Thursday, August 13, 2009

Homelessness: Two Perspectives

Grand Junction got a mention in another New York-based publication this week, but it's doubtful that anyone will be tooting their horn about this one.

The City's recent dalliance with a panhandling and solicitation ordinance was mentioned by Barbara Ehrenreich in an op-ed in this past Sunday's New York Times. The piece, titled "Is it Now a Crime to be Poor?", references a new study titled Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.

This study, commissioned by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless, also identifies what it calls the ten "Meanest Cities" in terms of their treatment of the homeless and poor in their areas.

The column included stories that sound a familiar chord to those who advocate locally for what are called the "publicly poor"; targeted enforcement of petty infractions such as littering or smoking in a public park, warrant sweeps through shelters, camps, and public housing, and a resulting cycle of arrest, incarceration, and debt that is nearly impossible to get out of.

Ms. Ehrenreich summarized things nicely:
The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.
Some cities have gone so far as to criminalize the activities of their communities of faith, among others, by passing laws prohibiting the sharing of food with indigent people. Las Vegas and Orlando were mentioned specifically; perhaps the vital nature of their tourist economy was the impetus behind such a mean-spirited measure, but this is one tourist whose dollars will not be going to either of those locations, at least until those laws are repealed.

While the NYT piece was painting a picture of ongoing despair combined with draconian indifference on the part of some local governments, a story in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal offered a picture of hope and common sense for many with no other choice.

Cities Tolerate Homeless Camps showcased several initiatives that were undertaken by local governments around the country to allow tent cities in certain areas, while entering into partnerships with local non-profits and advocacy groups to coordinate the provision of municipal services to the camps.

This story also focused on efforts in Nashville and Tampa, as well as in Sacramento, where:
"legalizing the camps is more compassionate and cost-effective than forcing 'poor people who are camping because they have a lack of better choices to constantly have to fear being rousted and cited by police,' (according to) Joan Burke, advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a homeless-assistance agency."
It's nice to know that there are places in this country where government can clearly recognize the nature of the problem beyond the surface appearances. With the realization that the problem will not be going away anytime soon, local governments can enter into partnerships with the non-profit community to provide for more effective service delivery.

With regard to how some of these things can be paid for, the study cited by Ms. Ehrenreich contains several examples of ways that some community partnerships are helping to fund services. One example comes from just over the hill:

"The Denver Road Home campaign began with 36 meters in March 2007; by October 2008 there were 86 meters. This initiative is part of Denver’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. The idea behind the meters is to funnel the $4 million given to homeless individuals in the city annually, as estimated by the Downtown Denver Partnership, toward agencies better equipped to distribute resources without the fear of money being used for counterproductive purposes. The meters serve two purposes - to be donation receptacles and to raise public awareness. The meters have raised close to $15,000 in coins, in addition to nearly $100,000 through private donors and businesses 'adopting' a meter. This model has had national influence and more cities have looked to emulate Denver’s example."

Here's one potential application of this idea locally; instead of not charging for parking in Downtown GJ over the Christmas holiday shopping season, earmark all proceeds from the meters, as well as all parking fines, to established non-profits and social service agencies that serve the local homeless population.

The City of Grand Junction can benefit from these lessons learned elsewhere, especially as the fall and winter grow closer, by partnering with stakeholders and looking into the feasibility of permitting a more stable and accessible location for a homeless camp, if necessary. There is no shortage of community groups that might be willing to partner with the city to provide a more stable base of services to the homeless population.

In a Christian nation, Compassion and Caring should be the benchmark of how we look after one another, instead of Criminalization and Contempt.

Have a good day.

Photo Credit: National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, The National Coalition for the Homeless

1 comment:

Wallis said...

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