As you know I get up before most folks, so even while on vacation I spent the early hours of the day drinking coffee and reading the local papers. Karen gets two at her house, the Modesto Bee and the Turlock Journal. After reading several stories and then looking around both towns, I found myself intently following a serious California problem- homeless citizens who are causing countless problems for city and county governments and for local residents.
Homelessness is nothing new. Nor is it confined to the West Coast. We’ve all seen reports about street people struggling to survive in all of our major cities, including those in Oklahoma. We’ve listened to interviews with families forced out of their homes by lengthy unemployment and subsequent foreclosure. We know that many of our returning veterans end up roaming aimlessly across the country. Most of the mentally ill cannot be confined against their will and often end up living on the street. Same with addicts and alcoholics. I’m sure each person on the street has a story to tell.
Major cities have long struggled with balancing the need for shelters and assistance for the indigent with regulation of their behavior. Berkeley, which already had an ordinance restricting lying on the sidewalk during certain hours, is now planning to ban sitting on the sidewalk because so many of the homeless are interfering with the daily operation of downtown businesses. Some of the homeless who were interviewed had been living on the streets for ten years or more and seemed to have an attitude of entitlement. They are adamant about their right to eat, sleep, and even urinate on the sidewalk if they choose to. Such scenes in the city might lead you to believe that the situation is hopeless. But HUD and other agencies work diligently to provide shelter for people and the number of chronically homeless has decreased slightly in recent years. Some of the most successful programs address the need for a home first, and attend to medical and psychiatric needs later.
While it is true that on any given night there are close to two million people without shelter, the chronically homeless number only about 100,000-150,000 according to recent figures online. The majority of homeless people find somewhere to stay within a month or two. Currently California, Florida, and Nevada have some of the most desperate problems because of multiple contributing factors. Of course high unemployment is one of the primary reasons for any state to have a disproportionate number of homeless residents.
I think what surprised me most was seeing street people in a relatively small community like Turlock (pop. 70,000). There were not only people wandering around and sleeping in the park, but the library had a sign out front which prohibited sleeping on the sidewalk near their entry. In other communities we witnessed street people being arrested, arguing with local citizens, and generally being a nuisance. And in addition to the real homeless there are also scam artists out and about who try to take advantage of the benevolent among us. At one travel center we were approached by a young male who asked several customers for gas to “get his family back home”. After the manager threatened to call the police he cursed, got in his “empty” van, and drove off. Encounters with these individuals further encourage an attitude of cynicism toward street people.
I guess I didn’t expect to do any serious thinking during our vacation, but a little exposure to a different way of life is good for the mind and soul. Seeing the realities of city life “up close” once again not only gave me an even deeper appreciation for my life in the country, but reminded me not to take my home for granted. There but for the grace of God…