It was French writer and philosopher Voltaire who popularized the quote and its many variants, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It has been my observation that, in local governance, we have often used the excuse that a plan has flaws to prevent a modest improvement from taking place.
I see this in the discussion over homelessness that has emerged this weekend, both on the Vanguard and on Nextdoor.
Mayor Robb Davis has warned us on several occasions that there is no magic bullet solution. He said, “There’s no one thing we can do, there’s simply not.” Moreover, he warned that without housing and wrap-around programs, homeless people will continue to suffer from mental illness and addiction.
At the same time, it is clear that we must take steps – even if they are half-measures to improve things.
I think we make a mistake by saying that we should not take measures because we do not have funding for these kinds of services right now.
The solution is very vexing. There are those who simply believe, as one person wrote, we should round up the homeless and deliver them to West Sacramento.
An individual wrote on Nextdoor: “What ever happened to me good ol’ days when DPD would round em’ up and dump em’ back into West Sac? This was done weekly and back then, we never had the nonsense we have to deal with now.”
Others are concerned with the climate in the downtown, writing that “downtown CANNOT become the homeless camp it has become.”
That individual 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!”
There is a problem with that view, as Police Chief Darren Pytel has made clear. 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.”
So, what can we do? I’m in favor of the Housing First approach, which puts them into housing first before dealing with the underlying reasons. There are those who believe that this doesn’t solve the problem – and they have a point.
But as Mayor Robb Davis put it, “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.”
As the mayor pointed out in a comment: “What do citizens of Davis want to do about homelessness? If it is simply to ‘make it go away,’ that is not an option. Any effort is going to take time and be costly to implement. I get MANY emails complaining about the problem but it is one that does not lend itself to easy solutions. Merely evicting people from camps is not a solution as our own Police Chief has made clear. So, if that won’t work then we need real programmatic options. That is what we are working on.”
As he pointed out later: “The goal is to move people most at risk of death on the streets and get a roof over their heads so that they can receive treatment and move beyond the challenges that led them to the street. Some will need support for the rest of their lives. Others will be able to move back into jobs and other housing.”
Is it perfect? No. But it seems like the best way to move forward. We cannot simply wait until the perfect solution comes forward – because, what if it doesn’t?
Are people better off with housing over their heads, irrespective of services? Yes. Does having a roof over their head make people more receptive to receiving services? Yes. So, just because we cannot fix it all in one fell swoop, does not mean we shouldn’t take steps to improve things.
“The bottom line is that we are dealing with a significant challenge,” Robb Davis said. “What I see here in Davis is that those who live closest to camps want something done NOW. Others who do not ‘see’ the problem every day seem satisfied with the status quo and throw up barriers to even trying. They point to the problems that housing homeless people will cause and deride as impractical any effort to change the situation.”
The first group says, essentially, “just make this go away… NOW!”
The second group says, essentially, “not my problem, why make it my problem?”
Is this a perfect solution? Would we prefer to have services to go with housing? Absolutely.
Will placement of the homeless in certain locations create other problems? That is more difficult to predict.
As the mayor noted, the council has “has already approved a 90-unit project on 5th Street beyond the Police Department site. The developers are proposing that 40 of the units be set aside for special needs housing – much like the Cesar Chavez units on Olive Drive. These units are permanent supportive housing for those who are currently homeless or at high risk of homelessness.”
Some have expressed concern that there are no requirements on treatment and drug use. Others are concerned of the impact on neighboring residents.
There is no magic bullet here, but there is also not a perfect solution. At some point you have to acknowledge that you will never have a perfect solution, that waiting for the funding to get a perfect solution means years of inaction, and the status quo is bad and untenable.
At some point we just have to take the plunge and try to address problems as they arise. Otherwise you end up allowing the lack of a perfect solution paralyze you.
The Vanguard will be taking up this issue at our next conclave – Wednesday, July 26 from 6 to 8 pm at Sophia’s on 129 E St. In addition to Mayor Robb Davis and Pastor Bill Habicht, we have now added Jason Taormino, Davis Chamber President, and Mary Anne Kirsch, Board Member, Davis Opportunity Village.
The event is free – please join us.
—David M. Greenwald reporting