and this gives them heaters in winter, fans in the summer – along with TVs, microwaves, even refrigerators, all scrounged from rubbish bins. They are nothing if not inventive.
What makes this possible is the presence of a public bathroom nearby. Without that I would have, yes, gotten a composting toilet, but that is a big issue. So you have to judge your resources and plan accordingly. Showers are obviously infrequently used, but the main homeless center is available weekdays. Otherwise an outside spigot makes the difference on hygiene. They get their own soap and shampoo – usually from dumpsters, often unopened and fresh.
Others who don’t live here have secure camp sites. They made up some colonies with self- government and mutual support. Still others are more isolated or in vulnerable camps that the police shut down fairly regularly. All of them are eligible for food support, health care, and occasionally small stipends for a few months a year. The problem is missing notifications on re-applying, leading to suspension of benefits that promotes a survival crisis, so another plan was born.
I let them use my address for their mail. I have a PO Box for my own mail, so most of what arrives on the porch is theirs. Now they can apply for not just their benefits but for jobs, housing, and other things that require an address. And yes, they have moved on with jobs, homes, and other things they had thought they lost.
They also now vote. Yes. They vote.
Maybe you don’t want to do that because you get your mail at home? Well, how about getting a locking box for your mail and an open one for theirs? The postal workers are enormously accommodating and will make sure the right mail gets into the right spot. Just ask.
If you still don’t want to do that, how about creating a box with series of cubbyholes that can be used by a church or non-profit to take in the mail? A homeless person would have the main address plus the cubby number that appears to be an apartment. Access could be any time the building was open.
The advent of the “Obama phone” that gives homeless people a link to the outside world AND to 911 has been revolutionary. Add that to an address, jobs suddenly become more likely.
Help them create resumes. Help them write cover letters. Think about whether your state lets them expunge certain kinds of felony convictions (California does this for a wide range of things so long as time was served in county jail, not in prison.) Help them with their statements of rehabilitation. Help them get their records. Help them ask for a suspension of the costs. It’s all doable.
If none of this is doable for you, then become an advocate. Find out how well services are working and speak up at city council or county meetings to make sure they actually function for those in need. There is a huge gap between what the law requires and what actually happens. Close that gap with your oversight and your presence on behalf of those who can’t speak up. And help those who can to get to meetings and to do that speaking. They know what’s needed. They aren’t stupid.
The single largest barrier to affordable housing for the truly destitute isn’t money but mindset. NIMBY - Not in My Back Yard – flourishes among the same people demanding “those people” be removed from view. Well, nuts to that. I have rich neighbors I can’t stand. I don’t get to kick them out! Why should housing for those in need be considered a blight when it stabilizes your area?
Some false supporters maintain we can’t “segregate” the homeless, that they should be mixed in with us in new or infill developments. Well, ask them if they want to live next to people who can’t stand them. You’ll find they really don’t like you with those attitudes any better than you like them. This phony kumbayah argument is really a cover for doing nothing, so let’s drop that “can’t we all live together” barrier and create real solutions.
Let’s adopt a “YES in My Backyard” (YIMBY) mindset when proposals for affordable housing arise. Shelters are not the answer. Would YOU want a bunk bed with zero security for your belongings and for your person? What we need is conversion of abandoned facilities into micro dwellings. Many SROs have communal bathrooms and kitchens, all well maintained, and others have small facilities with places for a microwave and small refrigerators. Lots of options exist. Let’s do them even if they’re in your neighborhood.
We could use ‘waste lands’ for subdivisions of tiny homes. We could even upgrade garden sheds for those purposes. Almost any community, with volunteers from groups and churches, could adopt a home this way and provide insulation, sleeping platforms, cooking shelves. Governments could provide electricity, some communal plumbing, security, and trash pick up. They could locate service centers from mental health to welfare benefit access in or nearby. Rent could be as hostels do it – help keep things clean – or a few dollars a month obtainable via recycling money. They could have community gardens and grow some of their own food. It would improve their health and lower the medical costs later.
Advocate for these real solutions. Homeless people housed are just neighbors, not nuisances.
I never thought I’d know people named Renegade, Wolfman, Jamaica, and the like. They have become trusted allies and loyal friends. They never ask much of me but value what all I can give. And I’m richer for knowing them. It’s worth everything helping them stabilize, get back on their feet. After 6 years, I know I’d never go back to my previous isolation. I love these folks. It’s been worth everything to see them move out and on. And we remain friends. Priceless.
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