Don’t Feed the Bea—I Mean Homeless

by lizard

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.

  1. Getting rid of homeless people is good if you’re in charge. Having people sleeping in Walmart parking lots in their cars, in parks, or wherever they can shows that the current socio-economic system isn’t working for many. We can’t have that now can we?

    Drunk bar kids are contributing to the economy in many different ways, so we can allow that. Tall Cans just don’t have the lobbying power they used to.

    Lots of people don’t have to have those problems you listed. Many just have to miss one payment or get an injury or even have their hours cut. Lots of homeless people are working, maybe even 2 jobs. It’s sad.

  2. JC

    Solution-focused. I like that. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear our city and downtown merchants properly define the problem that we need to have solutions for.

    Mentally ill and addict homelessness is not the problem, it is the symptom. The problem is what created, and how we respond to, those situations in the first place.

    The problem stems from lack of access to health care and treatment. The problem comes from inequity in wage scales and housing prices in our community, and discrimination against offenders and the credit-unworthy. The problem is a result of predatory lending and collection practices. The problem comes from families broken apart by a burgeoning private prison system responsible to its shareholders instead of the public and unreasonable sentencing laws prosecuting victimless crimes. The problem comes from the uneven prosecution of the law, where bankers can tank the economy and then walk free as their banks pick up “fines” (read bribes or protection money) in lieu of indictments. And on and on…

    Homelessness, rampant addiction and mental illness are merely symptoms of a society gone horribly wrong. But sane housed peoples don’t want to hear that, because then they may have to take some responsibility — you know do something about the precursors, not just engage in “out of sight, out of mind” public policy.

    Thanks for keeping this discussion going, Liz. I think the ‘zoolian has dropped the ball already.

  3. NamelessRange

    It would be interesting if a survey of the homeless in and around Missoula could be performed to discern what “types” of individuals are out there.

    You can read about threatening “transients” harrassing the taxpayers of Missoula, the down and out suffering from mental disease and addiction in a system that fails to help them, individuals who have lost their jobs, and etc.

    All of them are parts of the population, and certainly not exclusively. I worked nights in Downtown Missoula for 7 years up until a few years ago, and had plenty of conflicts with drunk students and homeless trouble makers alike.

    I also had a herd of them camp behind my house when I lived in one of the old Stimson houses out in Bonner. They stole from my garage, threatened my then pregnant wife, and shit the alley behind my house. When I confronted them regarding these issues, they could’ve cared less. They were “Dirtbagging”, and didn’t want to be “cogs in the machine”. I ended up contacting the public land agency on which they were camping and they were forced to leave after using up their alloted 2 weeks on public land.

    I don’t share that to typify any homeless individual, but rather to point out that homelessness isn’t simple, and in some instances praise and condemnation may be the best options when it comes to altering human behavior. Though I largely agree with you Lizard, that poverty and a big change in the system that offers little to no help would be a step in the right direction for the largest piece in the homeless pie.

    • lizard19

      there was an attempt to do just that in 2010. if you go here you can get the PDF file. the study was called the Missoula Homelessness and Housing Instability Needs Assessment.

      you can also read Missoula’s 10 year plan to end homelessness.

      there is a lot going on right now, a lot of good work happening, but this ordinance discussion is taking up all the oxygen in the room.

  4. JC

    Seems that the new Pope wants to weigh in here, also with a new Apostolic Exhortation:

    Excerpt via CommonDreams:

    “Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

    Further, the Pope writes, “the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root,” and thus spawns violence.

    “Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence,” he wrote.

    Security is impossible in a state with rampant inequality, and cannot be provided through the surveillance state or militarism, he continued:

    “When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.

    Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. This serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.”

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