Running late for lunch with her friends, Becky, Mary, and Kerry, Fiona silently thanked God that the restaurant offered valet services. Parking was horrendous! As Fiona entered the dining room, she was struck that it didn’t look all that different from how it did the last time she was here - back when it was still a sushi restaurant. Now that it was part of a small chain, it served American cuisine.
It still had the floor to ceiling windows that overlooked a beautiful vista, back in the day, when looking out those windows, one saw nothing but pristine hills.
She saw Becky waving to her from a table next to those windows and quickly made her way and took a seat. Looking out, she was struck by the number of homes that dotted the hills while marveling at the lost wilderness. These homes were ones that she laughingly called “McMansions” since they really were larger than most people needed. Houses that could, in some parts of the world, house two and even three families, but here they were occupied by childless couples or families of three.
Mary said, “I don’t understand. Why are people homeless? Have you been watching the news? The homeless problem downtown has gotten completely out of control! It’s absolutely terrible. I can’t believe they have let it get to this point.”
“We wouldn’t have this problem if Reagan hadn’t closed all of the mental institutions back in the 1980’s,” Kerry responded.
“That’s not fair,” Mary said, “The homeless problem existed before then. Even if closing those institutions exacerbated the problem at the time (which I don’t accept or believe) Reagan was president thirty or forty years ago. There have been five, count them, five,” and she ticked them off on her fingers one by one, “Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and, now, Trump, five presidents since then. You can blame Reagan all that you want, but are you saying that in the intervening forty years and five presidents nobody has been able to do something to fix it?”
Becky interrupted, “In order to fix a problem, you have to know its root cause - why are people homeless? Yes, some of the homeless are mentally ill, but not all of them. Besides, psychological impairment runs a wide gamut. We can't institutionalize someone who is not a harm to himself or others.”
“Why not? Being homeless and on the streets causes harm to themselves,” Kerry interjected.
Becky responded, “That may be true, but it doesn’t meet the legal test for involuntary commitment. You know, that pesky right to liberty gets in the way. Of course, if it’s demonstrated that one is a danger to himself or another, then, by all means, he should be committed involuntarily or otherwise.”
“But you can’t leave him there forever,” Fiona spoke up. “After some time in the institution and on the medications that are provided, when that individual demonstrates he is no longer a threat, we can’t continue to hold him against his will. All that we can do is release him and say to him, ‘Be sure to take your meds.’ When he fails to do so, he will be back on the street again.”
“That’s true,” said Becky, “Until he is once again institutionalized and the process repeats itself all over again." Turning to Kerry, Becky continued, "The problem isn’t lack of care or facilities, Kerry. That care and those facilities are there. The problem is how to get people to continue their care when they are no longer forced into it.”
“Most of them are addicted to drugs anyway,” Mary opined.
Kerry responded to Mary’s observation “Many are addicted, but that’s not their fault. Addiction is a disease, Mary, and they need treatment.”
“Unless they commit a crime, we cannot force them into treatment centers those pesky rights get in the way, again,” Becky replied facetiously.
“Taking drugs is a choice and they should go to jail,” Mary responded.
“Being poor is not a crime, Mary,” Kerry retorted.
“It’s not about being poor, it’s about doing drugs - breaking the law; laws which people like you want to see rescinded. And, when you get your way and there are no more laws against drugs, there only can be more addiction and more homelessness. Taking drugs is a choice and a crime. They should go to jail,” Mary insisted.
Becky intervened and said, “Some, but not all, are homeless due to addiction. But what can we do about that? We can’t just put them in jail for being homeless. But if they commit some crime for which they may be incarcerated, then they should be. Of course, incarceration only leads to all other manner of ills - too numerous to recount here. Eventually, they will and do get out. We can’t incarcerate someone for being an addict. We can only incarcerate them for a criminal act and they can’t be held indefinitely.”
“At least while in jail they are off of the streets and not hurting anyone,” Mary retorted.
“That’s true,” Becky said, “and while they are incarcerated, we can offer help and hope," Becky crossed her fingers, "that they avail themselves of that help and do not return to their prior behavior. But, the problem isn’t a lack of laws or enforcement of those laws, anymore than it is lack of treatment facilities. More laws, more jails, more incarceration will not solve the problem. When they get out, most will return to the behavior that caused them to be incarcerated in the first place.”
“We are missing the point here,” Kerry interceded. “It’s not just the mentally ill or the addicts or even criminals. A big part of the problem is the high cost of living. Housing costs around here have at least tripled in the last few years, but minimum wage has remained the same. How can we expect anyone to live on $7.25 an hour? They need a livable wage.”
Fiona, who had been quietly listening, interrupted, “That’s not fair, Kerry. The cost of housing is the cause of homelessness. First of all, minimum wage jobs are not meant to be careers or for supporting a family. They are meant to be entry-level positions for kids to learn a work ethic. Secondly, the jobs around here are all paying more than minimum wage. Mostly due to lack of labor. My daughter works at the the taco place down the street and they are paying her $12 per hour - to put together tacos. That’s well over minimum wage.”
“But, our kids don’t need to work,” Kerry responded.
“Maybe not yours,” Fiona said.
Kerry ignored her and continued, “Someone with a family does need to work. And the person with the family to support should be given that job - not some kid who should be concentrating on school anyway - and it should pay at least $15 per hour.”
“Fifteen dollars an hour won’t solve the housing problem,” Mary chimed in. “That’s only about $30,000 a year and that’s not enough for a house out here. As you well know, there are very few rentals the area and not everyone can afford a $500,000 home. Didn’t you speak out at the city planning commission opposed to a proposal for an apartment complex?” she pointedly asked Kerry.
Kerry replied, “Nobody around here wants more rentals.”
“Then how do you expect people to live here at $15 an hour. That would need to be accompanied by affordable housing and nobody in this city is for that,” Mary said.
Trying to be the voice of reason, Becky again interrupted, “It’s a conundrum, but more affordable housing isn’t the panacea to solve the homeless issue, either. Of course, some (but not all) are homeless due to economic adversity. Whether it’s because they don’t make enough money or because they lose a job and do not have a savings buffer to see them through until they find another.”
“If they don’t have the savings, whose fault is that?” Mary asked.
“There should be more services for those people,” Kerry interjected.
“There are plenty of services,” Mary proclaimed,”Section 8, housing, unemployment insurance, SNAP. There are all kinds of welfare programs out there to help people who need the help. Services that you and I pay for through our taxes.”
Fiona said, “But they get lost in the bureaucratic morass It’s not easy to get those services even when needed. Maybe education on how to access these services would help. Maybe cutting down on the red tape to make it easier to get the assistance would.”
“But that only opens up the system to widespread abuse,” Mary argued. “The problem isn’t lack of services or resources. They are there. More services won’t solve the problem. The problem is access to those services that already exist in a way that protects the taxpayer from abuse.”
“It’s amazing to me that in a society as rich as ours we can’t solve the problem. We simply need to put more resources into it,” Kerry observed.
“And what?” Mary asked, “Tax everybody to the point where the ones being taxed can no longer afford their own homes? No, thank you. And, let’s not forget that there are those who are homeless by choice.
“You are crazy, Mary. Nobody is homeless by choice.”
“Actually, Kerry, some are,” Becky interrupted. “Oh, I’m sure that its only a very small percentage, but it’s true. The truth is, whether we accept it or not, there are those who choose the lifestyle. I know this to be true, because when I worked for the homeless shelter downtown, I met those who told me that they made the decision because they didn’t want to work. They see it as a long camping trip and lots of fun - at least for awhile, until they get too cold and too hungry. I disagree with their reasoning, but they can (and do) cogently argue their point. There isn’t much we can do about this segment of the population. We cannot force people to make good choices.”
“If only we could,” Kerry said. “If they are choosing that, then something is wrong with them and they need to be committed. Society needs to step in.”
“But who decides what are 'good choices'? Society? Society can’t solve the problem of individual choice - nor should it. We get back to individual rights - you can’t force people into treatment if they don’t pose a danger.”
“Which gets back to needing more services.”
Fiona interrupted, “Did ya’ll hear that rumor about the city buying a hotel up on 620 to use as a homeless shelter?”
“What?” Kerry said,” That’s idiotic! Why put a shelter all the way out here? Nobody here wants that.”
Becky couldn’t help herself and replied, “Aren’t you being a little bit ‘not in my backyard there’, Kerry?”
“That’s not what I meant, Becky. It just doesn’t make any sense to put that out here and you know why.”
“So says everyone who has one near them,” Becky replied. “Look, I don’t know the answer. Nobody does, because there is no single answer. But, I do know this 1) you can’t force someone of sound mind into medical treatment that they don’t want; 2) you can’t force someone into a shelter who doesn’t want to go; and, 3) you can’t incarcerate someone who has committed no crime. All that we can do is ensure that there are services available and accessible to those who want the help. But to resolve the issue we have to get to the root cause. Why are people homeless?”
Fiona looked out the window at the McMansions dotting the once pristine hills and thought, What a shame that beautiful view has been ruined.