Commentary: The Perfect Solution Becomes Paralysis

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

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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. Jim Hoch

    So as far as I can tell this is a great plan except:


    We don’t know who will be admitted

    We don’t know what interventions will be conducted

    We don’t know how long it is intended for people to stay

    We don’t know where, it anywhere, they will go afterwards

    We don’t know the intended result of the program

    We don’t know how it will be paid for

    We don’t know how much it will cost

    But of course those are all minor details and “we just have to take the plunge and try to address problems as they arise”




  2. Paul Thober

    I suggest that to your list of participants in your conclave you add at least one addicted, homeless, mentally ill person. What you have now is analogous to having a room full of men discussing women’s health issues.

      1. Ron

        David:  If you’re able to pull that off, I might show up just to see what happens! 

        My apologies in advance, for that insensitive, smart-ass comment. (Can I somehow blame Jim, for encouraging this type of comment?) 🙂

      2. Ron


        Jim:  Appreciate the humor, as well as the serious concerns underlying it.  (In addition to your more straightforward questions.)

        In all seriousness, I think it is a good idea to invite someone from the homeless community, for the reason that Paul (and another commenter) noted.

    1. Howard P

      Paul… would that concept be fulfilled by someone who has spent a lot of time and effort, in a caring way, to help “one addicted, homeless, mentally ill person”?

      If not, I might be able to supply one who has an alcohol dependency, MH issues (depression/ST memory loss, big time), homeless, often spiritual, and quite articulate (when not under the influence of either alcohol or depressive ‘funks’).  It would obviously need to be his choice, and would hope he would not be subjected to be a subject of derision, nor as a “poster child”… I could have supplied another, two years ago, but he did not have the chemical dependency thing, and he died “on the streets” of a heart attack.  His MH issue was most likely PTSD (two tours in the mid east as a soldier)… he was in his mid-40’s, and many of the current homeless in town fondly remember him as a leader who watched every one’s back…

    2. Robb Davis

      I will happily yield my position on the panel to another person to avoid the problems identified here.

      We are just starting Jim. Your patience is appreciated. We need to start and we have more info than your statements would imply. Our Pathways Project is underway but in early stages. The models, however, are place.

      1. Jim Hoch


        I appreciate that you are just putting this together and while you may have more information the citizens don’t so it is impossible to decide whether I may support it.

        I find the call to move forward in the absence of any announced plan to be premature.

        1. Robb Davis

          The Pathways plan has been shared with City Council in a staff report.  I don’t recall the meeting.  The program has been discussed via our Social Services Commission.  So, there is public information out there.

          However, I realize now that some details need to be shared via the VG and/or Enterprise.  I will endeavor to make that happen.

          I wish you, and others on here, would merely refer to me as Robb.

  3. Howard P

    There may be ‘low hanging fruit’… those who have no serious chemical dependence issues, no serious MH issues, and just had circumstances where they are ‘out on the street’.  They could definitely benefit from housing first, getting them more isolated from the ‘opportunities’ to get into the dependency issues, on the street, get into skills training, coping skills, self confidence.  That should be a no brainer.

    We have places where women, seeking to get themselves and/or their children out of a violent environment/relationship, where they can be safe, re-group, get support to become fully independent.  They generally have a high success rate.  When such a facility was proposed in Davis people admired the concept, but did not want such a facility anywhere near them… they cited crime increases for their neighborhoods, particularly violent crime, increased traffic (yeah, women and children needing a safe haven, where it would be a crime to disclose the location of such a facility) drive much more frequently than other dwelling units.  But I cannot call those people “NIMBY’s”, because that would be an insult [as Don and Ron point out]  to their ‘normal’/righteous/”valid” concerns [was here for that, and the public record does not fully reflect the vitriol by that neighborhood, including a then DPD officer… apologize for bringing up a ‘dusty’ matter]

    A journey of 1000 miles, begins with putting one foot in front of another.

    When an individual has a “constellation” of problems, including homelessness, unemployment/lack of financial resources, chemical dependency and/or MH issues, that is a hard row to hoe.  Thin soil, lots of rocks/stones.

    Let’s at least harvest the low hanging fruit, before it spoils on the tree.

    Let’s plan on going farther, as we can.

    Go ahead Ron, obviously I’m “looking to pick a fight”, and being “self-righteous”, so call me on it… you are much nobler than moi and you never use ‘loaded terms’ that could ever be deemed as insults. A great role model.


  4. Carson Wilcox

    IMHO, the housing first concept, as was mentioned will solve the homelessness problem for a very small % of those on the streets.  those low hanging fruit.  The number without comitment level mental health, drug abuse or alcoholism is very low…  Plopping the rest in an apartment with supposed service providers?  Come on.


    For most it will just be a transitory shelter to do what they are going to do on our dime.  Am I supposed to now pay for housing for these people with no expectation for living clean(ish)?  For no expectation of how long they can stay there, what it looks like to be “successful”…


    Look at any of these cities that have tried to throw $ and wraparound services at homelessness… that tolerated public camping.  Do they have more or less people camping in their streets, living off them?  And dont tell me they just havent done ENOUGH..  that is balogna.

    When you call the fire department, for a burning building, do they stand there debating whether the smoke alarms had 9v batteries, or AA?  Or do they put the fire out?  Our downtown is burning.  DPD should CLEAR the downtown of campers drunks and pan handlers.  Those that are a mess should be committed.  Those that are just in need of “services” will be served…  Those that dont want it and are just here to leech off silly davisites,  will load their dogs and burleys and make their way to SF or berkeley or wherever.


    I think Robb is right, we need a spectrum of services, a diverse rainbow of responses… however one of those has to be a statement in word and deed from our leaders that we will not tolerate camping, drunkenness, drug abuse in our downtown, near schools and parks.  It seems so obvious.

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