Commentary: Can We Find a Solution to the Homeless Problem in Davis?

When we launched the idea of discussing the homeless situation in our Monthly Conclave series, the idea was to provide a space where people could come together, to learn about different approaches to solving the homeless problem in our community.

What we have learned in this process is that the issue has touched on a lot of raw nerves.  There are those who believe that the homeless represent a keen danger to our community and those who will not allow their children to walk alone in the downtown because of the presence of the homeless.

The city has put forward some ideas for addressing the homeless issue.  The question is one of resources and ability to get the kinds of services needed to help people who have found themselves perhaps suffering from addiction and/or mental illness.

Tonight, the Vanguard will host a discussion that will feature Mayor Robb Davis, Pastor Bill Habicht, Michael Bisch from Davis Downtown, and Mary Anne Kirsch (on the board of Davis Opportunity Village – a non-profit that works toward micro-housing for homeless individuals).

The purpose of our discussion is to look at what various efforts are already underway to solve the homeless problem in Davis, as well as look at what we need to still do.

In a May commentary, Davis Mayor Robb Davis wrote, “We need to talk about our options and make commitments. To deal with the visible homelessness that attracts our attention will take a patient and persistent process.”

On the other hand, during a discussion on Nextdoor, one person wrote that “downtown CANNOT become the homeless camp it has become.”

He wrote, “There are other people who have claimed whole strips of sidewalk. You can’t sit on benches. They do drugs, smoke, piss, panhandle, harass (especially women), litter, and create a hostile environment. I’m sorry, it’s not their downtown, it’s ours!”

Others pushed back, saying “homeless people are human beings who have a RIGHT to exist, especially in public spaces. If you are concerned about their plight, then help by voting for taxes and providing donations that can help with homeless shelters, programs for drug abuse, and even public bathrooms. We are all responsible for helping others less fortunate.”

After a heated exchange, the first commenter later wrote, “But there’s the other side of the coin that you don’t seem to want to address: public health and safety, and subsequently, economic impact on downtown businesses.”

Another person added in, “I am avoiding downtown Davis now. I don’t want to deal with the homeless there.”

He added, “There is no good fix. The homeless problem is not going away by raising taxes in Davis or providing them with little houses here. Let’s not invite the homeless to come and live in Davis at our expense. I don’t want them in my neighborhood, and I wonder who does. Who wants drug users, drunks, and the mentally unfit in their neighborhood? I’d like to see federal programs that house the homeless en masse. Feed and house them in big complexes and keep them there.”

Another person pushed back, “It’s painful to read your rhetoric. The only solution is to invest in actual infrastructure to alleviate the problem in Davis, but Measure A was already voted down and the populace continues to refuse to allow densification to happen which only exacerbates the disparity in the community. Unless the city invests in an actual homeless shelter, along with community mental health and addiction clinics nothing will change.”

From my perspective, one of the best discussions I have seen on homelessness took place at the May Davis Chamber walkabout.  We got to see the views of the business community, the mayor and the police.

Some in the business community have suggested that we figure out how many people we can feed and house and then get rid of the rest.

Chamber CEO Christina Blackman said she wants to get the community to help homeless people in ways that do not involve giving direct handouts.

“Educating the community as to why this is a different way of helping,” she said.  “I think if we really want to help solve the problem – then making sure that we provide the support services and eventually housing if we can.”

For Mayor Davis, there is no magic bullet solution.

Robb Davis fears that, without housing and wrap-around programs, with the low cost of methamphetamine and other drugs, “the amount of money necessary to get a week’s supply of the drugs we’re talking about is very very low.

“I don’t think there’s any one magic bullet,” he said.

Robb Davis said, “There’s no one thing we can do, there’s simply not.”

The business community is at a loss for how to help the business owner who is having problems with homeless populations.

The issue is complex and, while police are often called, Chief Pytel explained that “we have to deal with people’s immediate safety concerns.”  But, even having said that, “there may or may not be anything that we can do.

“A lot of people say, why don’t you just arrest them,” he said.  “We’re finding over and over that that’s not necessarily the answer,” especially if “mental illness or drugs and addiction are the primary issues.

“So just making an arrest under the current criminal justice system is not going to change that behavior,” he explained.  “We are looking for support that people are open to alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system.”

Robb Davis in late May’s column wrote, “In Davis, we are not merely throwing up our arms and saying there is nothing we can do.  We’re committed as a city to move forward with a process known as Housing First.  Housing First is about helping people who are in those situations to move into housing before dealing with the broader issues they face.”

He said, “Housing First starts by providing an alternative to the street but then moves aggressively to deal with the causes of the homelessness.  The key is to get a roof over people’s heads and then to provide wrap-around services to address the other challenges they face.”

But again he warned, “Let’s be clear, it is not a panacea.”

Questions I think that should be asked:

  1. What is the first step to addressing the homeless problem?
  2. What resources do we need to do so?
  3. What services already exist and which ones do we need to create?
  4. Is there common ground that can help this community move forward?

Join us tonight from 6 to 8 pm at Sophia’s Thai Kitchen, 129 E St in Davis.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Howard P

    Alan is right… as is Robb Davis…

    There definitely is not “a solution”… in large part, because there is not “a problem”.

    Homelessness is a symptom, not a root cause… but being homeless can feed, hide, exacerbate the root causes…

    There are many alcohol/drug dependent folk in Davis… some are also homeless.  There are many folk in Davis with serious MH issues, some of whom are fully ‘capable’ of being violent, or ‘scary’… some of those are also homeless.

    My experience with the folk in the Davis homeless ‘culture’ is that they range from sober to heavily dependent on alcohol/drugs… deeply caring about others, to definitely anti-social (including maybe a socio-path or two)…  some have varying degrees of MH issues.  Some have a ‘constellation’ of factors going on… it is not a problem… it is  a number of problems…

    And the homeless in Davis are not the only ones facing serious problems… by luck, ‘privilege’, being “high-functioning” they still have home/shelter, family and friends.  Heck, you might be working alongside of one of ‘them’ today.

  2. Tia Will

    Some have a ‘constellation’ of factors going on… it is not aproblem… it is  a number of problems…”

    I truly appreciate this comment. I would add that is some cases, probably within our student population, they may have no problem at all other than the lack of ability to either afford or find a place to live. On this, I know of which I speak as I was homeless for six months before entering medical school. I was homeless by choice. I couch surfed or lived out of my van by choice to save money for medical school. I “passed” meaning that I was an invisible homeless. No one knew and so know one perceived me as a “problem” to them personally. It seems that some in our community focus on the “problem” only as it affects them, not as it may or may not affect the homeless individual.

    Please come join us for what should be a lively conversation this evening.

    1. Howard P

      Problem… might ‘out’ myself where my on-line identity becomes widely known as ‘me’… I am ‘recognizable’… not ‘there’ yet… I believe I have valid concerns, and David agreed to allow me to post as I do, because he believes it is a valid concern… but who knows… might be there, might not.

      And I fully understand your point about the homeless who are “passing”… I know of one now… his issue is lack of $, and an expired student visa…

  3. Jim Hoch

    People fluctuate over time as well. There is a pretty visible homeless guy around who six months ago I could talk to. Now he walks around with black paint on his face and is very creepy. Maybe he will be conversant in another six months, who knows.

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