A recent article in the Sacramento Bee reminded me of the discussion we have been having on the Vanguard in the last few days regarding homelessness and potential solutions.
The Bee reported last Friday that “it takes two hours each morning to clean up after homeless campers at (the Sacramento) courthouse.”
“The county does not own this building. The city of Sacramento does not own this building,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard to the Bee. She heads the court’s safety committee, and has been outspoken regarding the camping issue. “In 2002, the state took ownership of about 450 courthouses, including the Sacramento County Courthouse, so, ultimately, it is their responsibility to provide for a safe and clean environment for which our public can come and seek justice, service jurors and have their cases heard in court.”
But many have criticized the judge, who believes that the homeless people around the courthouse want to be homeless and not harmed. The judge was more concerned about the mess left behind than the conditions that led them to form their encampment near the courthouse.
The judge told the paper that the Judicial Council “has neglected the courthouse and ignored court officials’ requests for funding, resources to deal with the issue and protection of its property by the state’s law enforcement agency, the California Highway Patrol.”
She “wants to see CHP patrol the courthouse after hours as it does at the state Capitol and other state buildings. She also wants a fence or other barrier erected to discourage campers from entering the grounds.”
But, as the article points out, “dozens of homeless people have set up camp at the courthouse moved in part by tighter city restrictions on camping, downtown construction, a dearth of affordable housing and storm-swollen rivers brought on by a drought-busting winter – the latest location in a ‘moving shell game,’ in the words of one advocate, across the city’s downtown.”
What is clear to me is that simply putting up barriers and hiring security will simply move the problem to someone else’s door step. And that’s what seems to have caused the problem in the first place.
In the last month, the Vanguard toured the downtown with the Davis Chamber and other community leaders like Mayor Robb Davis.
The mayor in a recent op-ed adapted from a speech to the Chamber in April calls the issue of homelessness “a final mile problem,” which he says “is often the result of a combination of many factors that include mental health challenges; addictions to some very, very powerful substances; and, as we’re learning more and more, severe childhood trauma that underlies everything that’s happened since.”
I am supportive of the process called Housing First. I’ve read people’s concerns, but the reality is that this is a first step. That’s what Robb Davis called it, writing, “it is only a first step, because once the roof is there then the wrap-around services that really are about addressing the underlying needs of the population in question become important.”
But I would argue it is a critical first step.
First of all, I would argue that it is better to have a roof over one’s head, irrespective of untreated mental illness and addiction. Those who argue that we are simply perpetuating the problem by not having mandatory treatment – and argue against having drug addicts in close proximity to housing – should look at the situation in Sacramento, where the homeless by their act of living are creating problems of trash and human waste.
But juxtapose that against the comments in the Sacramento Bee by people like Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, who is advocating for short-term solutions such as providing nearby portable restrooms. He told the paper, “It’s shameful that there is no alternative but to use the city’s streets and alleys as a urinal. It’s dehumanizing.”
Providing for immediate shelter solves a large number of issues – and not just for the homeless but the broader community.
For those who argue that is not enough – I completely agree. Robb Davis talks about the need for wrap-around services that address the underlying problems for the population. And he notes that “lest we think these are short term wrap-around programs, I think we need to remember that we’re dealing with people that have gone down a long road and it’s going to be an equally long road to come back. And so the services will need to be continued over a long period of time, which implies a revenue stream that we need to create within the community.”
He continues, “In other words, this problem will not be dealt with through one-off grants over short periods of time. We need to find out how to generate streams of revenue if we’re really going to attack the challenge that we have.”
Still, I believe that these services, while needed, are best utilized when the individuals have housing over their heads. I think it is probably much more difficult for services to be effective when people are housing and food insecure.
I don’t want to ignore the issue of funding. I think there are legitimate questions about whether and how we should fund these kinds of programs.
But, stop for a second, go back to the Sacramento article and note how much time and money are going into solutions that are not solutions. If they end up spending money to upgrade security around the courthouse, to place CHP or other security agents to protect the property – that is money that is being spent that could go to actually helping homeless people but instead is going simply to protect property.
I think we ought to ask how much money we are spending now – on measures that are not addressing homeless issues but are rather mitigating the effect of homeless issues – before we complain about the possibility that we create a revenue stream to house and perhaps help the homeless.
My final point is that I have grown tired with the people who say “no” or that we cannot deal with issues. I have also grown tired with the perfect being the enemy of the good. We have to take a first step because we lack the resources to tackle the entire problem at once.
I think housing is a good first step, and I will back the mayor on this initiative.
—David M. Greenwald reporting