As with any small town or city, there have always been a number of homeless persons, a few old time hoboes, and a handful of others who wander about during the day, seem to disappear from public view at night, but return at dawn to make themselves known. The number was small until recently, so no one much cared one way or the other about the occasional inconvenience of being panhandled or sharing a park bench with “one of them.” Besides, we had a flophouse hotel where the rules were few, and a few bucks a night could get you an unsanitary, unsafe bed with a toilet down the hall that sometimes worked. It got closed about ten years ago for obvious reasons.
Things have changed. I’m not sure why. The annual snapshot homeless count has shown an increase in numbers. The most recent count, as cited by the local paper said that:
The number of homeless individuals rose about 20 percent this year (2014), from 400 to 478 people, and the number of homeless households increased by about 22 percent, from 242 to 296. The top three places where people said they were living remained the same, with the majority saying they were staying with family or friends.
The percentage increases are large, but the numbers are fairly small for a very rural region of just over 50,000. What the numbers don’t explain is the apparent increase in homeless persons hanging around our two downtown parks, sleeping off alcohol or drug induced stupors on benches and in doorways, and, some say, more aggressively panhandling. More of our early morning calls for medics are to check on a person down, unknown if breathing — they are. We now have people complaining in letters to the editor about urinating and defecating in public, loud noises, and disruptive behavior. It’s a problem.
I spend enough time hanging around downtown to take some notice. Homeless adults, mostly male, and scroungy looking teens, do hang out in a popular Main Street park. Mostly they are just sitting in small groups, not doing much, so I wonder if some of the complaints are about what they might do because they look scary, rather than what they have done. Whatever panhandling I’ve seen is pretty tame compared to the big city. As for using back walls as toilets, if you gotta go, you gotta go. We all know what that’s like, but I wonder if it is as common as letter writers believe it is.
One of our senior city officials who is up to his neck in the issue tells me that these folks are locals. Some are homeless vets who've drifted here because of our V.A. clinic, but most are locals. They’re the people who have fallen through the cracks. Drugs, alcohol, abusive homes, joblessness, you name it. Whatever the reason, they are poor, homeless, and human beings trying to get through another day. They offend the good people of our community just by being present and visible. They know it. It embarrasses them. So they put on their meanest scowl and hope it keeps the good people away.
Like many communities, we are working on it. A coalition for the homeless has come up with some good ideas. A plan is ready for implementation that will streamline making existing resources available to those who want and can use them, and we do have resources. They are not enough but we do have them: a large men’s shelter and rehab center, a single women’s shelter, a residence for abused women and their children, housing for vets, a free clinic, a thousand units of public and subsidized housing, etc. A new ordinance establishes reasonable limits on behavior in public places, and enforcement will not involve harassment.
More needs to be done to relieve and prevent homelessness. The proposals are abundant. Some are pie-in-the-sky. Some are heartless. Some have possibilities.
One that is easily overlooked may be the most helpful of all. It would help if the good people of our city could learn to, in the words of the Episcopal baptismal covenant, respect the dignity of every human being. If you live in disgusted fear of a scroungy looking teen or ratty looking adult who just happens to be within eyesight, respecting their dignity as a fellow human being can be hard to do. Fear of what? That they might talk to you, touch you, ask you for money, beat you up, rob you? One imagined fear leads to another more threatening fear, and they can soon take on lives of their own, can’t they?
The issues are complex.