There are so many problems with the perspective that many municipalities seem to have with creating solutions for their homeless population. First, I think we need to change our language. This piece it titled the way it is because the first thing we need to recognize is that we are talking about PEOPLE. We are not talking about bugs, or mice, this is not a infestation. They are human beings, and to view the circumstances of these individuals as a “situation” is to change the perspective from one of providing care to one of management. That is not to say there are not very legitimate economic considerations that need to taken into account. We absolutely must look at as many side as possible to create solutions that apply to a very complex problem. I don’t hope to do so here as I am not a member of the government or the civic structure, or even a real analyst. I am however, a citizen in a city with one of the largest homeless populations in the nation, over 250,000 according to estimates by Los Angeles’ own Weingart Center. While the measures and stats are a complex thing all their own, one thing is clear; there are a lot of people sleeping on the streets in LA, and we can’t ignore our feelings about that, whatever they may be. I only hope to share my personal dialogue about it and ask that we all reflect on it as well.
As I started off, the first thing to realize is that these are people. I have had family members that have been homeless, and I am also a veteran of the armed forces and know how difficult the transition back to civilian life can be. It actually doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how I could have ended up homeless myself. When exiting the military, you need to have some sort of base to call home. An address for all of your documents to go, but often the reason you joined the military in the first place was because you lacked that stability or home. If you suffer from PTSD then this whole process is compounded, because on top of all the bureaucratic hoop jumping you have to do, just to claim whatever benefits you may apply for, you might not have any money in your pocket at the time. In addition you may be dealing with some very serious mental challenges in coping with reintegration into civilian life.
I personally was back home no less than 60 days after my deployment from Iraq. This means that I was literally living in a designated combat zone two months prior to the time I was expected to have a job and be a functioning member of society. Luckily for me, I have all my limbs and had some college and, went home to loving parents that had a spare room for me and had saved up some money to get off the ground but many soldiers don’t. Now that is just one example of the kind of person that slips through the cracks. I don’t know the struggles of someone that might be have special needs, like a physical or mental disability, a drug, problem, or be a teen runaway. These are personal issues that can not be handled systematically, we must address them individually, and I know first hand that it can be tricky just to navigate the system to apply for the right programs and benefits, all of which are slow in coming, and what do you do in the meanwhile.
Because of my personal experience I am able to empathize and sympathize with the reasons people become and stay homeless but not everyone has that access point.
Though I am empathetic, it doesn’t mean I enjoy being solicited to give someone my change, and it doesn’t mean I always do. Each of us have our own personal policies on how we behave in these situations. Just yesterday someone said to me, “Fucking beggars, don’t they understand that if you give to one, you have to give to them all?” I thought that was pretty telling, and I wondered where that logic came from. My own policy is to assess each person for who they are and how they present themselves. It is not a calculated thing but some of the criteria I have noticed seems to be:
How they speak- are they polite, do they sound drunk?
Body Language- do I feel like my personal space is being infringed upon
Temperament- Do they seem confused, desperate, or angry?
Again, these are just a few things I realized I am gauging instinctively, but there is a cost associated with that. Some times, simple acknowledgement of a person can inspire them to feel a bond that you don’t reciprocate. But note, that is not a situation that occurs exclusively with people that are homeless. It happens any where people meet.
So much of the frustrations we feel interacting with people that are homeless are consistent people we meet everywhere. If someone is a jerk, it doesn’t matter if they are homeless or not, and not all interactions are unpleasant. We need to acknowledge these situations are human situations across the board, and are not related to economic situation whether we choose to recognize that or not.
I live downtown, and most guests that come to visit me have to park on the street. This means that from the time they leave their car, until the time they enter my building they are subject to whatever experience the environment has to offer. Would I prefer that all my guests have the safest, and most pleasant experience possible? Yes. Am I in control of that? No. So when I open my door and someone scurries in with a story about someone they thought was following them, there isn’t much I can do beyond provide consolation and offer to walk them to their car on the way back.
Does this mean I live in a “bad” neighborhood? Downtown is the most economically and culturally diverse are in all of Los Angeles. To qualify it as bad makes and implication about what good might be. Who decides this? We all do. The city of Los Angeles is currently considering whether or not to allow us to share food with people are considered homeless. But how do you even know if someone is homeless, this essentially means that you can’t share food with a stranger, and I am not sure there should be a law prohibiting that. Other cities, like London have installed spike on surfaces to keep people from resting or sleeping on them.
The argument for these “homeless spikes” is that it makes it more difficult for homeless people to set up shelter in these places. This is supposed to keep them out of certain areas. Ironically, the whole reason they are taking shelter in these areas, is because it is already difficult for them to find shelter elsewhere. Now this brings a bigger question to mind for me. If we don’t want to see homeless people in certain areas we frequent, where do we want them to go? In Los Angeles, we have skid row, which is really a drab place to be at anytime of day, and a shady place to be at night. I wonder if it is any solution at all, to drive corral part of the population into a certain part of town so part of the population doesn’t have to be reminded of their existence. That doesn’t sound like America at all, and yet it happens not only with homeless people, but with people of all economic levels. There are invisible borders in all parts of town, some are economic others are cultural, and some are not even invisible, (see gated communities).
As much as I would like to protect my guests from danger, to do so, is to rob them of a certain independence, and to create a perception of distrust within my neighborhood. It becomes and us versus them situation. I have no answers here, not at all.
Speaking of trust and neighbors: What would you call someone who lives in the house next to yours on a particular street? Yes, a neighbor. What if that person doesn’t live in a house, they simply make their home in a corner of the building adjacent to the fire escape, are they no longer a neighbor? Perhaps we view this as an economic distinction in our own minds. Maybe we think that one person has more of a right to be somewhere because they are paying to be there, even they aren’t paying us. Perhaps we feel like since we have to pay then everyone should. Nothing about that scenario sounds pleasant, and it would seem that if we are in an undesirable situation, we should seek to find commonality within it and not division.
When I look at my neighborhood, I see different races, different levels of income, and I see different styles of living. One of those styles of living may include sleeping on a bus bench outside of my building. The operative word is neighborhood, and that would mean whom ever occupies that space, legally or otherwise is my neighbor. And yet we often see these people as alien, or undeserving. Again, if I am in an environment where I can coexist with people, then they are welcome. The moment the environment becomes unsafe, or my personal freedoms are infringed upon we have a problem. This is as true, about a neighbor who plays loud music as it is about someone who sleep in my fire escape.-
I could go on, because my thoughts on this are as complex as the issue itself, and there are so many situations that need to be accounted for I can’t hope to address them all in one body of text. Just as we can not expect a single action to fix the situation, or even for a single discussion to provide clarity. We must speak on it often as we must discourse about all of our society, and how we interact with each other, as we are all neighbors here, everywhere, whether we like it or not.