Greg Zaller: A different approach to the homeless problem
Do you remember the Albert Einstein quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results?” This quote describes the homeless problem in Nevada County.
Homelessness will end, along with its human toll and its associated fire danger, when there is a change toward following principles that work. I have been privately involved with homeless solutions for the last 10 years, mostly by providing democratically run low-cost sober living environments. I’ve been learning from my mistakes and have had a certain amount of success. The following is what I have learned:
1. Don’t shield people from the consequence of their choices. I still struggle with this and observe others having difficulty as well. Helping a person who could help himself sends the message that he is helpless and always at the mercy of other’s generosity. Instead of handouts, the homeless need a means to earn and pay for what they need.
2. Illegal camping laws must be strictly enforced, with mandatory jail time for violations. Breaking up camps drives the campers deeper into the brush where there is more fire danger, and life is more hopeless. Enforcing illegal camping laws, however, is only half a solution. The other half must be safe and legal places to call home, even if it’s a campground. Our supervisors need to step up and open secure camping areas and lower restrictions on affordable housing. If there are mistakes, work them out. Allowing this problem to continue is the worst mistake of all.
3. Drug, alcohol, or marijuana use either inside or outside camps or shelters cannot be allowed. It is not acceptable to use drugs in the morning somewhere and then come in “sober” in the evening. I have learned this from the homes I provide. Living situations have to be safe places for everyone, and some would be lured back into a drug relapse if their roommates use drugs, even if off of the premises. Drugs numb people from addressing problems that need to be dealt with, both perpetuating and causing homelessness. There are many ways to support drug-free lifestyles that can be employed. If someone is unable to stay drug-free and must leave the legal camp, the only public option should be rehab or jail. Our jails must also provide rehabilitation programs instead of endlessly cycling people through the system.
4. Drug addicts in recovery, many of the mentally ill, and those with a bad stretch can work together in small groups to police themselves to prevent drug use and troublesome behaviors. On-site managers are expensive and counterproductive. Residents in the homes I provide have been successful with this approach. When people are given responsibility and held accountable to protect their sober living environment, they become empowered.
5. Homelessness is a hopeless and debilitating predicament. There needs to be a sense of hope for the homeless that they can get back on track. There must be easy access to employment, mental health training, and other supports. It needs to be hard to be homeless and far easier to obtain and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
If we, as a community, especially the government and charities, do the following things, the formerly homeless will get their lives back, and the county won’t burn down from illegal camping:
Open safe, legal camping areas, and charge rent.
Provide the means to earn money and work out mental health issues to be productive again.
Don’t permit any drug use. Organize the campers in self-governed groups while providing support for them to watch each other and hold themselves collectively accountable.
Arrest illegal campers and offer a rehabilitation program while in jail. Be sure that every person released from jail has a safe, clean, and sober environment to go to or don’t let them out. Hospitals only discharge patients to safe circumstances, and we must do the same with individuals released from incarceration.
We all know the homeless problem is getting worse. Are we going to continue doing the same things over and over again, or try something different?
Greg Zaller lives in Nevada City.
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