The recent grand jury report on panhandling missed an opportunity to address the root causes of homelessness in our community and to identify and address the human conditions that cause people to become so desperate that they turn to begging on the street. It also missed the opportunity to make recommendations that would provide long-lasting solutions to the problem.
Additionally, the grand jury report offers no proof that people identified as panhandlers/vagrants/transients are in fact homeless.
Calls for service reports made to law enforcement using key words to identify alleged homeless people are subjective. People who aren’t homeless may look ragged and unkempt, causing a caller to mistakenly identify them as homeless.
Though there’s no evidence to suggest the people panhandling and committing crimes as noted in this report are homeless, we would like to take this opportunity to review the causes of homelessness and to offer some solutions.
There is usually no single life event that causes a person to become homeless — inability to afford housing, substance abuse, mental illness, disabilities and lack of a support system can all contribute.
Few opportunities for substance abuse treatment for low-income people can lead to homelessness as they may lose relationships and housing to satisfy their overwhelming need.
Homeless individuals with mental illness typically experience an inability to form or maintain relationships (trust issues), and they often suffer diminished ability to take care of themselves.
There is no easy fix for homelessness. Ordinances that criminalize it are certainly not the answer. Such laws offer false comfort to communities and provide no solution for people living on the streets.
Sweeping camps won’t make the problem disappear. It will only push people to change locations, often into more populated areas.
Instead of focusing on creating ordinances that criminalize homelessness, we should fund programs that provide mental health care and substance abuse treatment, create affordable housing opportunities, provide housing vouchers to supplement people living below the poverty level, fund case managers to provide housing stability and life skills guidance, and support housing units for individuals with a mental illness. The $36,000 identified by NCPD could have been used for any of the above programs.
We would be naïve to depend solely on government to provide the funding and services needed to create the support system our homeless community members need in order to heal. Most people with a mental illness and/or addictions are not eligible for treatment in Nevada County.
Currently, our county substance abuse treatment program allows a person to go through treatment only once, though it’s common knowledge that addicts will generally relapse seven to eight times before treatment becomes successful.
Participants in treatment programs would have a much higher success rate if they had ongoing case management and housing options when released.
Homeless individuals with an untreated mental illness typically do not access mainstream services and when they do, they often miss appointments, and there is usually no way to reach them for follow-up. In addition to this, they often don’t meet the criteria for eligibility for behavioral health services
This holistic approach would require money, but not addressing the primary root causes of homelessness is costing our community a great deal of money already. We can’t expect people without resources or the ability to advocate for themselves to become housed and stable without help. Some may never achieve that, even with help.
If we fail to acknowledge the conditions that keep them homeless or see them as undeserving of help, what does this say about our community?
Our community would benefit by integrating our systems of care to support vulnerable people. Until we can provide sufficient mental health and substance abuse treatment, until we can provide affordable housing options or vouchers, until we can provide sufficient case management to prevent people from falling through the cracks, we will continue to experience the issues cited in the grand jury report and we will continue to see homeless people on the streets.
That we have homeless people who are not able to get the services and care they need is not a blight on our community, it’s a humanitarian crisis and should be treated as such.
Several people in our community have endorsed this letter. For a complete list of endorsements, or if you would like to add your name to the list, please visit Hospitality House Community Shelter or Sierra Roots on Facebook. You can also have your name added by emailing Cindy Maple at firstname.lastname@example.org. A copy of this letter will be sent to local elected officials.
Cindy Maple is the executive director of Hospitality House and Reinette Senum is involved with Sierra Roots.