Jim Hartman: Tough love approach needed toward homelessness

American society has stopped enforcing norms of behavior in the name of compassion for the homeless. As a result, while misery and street squalor increase, government costs explode. The conventional wisdom persists that homelessness is a housing problem that is involuntary and that it continues as a result of inadequate public spending.

But the facts are to the contrary. Elevating the rights of the homeless cost taxpayers billions, with nothing to show for it. In San Francisco, the “unsheltered” count continues to rise — up 17% to 8,011 in 2019 from 2017. No other American city has built as many units of affordable housing per capita. From 2004-2014, the city spent $2 billion on 3,000 units of permanent supportive housing.

In November 2016 Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to finance housing construction, mostly for long-term homeless. After three years, the homeless population has increased by 12% to nearly 59,000 in L.A. County and by 16% to more than 36,000 in Los Angeles.

In Nevada, the homeless population continues to grow in Reno and Las Vegas, where the 2019 homelessness census in January counted 5,300 people sleeping on the street. To stem the growing tide, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman proposes a new ordinance making sleeping in public areas a misdemeanor when beds are available at homeless shelters.

The conventional wisdom is refuted by actual investigation — including talking directly to people living on the streets. Extensive interviews of homeless individuals in a variety of communities reveal that drug use is ubiquitous. “Everyone’s on drug’s here ... and stealing,” an ex-convict told the City Journal in San Francisco. Too many cities have made a choice to tolerate vagrancy and encourage drug use, with dire consequences.

Tim McGivney, a Reno non-profit outreach worker, argues that homelessness is not rooted in housing issues but rather in substance abuse and drug addiction. Without individuals maintaining sobriety, having employment, obeying the law and getting mental health counseling (if needed), the homeless problem will continue to get worse.

Broadcast journalist Eric Johnson of KOMO-TV has produced a powerful documentary, entitled “Seattle is Dying,” contending that vagrancy is rampant on Seattle’s streets and in combination with untreated and unprosecuted drug use sets off a chain reaction of widespread crime and intense degradation of public places. What’s needed, Johnson concludes, is enforcement of law and intervention. He points to the success in pioneering residential medically-assisted drug treatment programs in Providence, Rhode Island.

Money being spent to house the homeless could be better spent on mental health and addiction services at clean and sober campuses away from the urban core. While Las Vegas mayor, Oscar Goodman championed turning a former state prison in Jean, 30 miles from Las Vegas, into a facility for people with severe mental illness.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown urges “thinking outside the box” to do something about homeless, mentally ill and drug-impaired people. He acknowledges the current social and medical services delivery system is not working. Brown calls for currently closed or underused city facilities outside San Francisco being re-purposed as long-term shelters for people now on the streets.

The “left-leaning” Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2018 held that Boise, Idaho, cannot prosecute people for sleeping on the street under a 1922 ordinance prohibiting “camping” in public places if there is no shelter available (Martin v. Boise). The ordinance was found to violate the 8th Amendment as “cruel and unusual punishment.” Eighty-one different groups now seek U.S. Supreme Court review to overturn that far-reaching, very controversial decision.

If the courts won’t permit enforcement of simple trespass laws, it becomes even more problematic to require involuntary commitment to mental health and addiction treatment. The homeless need some “tough love” approaches — not more “free things.”

Jim Hartman is an attorney residing in Genoa.


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