By Bob Gelfand.
It was a long public hearing at my neighborhood council the other night. Outraged, obviously frightened homeowners were pitted against advocates for the homeless. At least that’s how it started, but it’s not how it ended. It’s curious, but in this contentious culture of ours, it turned out to be possible to have a meeting of the emotions, if not always of the minds.
By the time that 2 hours had passed, concerned homeowners, the kind who began the evening by describing their inner fears of drug addicted child molesters, had seen some of the faces of homelessness. Out of all of this, a thin and very tentative consensus started to emerge.
The topic of homelessness has been cropping up in the harbor area for a while now. That’s largely because a substantial homeless population suddenly showed up on city streets and in public parks. The likely explanation is that there has been a lot of construction work along the freeway and in other places where homeless people used to camp out without being visible to the rest of us.
When the city began work on the 110 freeway onramp, it involved ripping out a lot of underbrush, and with that underbrush, a small ecological niche was destroyed. All of a sudden, people who had been quietly living in that underbrush, in close proximity to the rest of the town, were among us.
An encampment arose in front of the former Ante’s Restaurant. At a nearby location, a senior center found itself in the unenviable position of becoming an overused public restroom — either that or else find themselves under public scrutiny for turning people away.
The city did what it usually does when enough public pressure mounts. Belongings were put in danger of being swept up by the authorities. Sometimes the sidewalk homeless were able to move their belongings and themselves somewhere else.
Then came the Tiny Houses threat, and it hit the fan.
I’ve never seen one of these tiny houses up close, just in photos online. A tiny house is just that, a modest structure about the size and shape of a large dog house. You could imagine one as a real life rendition of one of those old Warner Bros cartoons. You know, the ones with a snarling bulldog with a heart of gold, menacing Daffy or Bugs, only to break down in doggy sentimentality.
We had a strangely analogous picture presented to us at Monday night’s meeting. Youngish suburban moms talked about fearing for the health and safety of their children. They complained that the homeless person in the tiny house down the block could be a child molester or worse. That term child molester came out of peoples’ mouths fairly often. There was talk about the danger of disease and the potential for crime. Mostly, this group of people evinced a nameless dread of having their children encounter one of these homeless types on the way to school.
The first half dozen or so speakers followed this script. They recited an almost reflexive love for their community, and to a man and woman, suggested that our end of town is being asked to shoulder too much of the burden of hosting the homeless population.
I imagine that it is the speech you might hear in any other part of town, save the private cities that can afford saturation policing.
Much of this viewpoint was called into question during the next part of the meeting. One advocate for the homeless spoke at length about the people she was trying to help. The line that she used — a line that was repeated by other speakers over the course of the evening — is that many of us are one paycheck away from being homeless. She defended the people she was trying to help out, arguing that they are not criminals or drug addicts. They are just down on their luck. They want to get off the streets, but it takes time, luck, and outside help. She had taken it upon herself to provide that outside help to as many of the homeless as she could.
A speaker from the Harbor Interfaith Shelter described her efforts to bring people in from the elements, get them on their feet, and get them situated.
One woman, a victim of spousal abuse, was introduced to the crowd. She seemed entirely normal, other than the fact that she had fled a violent husband and had no funds of her own.
Finally, we heard from a man who had been homeless for 20 years and only recently had accepted help and moved into a well known sober living home. He described himself as an alcoholic and drug addict who was clean and dry, and had turned his life around.
His comments were not as reassuring as we might have hoped. He explained that he had lived along the river in Long Beach among other homeless people. He explained that homeless camps often include criminals who are on the run. He suggested that the rest of us perhaps ought to be concerned about dealing with homeless panhandlers who come into our community.
What was missing from this discussion was any information about how many crimes of violence are committed by the homeless. I have to suspect that if serious crimes were common, it would have been brought up by someone. Yes, there were the concerns and fears being expressed by the suburbanites, but very little data to suggest that we are at risk from the typical panhandler. The more common complaints involved urinating in public and the like.
One thing the now-reformed homeless man said seemed to make sense. “For every 30 homeless people, there are 30 explanations for why they became homeless.” By this time, the audience had come to understand that when we use terms like the homeless, we are actually talking about different types of people:
- Battered wives and their children
- People who are down on their luck
- Criminals who are on the run from law enforcement and blend into the urban jungle
- Mentally disturbed people, alcoholics, and drug addicts who have learned to live on the move.
The one piece of advice that was provided by most of the more experienced speakers (social workers and formerly homeless alike) was to avoid enabling panhandling. We were advised to give our donations, should we choose to do so, to the established organizations that know how to screen candidates for their services. We were told not to give money directly to panhandlers.
I won’t say that everyone was converted to love and kindness. There was at least one person who continued to insult advocates for the homeless, going so far as to treat a funding appeal on Facebook as some kind of transgression.
But for the most part, the community was accepting of the fact that we have a long-term problem that will require long-term efforts. One former City Councilman made an inspired plea for the faith-based community to step up its efforts. He pointed out that churches could minister to the needs of the homeless at least from Monday through Friday, thereby taking some of the load off the community as a whole.
I noticed a couple of things that emerged from the long discussion. The first is that there is a distinction between the broader issue and the fears of suburbanites who feel invaded when their residential neighborhoods become camping grounds for wanderers. I think that we need to deal with the concerns of individual neighborhoods, knowing full well that the legal tools are fairly weak. This is not in conflict with the broader concept that our society might be able to provide encampments, toilet and shower facilities, and food for a population of unfortunate people. We just don’t do it right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Perhaps that is a compromise with reality that we can make.
There was one topic that was uncontroversial yet troubling. The large number of veterans who suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder is known to the American people and to our elected officials. Yet we don’t seem to accomplish enough to help them. This is a national obligation that needs to be addressed.
Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.