It was an interesting discussion late on Tuesday night as the council got an update on homeless services. The upshot of Homeless Services Coordinator Ryan Collins’ presentation was that relatively modest programs have started to make a difference in terms of providing homeless people with services and getting them off the streets.
There was a long list of people who work or volunteer assisting the homeless who seem optimistic that progress is being made. But Alan Miller, a community member, remarked, “I really feel like a lot of homeless people are beyond our help.”
He said, “I don’t think you can house, that don’t want to be housed. I don’t feel you can help those who are drug addicted, who don’t want to get help.” He added, “It’s really difficult to help those who even want to get the help.”
He added, “Sometimes, when you provide resources, you get more homeless people.” He said he’s not the only person in Davis who feels that way and “I’m not saying do not help those people.”
He added, “What I am saying is let’s put the resources to those people who really are in economic straits and who have mental health issues, and we have to draw the line and the people who are just crazy and walking around on meth, we can’t help them. We have to put our resources for those who really want help and those who really need help.”
What was interesting to me was contrasting that with the comments of a woman named Jessica – I recognized her as someone that I used to see on the streets all the time, but haven’t in a while. Why? She got services from the city and Ryan Collins and was able to get off the streets.
“I’m one of the people who doesn’t necessarily have a support system,” she explained. So when things went wrong and the economy went south, she ended up on the streets in November 2011. “Ryan got to us somewhere around October 2017.”
“I think that Ryan has done a whole lot in getting us there,” she said.
The contrast here is rather stark. What I read from the report and saw at the meeting on Tuesday provides us with some hope, with some very modest efforts and small expenditures showing some promise of getting homeless people off the streets.
You can argue that maybe we are attacking low-hanging fruit, maybe the efforts and results will be modest, but it seems that step one is to take those modest steps.
I am reminded of a story that Delaine Eastin told in a speech she gave way back in 1994 when she ran for Superintendent of Public Instruction. There was a beach full of starfish that had washed up on shore and a young person started throwing them back into the water in an effort to save them.
Someone came along and told him that his actions were fruitless and that he could never save them all, he could not possibly make a difference.
He picked up another starfish and tossed it into the water and said, “I made a difference to that one.”
Former Mayor Robb Davis lamented this as well, with the comment about the “ghettoization” at Pacifico, and wrote on his person blog, “In the room sat two of the irredeemables, apparently now redeemed. But would the speaker have eliminated them from the ‘largesse’ of the community back then when they were ensconced in the downtown with no hope? One wonders.”
Robb Davis pushed back noting, “The majority of homeless people in town are ‘our children.’”
He said, “Homeless people don’t come here for services (except perhaps a bed in the coldest months – but even that appears to be waning). They come here for the same reason everyone else does: jobs, family, education.”
What I wonder is how you even operationalize the comment of picking and choosing whom you try to help. Do you simply throw your hands up at the problem (as one person would have in the starfish analogy) or do you do the best with limited resources to help those people that you can?
And what do you do for the rest? Leave them on the streets? Throw them in jail? Remove them from town? (The latter two are not only inadvisable, but also not legal).
The remarkable thing again about these comments is that the city is finally putting small numbers of resources in to address the homeless problem, which has been not only intractable but dealt with by a combination of faith-based volunteer and non-profit efforts – and ineffectively by the state and county, and is now starting to get at least preliminarily modestly successful results.
Jessica suggested that we need three of Ryan Collins – perhaps that is the approach we ought to take rather than throwing up our hands and conceding that we cannot help everyone.
—David M. Greenwald reporting