No one can listen to the story, about the verbal assault by a homeless man, told by Jack Armstrong and not feel sadness, anger and sympathy. As a father of two kids who are the same age as Mr. Armstrong’s, I sat there wondering how I would have handled the situation had it arisen.
Not to downplay the impact of this on Mr. Armstrong, his wife and kids in any way, but unfortunately those situations happen and it is not always homeless people who end up perpetrating them. The man has been caught, he has a criminal record and is wanted for other crimes of violence.
From a policy perspective the question is – what do we do about it? Mr. Armstrong said, “I want Davis to stop being a magnet” for these kind of people.
But the question really is – what does that mean and even what can we do? That, I think, is the much more difficult question because, as Chief Darren Pytel put it, “the issues are extremely complex and most people have no idea about the interplay with all the systems and how complex human beings are.”
As Jon Adler, who spoke as a member of the public and a former homeless person himself, put it quite eloquently, “We are attracting people here.” And for good reason, Davis is a safe, nice town. He said, “When I went to bed, I didn’t worry about someone kicking my head in.”
Aside from that I wonder if we really are attracting homeless people here, other than the fact that Davis is safer overall than other areas and the police are not out harassing people like they
do in other cities. Is that really something we can or even want to change?
Mr. Adler complained that compassion was lacking in the conversation, and I must say I came away from the entire event rather disappointed. It seemed like the purpose was to complain about things that were happening rather than offer forth solutions or talk about the programs that were being developed.
Chief Darren Pytel, ironically, served as a voice of reason, explaining that he had been to a conference and came away with the belief that this is “not something unique to Davis.” He went to a regional conference and the most engaging discussion was on dealing with the homeless. He came away “feeling good about Davis and the types of things we are doing.”
He concluded that this was not necessarily a Davis thing and what other communities are dealing with is far worse.
That view is strongly juxtaposed against the litany of complaints and people urging the police to do something – anything – to get us out of this mess.
The two people who are probably doing the most on the issue of homelessness other than the chief are Bill Pride from Davis Community Meals and Tracey Dickinson from the County Health and Human Services Agency. It felt like too often their voices were muted and downplayed on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, while Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee nicely added reason and balance when he belatedly arrived on the panel, notably for his absence was Mayor Robb Davis, who has done more than any other elected official on this issue and could speak in detail on specifics of these programs – that others on the panel could not do.
The solutions are difficult, some are not particularly flashy and they will take time and resources to properly implement. On Tuesday, instead, we have seen the rhetoric ratcheted up. But to what end?
Darren Pytel did not outright say it on Tuesday, but at the May walkabout downtown, he was quite adamant that the police cannot arrest their way out of this problem. Criminalizing homeless behavior is not an answer and it is something that both the police and frankly the DA’s office is moving away from.
Chief Pytel made it clear that if there is violence, threats, drunkeness or people passed out, the police can intervene. But, in most of those cases, it is catch and release.
Deputy DA Chris Bulkeley said that one of the big problems is that a lot of people don’t want to get services. And that getting people into treatment is one of the biggest challenges as, generally speaking, they cannot compel people to take medication unless they place them in a conservatorship – which is a long and difficult process.
Perhaps the most valuable point was made by Tracey Dickinson in this regard. She actually made two critical points. One is that “what we find is that it often takes a very long time to build the relationship with that person so that they are willing to access services. On average it would take like seven ‘touches’ so seven times of going out (and making contact) before they are even willing to engage in a conversation.”
This is part of what Robb Davis talked about both at the walkabout and the Vanguard event, that we need to build relationships with the homeless population in order for them to seek out people’s help when they are ready to receive it.
That is clearly not what people want to hear when they talk about wanting to be able to operate their business “unbothered and unmolested by the homeless.”
Another issue that we have to deal with is addiction. Darren Pytel pointed out that the cost of street drugs is so low that they are seeing, instead of beer, people using meth, heroin and marijuana on the streets. He noted that many of the panhandlers bring in serious money at $80 to $160 a day to feed that addiction.
Everyone seems to agree with the need to figure out a way to stop the panhandling. As Bill Pride put it, “I do not support panhandling.” The alternative he put forward is to use the “giving meter” as a way to support the homeless without putting cash into their hands.
Finally the city is going to look into funding programs like Housing First. The council unanimously agreed to put forth a $50 a year parcel tax for social service money – which could end up funding these kinds of programs.
It is a Catch-22, as housing alone is not going to help people with addictions and mental illness. But, as Tracey Dickinson further pointed out, with someone living outside or homeless, “it’s very difficult to stabilize.”
The idea of Housing First, then, is to treat the immediate issue of shelter first, and then provide wrap-around services and hope to have a better situation with which to stabilize.
The problem is that there is no panacea, as Robb Davis has put it multiple times, and people need to have patience to deal with the issue. Ratcheting up the rhetoric is not going to solve the problems – they are, as the chief put them, incredibly complex.
“If there were easy answers we wouldn’t have the significant problem we do across the country,” he said.
If the Chamber wants to be part of a solution here, then they need to help educate their constituencies on the programs in place, what is being developed and the limitations of what we can do.
—David M. Greenwald reporting