What do we do with the Homeless
Several weeks ago, while sitting outside at a local downtown restaurant, we observed a man stumbling down the street. His course veered off towards the benches in the median and with a blood-curdling “thump” (a sound that only a skull hitting the pavement can produce), the man crumpled to the ground, where he lay. I walked over to check him out and went to the car to get the first aide kit.
I dressed his abrasions and spoke briefly with him. He was polite. He was apologetic. He was appreciative of my ministrations. He was not unlike any ordinary citizen who might have fallen and needed assistance. He was also drunk and without a place to go. He was homeless. And, he is not alone.
It is not uncommon to see people on the streets, and they have gone by many names (some not so politically correct): Vagrants. Hobos. Bums. Homeless.
They are outside the bounds of societal norms. Frequently, they suffer from maladies, often metal illness. Sadly, too many of these are Vets who have been unable to readjust to the “real world.” They frighten us. Perhaps most of all because they remind us of how tenuous life can be. We tell ourselves that we are different; we are morally superior. But, in our hearts we feel that, “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” If we could simply make them “go away,” we remove that specter and we can be more secure in our situation.
Because it is now so visible on our streets, particularly in the downtown, it has been made manifest as a crisis (as opposed to a mere nuisance). Once acknowledged, it must be addressed. Of course, there have always been people eking out an existence on the periphery regardless of the prosperity of society, some as a result of their own action (or inaction), others by sheer bad luck and fate. There is a certain level that will fall (or force their way) through the cracks. We must understand and be willing to accept that. They are neither as shiftless and lazy as some would presume, nor as noble and disadvantaged as advocates seem to feel. They are human beings packed with all of the goods and bads as the rest of us, perhaps in a more chaotic mix. We should treat them neither as pariah nor as victims.
We must also recognize that the homeless are a symptom of the real underlying problems of our society.
The fundamental challenge in our region is the lack of economic opportunity. Our area grew up dependent on coal and industry. It was a hard existence, but it did provide employment and ultimately reinforced the fiercely independent hard-working Scots-Irish heritage of the region. That is gone forever. In its stead, we have “created” a plethora of poor-paying retail and hospitality jobs with few benefits and little chance of upward mobility. By incentivizing this transition with tax subsidies, government has become part of the problem.
Over the past twenty years, I have witnessed the ghetto-ization of Appalachia. Some might find that characterization offensive, but it evokes the emotional response that I seek. This is not about racial or ethnic segregation, rather it is about the isolation of a group of people and the systematic removal of opportunity and hope. This creates similar socio-economic conditions that define many inner-city environments. No jobs. Break-down of community structure. Despair. Search for escape in drugs and alcohol which leads to broken families…and the list goes on. Homelessness here, like in many urban areas, is the collateral damage from the decay of our society. And, to some degree, it is a situation of our own making.
There are really only a few approaches to the problem: 1) Solve it at the root cause-address the reasons why people become homeless in the first place; 2) Make them “not homeless” – give them a place to stay; or 3) make them go away.
Realistically, there is little a small community like Kingsport can do to “solve” the root causes of homelessness: medical conditions, lack of financial means to provide housing, PTSD or other personal conditions that drive people into homelessness or to choose homelessness (Yes, we must admit that some people decide that homelessness is the viable alternative to the other options available to them.) These are chronic conditions we may not be able to solve…ever.
We can improve access to healthcare, but this is expensive and unpopular (Why do these people get free treatment when working people don’t?) It also includes facilities no one wants in their neighborhood (e.g., drug treatment centers). We may not like it, but if we don’t move in this direction, we will facilitate lingering long-term homelessness.
The issue of housing is likewise contentious. Short-term shelters seem to create as many problems as they solve. Yes, it removes a degree of pain for the participants, but it also concentrates the homeless population and puts them back on the streets in short order. While this may be helpful to people in a truly temporary situation, it also perpetuates the difficulties. Furthermore, adding shelters tends to attract more people, which then exacerbates the immediate problems.
Long-term housing has shown some degree of success. Finland, for example, approaches homelessness “as a housing problem and a violation of fundamental rights, both solvable, and not as an inevitable social problem resulting from personal issues.” They are the only country in Europe in which homelessness is falling. Again, there is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) Syndrome, which is a legitimate concern. There is also the question of whether to concentrate that population (which starts to look very much like the old high-density public housing projects Kingsport has been mitigating over the past two decades) or to disperse them into other apartment projects (something owners are very wary of). Finally, this can be an expensive proposition, one that a small community may be unable or unwilling to make.
The final alternative perhaps has the most (unstated) “community appeal,” but is the most draconian and likely impossible to implement or sustain. We cannot simply give them a bus ticket to someplace else and force them to go. Any such process would have to be voluntary at a minimum and it simply moves the problem around. Ultimately, other communities would just export their “problem” back to us in return.
I applaud the Kingsport BMA’s attempts to try to tackle the issue. Perhaps this can become a regional discussion; Johnson City has an equally visible homeless issue as well. We must seek more permanent solutions and be willing to allocate funds to do so. Simply bolting blocks to benches won’t solve the problem, even if it mitigates an immediate issue.
Finally, we must be willing to change our approach. Treating these people as something disposable is both self-defeating and uncharitable. But we must also accept some hard-nosed trade-offs between what is possible and what is simply wishful thinking.
Ultimately, we must also understand that the problem may be intractable; something we must learn to live with rather than eliminate.