Letter: Let’s get real about homelessness!

November 28, 2017

The headline of the Oct. 28 edition of the Madera Tribune read: “Most don’t want help.” The article decries the conundrum faced by those assisting the homeless. It is a splashy expose that reflects the bureaucratic angst over Madera being degraded by the homeless and confirms cynical readers’ stereotype of shiftless men and women roaming streets begging for money to buy booze or drugs meanwhile shunning bountiful services in town.

The quote from Chief Frazier describes typical responses from the homeless following contact with law enforcement. This is not surprising. Often these “encounters” (consisting of questioning, ordering, warning, citing and/or arresting) leave many feeling humiliated and constitutionally abused real or imagined.

(Case in point, there was a homeless man collecting cans for recycling who was stopped and cited for possessing stolen property and 79 open container violations. The wise court charged him with theft of shopping cart and dismissed the rest.)  Picture being written a parking ticket and after handing it to you, the officer asks whether he can be of further assistance.

Stripped of the narrative rhetoric, it smacks of an attempt to legitimize and garner support for a copycat ordinance that criminalizes homelessness, i.e., punishing them for their status. The article fails to confront the central core of the issue much less provide context and analytical understanding of homelessness.

Modern homelessness is a structural problem born of HUD’s decision almost 50 years ago to abandon building affordable housing instead deferring to the private market. It has since systematically dismantled what’s left of public housing. This is exacerbated by continued shredding of the social safety net.

The private market has amply demonstrated that it is incapable of creating affordable housing without government incentives/subsidies. In recent years as state and federal monies dried up, there has been little to no affordable housing built.

As the term implies and by definition, homelessness is the lack of a fixed place of residence (McKinney Act). By all accounts, the elixir to homelessness is provision of affordable housing. No amount of social services suffices as a substitute for putting a roof over their heads.

However valuable, it’s working around the edges. Viewing homelessness through the lens of law enforcement is simply not helpful and it is unfair to the police. Officers are ill-equipped to deal with this socio-economic problem. Making referrals is ineffective due both to the messenger and message. Homeless people are aware of services in town —  they access some and find others wanting. The local shelter has very limited beds, stay restrictions and drug tests. Most homeless are not clinically impaired warranting behavioral health and related services.

The much-ballyhooed Pomona Ranch will provide temporary housing for 10 transitory homeless families, not the chronically homeless single adults. Other than free breakfast and dinner on weekdays, there’s not much else.

Issuing citations and handing out jail time are counter-productive. Most citations go unanswered leading to bench warrants for arrest. Using the jail as the Rescue Mission is a costly way of providing homeless with “three hots and a cot.” Moreover, having arrest/incarceration records further blocks their securing housing and employment.

More tidbits: What to make of the admonition that legalization of marijuana inevitably leads to increased homelessness. This long-debunked myth has no chance here. Rest assured, Madera will never be the Marijuana Mecca of California with booming tourism. To the jaundiced eye, this is a scare story for more funding. And what about the helpful suggestion that the homeless needs financial counseling. Ever tried balancing your finances on a budget of $23 per month because that’s what the homeless get from General Assistance. Those that find housing renting for more than $306 are denied financial aid outright.

Perhaps, the speaker was referring to the abuse of funds for drugs and alcohol. Hard to judge much less criticize those who can sleep under the bridge, brave the elements, survive stress of so many unmet needs, battle the dangers of violence, keep a full belly and still stay wasted on just $23 a month. Finally, as to whispers from an agency worker of giving the homeless one-way bus tickets out of Madera, those who feed at the public trough should be careful of what they seek lest they end up on the unemployment line.

We need serious answers to ending homelessness not managing it. See Community First! Village and the Alpha Project.

— Baldwin Moy,


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