Don’t Feed the Bea—I Mean Homeless
Missoula’s effort to curb the unsavory behavior of “transients” downtown is not happening in a vacuum. In fact, it’s part of a national trend.
I linked to this NPR piece in a previous post—More Cities Sweeping Homeless Into Less Prominent Areas:
Raleigh isn’t the only city seeking to move its homeless population to a less prominent location. In recent years, municipalities from Seattle to Tampa have cracked down on the homeless and groups that help them.
Nationally, there is an increase in cities responding to visible poverty including homelessness by criminalizing it.
Maria Foscarinis heads the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, an organization that seeks to end homelessness. She says many cities want to revitalize downtown areas.
“And they feel like having homeless people, having visibly poor people in those downtown areas detracts from those efforts,” she says.
Even Los Angeles, with its temperate climate and 50,000+ homeless population, is considering going after those who feed the down and out:
They began showing up at dusk last week, wandering the streets, slumped in wheelchairs and sitting on sidewalks, paper plates perched on their knees. By 6:30 p.m., more than 100 homeless people had lined up at a barren corner in Hollywood, drawn by free meals handed out from the back of a truck every night by volunteers.
But these days, 27 years after the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition began feeding people in a county that has one of the worst homeless problems in the nation, the charity is under fire, a flashpoint in the national debate over the homeless and the programs that serve them.
Facing an uproar from homeowners, two members of the Los Angeles City Council have called for the city to follow the lead of dozens of other communities and ban the feeding of homeless people in public spaces.
“If you give out free food on the street with no other services to deal with the collateral damage, you get hundreds of people beginning to squat,” said Alexander Polinsky, an actor who lives two blocks from the bread line. “They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next door neighbor’s crawl spaces. We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.”
Should Los Angeles enact such an ordinance, it would join a roster of more than 30 cities, including Philadelphia, Raleigh, N.C., Seattle and Orlando, Fla., that have adopted or debated some form of legislation intended to restrict the public feeding of the homeless, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless.
These efforts—from Orlando to Missoula—will fail because the systems that are suppose to support and treat the core maladies are not working.
Prisons don’t rehabilitate criminals, hospitals don’t treat addicts, and states can’t handle their mentally ill, for starters.
Of course not all folks who find themselves without conventional housing are mentally ill addicts with criminal histories. The stories I highlighted in this post exemplified how some younger people have experienced homelessness.
But the threatening behavior downtown—and there is threatening behavior we should all be concerned about—comes primarily from a very small percentage of people who do have significant substance abuse problems and, too often, underlying mental health issues.
I would also argue there is actually more threatening behavior at night that comes from drunk college kids and other participants of the bar scene, but that doesn’t seem to be a part of this ordinance conversation, although maybe it should be.
The scope of this ordinance discussion needs to be broader and more solution-focused. There are plenty of people in our community who understand the problem and know what needs to happen to make a significant impact on the core problems.
The solutions, though, will take funding and hard work from trained, dedicated professionals, which probably sounds too expensive and difficult.
Instead, communities across the country are hoping to push the unsightly symptoms of addiction and mental illness to other part of town, like city parks and surrounding residential areas.
It won’t work, as we soon shall see.