The Homeless Quandary

Is this “Freedom”?

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In this blog article I want to share some photos of the people who I’ve seen living on streets, sidewalks, in the bushes and under the freeways in California.  It’s my hope that these photos demonstrate why this sort of “freedom” to live in crevices and neglected spots in urban areas, is not freedom.  People deserve much better than to be left to live like this.

Telegraph Avenue and 51st Street, Oakland February 2017.  This man was sitting in the bushes in a large pile of sodden trash, in the rain, picking lice off his head as pedestrians walked by on the sidewalk a few feet away.

 

Man in his underwear sitting on a mattress, living on the sidewalk directly across the street from single family homes in a residential area.  Tremont Street near Ashby BART station, Berkeley.

 

This man continued to live on the sidewalk in this fashion, in this residential area for several months, in spite of numerous interventions by mental health agencies, police and homeless advocates.  He was asked to move many times, and every time came right back.  Eventually, he moved closer to the intersection of Shattuck and Woolsey, where the East Bay Community law Center and the Homeless Action group are located.  He then abandoned all his belongings in a quite spectacular fashion on the sidewalk, resulting in a massive pile of debris and trash about 30 feet long, again located directly across the street from single family homes in a residential area.

Debris field.

Man lying on sidewalk in blanket – cocoon, February 2018, Durant Avenue near UC Berkeley campus: 

Man lying on bed with blankets at street corner, Broadway and 41st Street, Oakland:

On the sidewalk near Home Depot in Emeryville:


I want to bring up some terminology — most of you when seeing these sights, will doubtless refer to these people as “homeless”, since that is the term we are most always using, to refer to people we see living on the streets or sleeping on the sidewalk.  I want to suggest, though, (as I have suggested in other articles here) that this term is not always that useful, and at times, may be quite misleading.

One of the arguments made by many homeless advocates and many of the homeless themselves, is that most of the homeless are “ordinary people” who fell upon difficult circumstances, such as losing a job or an apartment, or a health crisis, and then ended up homeless as a result of circumstances or events which could pretty much happen to any of us.  This argument is useful in generating compassion for these people living or sleeping on the sidewalks, as people are more likely to feel motivated to reach out to help someone if they believe “there but for the grace of God go I.”

The problem with this argument that most of the homeless are “ordinary people”, just like you or I except for having experienced some very difficult circumstance, is that it is not likely true.  For instance, how many of us, if we happened to lose a job, or our apartment, would end up living in a pile of sodden trash behind the bushes? Or how many of us, if we lost our apartment due to a health crisis, would end up sitting naked and talking out loud to ourselves on the sidewalk, for several months, rejecting all services offered? Or again, how many of us, losing a job, and our savings, would end up sleeping on a busy corner in Oakland, cans of Olde English Malt Liquor scattered on the ground around us?

 

Man digging in trash, Rockridge Neighborhood, Oakland

 

The point is, that many of those we rather casually call “the homeless”, are probably not best described that way.  Homelessness may be a symptom of their condition, but the primary cause of their difficulty is not that they lost a job, and then became homeless, or lost an apartment, and then had nowhere to go, but that they have a serious mental illness, and without treatment, even giving them housing may not be a good solution, as they could very easily end up quickly evicted again.  Or they have a serious substance abuse problem, and again, giving them housing may not be of much help, if the problem continues and they end up quickly evicted once more.

I dont’ know what is the best term to use for these people — actually I think there may not be one. Though we can refer to them as people who somehow ended up on the sidewalk or in the bushes, there is more than simply the lack of housing which is a problem here.

Something hopeful — State Senator Scott Weiner has recently introduced legislation in California, which would help establish conservatorships for the seriously mentally ill who are not able to care for themselves or make the decisions which would be in their best interest.  It would help so much to allow the city or state to intervene when people are engaging in self-destructive behaviors and causing distress and concern to all of us when we see them out on the street in some of the ways I’ve shown here.

Some of the homeless found in quite disturbing settings and situations which show they cannot take care of themselves, are helped by local agencies oriented specifically to this purpose, such as the Mission for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization in Oakland. They helped Lamont, depicted here:

They helped him by taking him to a hospital, which restored his health. They also got him into housing.

Given the lack of homeless shelters in the Bay Area, there has been a suggestion that local churches might construct homeless shelters on their property.

So far one shelter has been built, located at West Side Missionary Baptist church. The goal is to have several hundred more, spread throughout the county, by the end of the year.

THis is being called a “Faith Based Solution to Homelessness”

There is some thought that faith-based approaches to homelessness may be more successful than standard government approaches, as they take a more holistic approach. A study about such approaches can be found here. Another study is here. A very substantial 146 page study is here.

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