No need to demonize homeless people; offer them solutions
“Panhandlers, Vagrants, and Transients in a Neighborhood Near You?” This is the demeaning title of a recent Nevada County grand jury investigation into homelessness that was reported on very accurately by Dave Brooksher, a reporter for The Union, on Saturday, June 28.
I can’t believe that a government body as prestigious as the grand jury would find it necessary to demonize a whole segment of society that already has so many problems and challenges to deal with every day.
“There is a fine line between providing needed services to a deserving population, and enabling or encouraging the less desirable, and often criminal element, which is the subject of this report,” according to one section of the grand jury report.
I understand the jury’s concern about this growing social problem, but fearing and scapegoating this vulnerable population is not the way to solve the problem. Compassionate, reasonable solutions are more critical right now than pointing fingers at folks who already experience enough mental and emotional anguish.
Until last December, I was a volunteer at Hospitality House in Grass Valley for four years, an eye-opening experience that gave me an upfront awareness of the homeless situation in our area. In addition, I sometimes help feed the homeless in Nevada City with one of our local churches.
Like all segments of society, there are very specific demographics and personality types within the homeless community. People who live out in the woods in camps have their special set of needs and issues, those living on the streets have unique difficulties, and families with children have challenges particular to their group.
Not surprisingly, most homeless people try to stay under the radar by staying out of trouble, which is not an easy task when living in full public view. No doubt, some in the homeless community do have major or minor criminal records, but no more so than in the overall population. And, petty crimes like low-value shoplifting and panhandling are committed by people in all walks of life, not just by the homeless.
Local law enforcement officers definitely have their hands full dealing with a few members of the homeless population. But I don’t think they are spending a large portion of their patrol time dealing with these individuals. My guess would be that they spend much more time dealing with their most important mandate — serious crimes and major emergencies. And the same goes for our local fire departments, which on occasion do have to deal with trash and grass fires at the homeless camps.
The grand jury report asserts that this handful of homeless individuals is causing the county to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. I would be willing to bet that major crimes, major fire department emergencies and requests for all social services in the county are much more costly than dealing with what the grand jury calls “panhandlers, vagrants, and transients.”
The jury report also states that the “well-meaning efforts by volunteer groups have unintended negative consequences.” This is also a senseless comment without merit. Our compassionate faith-based community, and caring organizations like Hospitality House, The Salvation Army and Divine Spark do a wonderful job of serving the local homeless population. All of them provide food, clothing, shelter, housing and job assistance, medical care and links to other essential services. County social service agencies also spend many hours serving the poor and disadvantaged in our midst.
Hospitality House requires that guests be members of the local community, and that they pass a Breathalyzer test before admittance every day. All of the local churches that feed the homeless on a regular basis, however, don’t require local citizenship, just an empty stomach that needs to be fed, and a soul that needs to be nourished.
These local organizations and churches aren’t encouraging homeless people to move into the community — as the grand jury insists — they are responding to a very acute social problem that grows every year due to severe social, economic and political changes in this country. It’s time, therefore, to stop fearing and resenting people without a roof over their heads — no matter what their issues are — and to begin coming up with solutions to their precarious plight. We need to offer them hope and optimism, not more grief.
David Gaines lives in Grass Valley.
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