There’s something unnerving about the thought that some homeless men and women find refuge by sleeping in Modesto’s cemeteries. Others, meanwhile, camp out in parks or huddle around small fires down by the river. They congregate in front of the library and along city streets, behind stores on McHenry Avenue and in darkened parking lots.
In Los Angeles, the number of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, in alleys and under bridges has become alarming. In San Francisco, residents and tourists are gagging on the odor of human waste left by homeless people. And in small cities up and down the valley – from Atwater to Hanford to Oakdale – people are asking, “What can we do about the homeless in our midst?”
This is a burgeoning statewide problem. Viable solutions, however, must be local.
That’s why it was incredibly uplifting and important that 500-plus people attended Focus on Prevention last week in Modesto. That so many of our neighbors want to do something about the problem of homelessness – no matter their motivation – was at once encouraging and sobering.
It was sobering to learn the problem is so large; an estimated 20,000 people in Stanislaus County face each day not knowing if they’ll have a secure place to sleep that night. It offers no solace that the problem is just as severe in Turlock, Ceres and Riverbank.
The county’s annual homeless census (a single-day count) showed 1,408 homeless. It’s not a real number. The county contacted school districts and charity organizations for a better understanding, finding that more than 6,000 students are “insecure” in their housing. The estimate of 20,000 “vulnerable” residents is not a wholesale exaggeration.
Many have spent years trying to help the homeless. There are free emergency cell phones; two meals a day at various locations; clean clothing; some 800 shelter beds in Modesto. Families can find drug-free apartments that keeps them together during the winter. Our community rallies around the less fortunate with meals, canned food, clothing and more during the holidays. And it’s still not enough.
Nationally, statistics show homelessness has been declining for eight years. But California’s Central Valley is a warm-weather magnet for the destitute; the increases we see are significant. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 20 percent of the nation’s homeless live in our state.
Marian Kaanon, CEO of the Stanislaus Community Foundation, helped SCounty CEO Stan Risen convene Focus on Prevention. An optimist, the large gathering gave her hope. She stressed that real solutions have many components. We must address drug addiction (including alcohol), vagrancy, violence and pay particular attention to mental illness along with lack of opportunity.
Like Kaanon, we believe the most effective solutions will arise from within. And like Risen, we know lasting solutions take time. And we agree with the comments of Richard Williamson, a deacon at Riverbank’s St. Francis of Rome Catholic Church: “We can’t expect government to do everything,” he told reporter Ken Carlson. “That is lazy.”
But government must be part of the solution. The city of Los Angeles said it will spend $100 million on homeless housing and services, followed by a commitment of $50 million from Los Angeles County. Portland said it will spend $30 million on emergency beds and lodging. San Francisco spends $450,000 each day to help and house the homeless.
One particularly effective solution is recognizing that there are different reasons for being homeless, and each requires a different solution. Financially unstable families, for example, might benefit more from “rapid-rehousing,” while the “chronically homeless,” who resist help at every turn, might be better off with more targeted services.
Communities like ours, which attract the homeless in greater numbers, cannot afford to solve the problem alone. State government should help fund solutions that work.
That’s where Focus on Prevention comes in – finding what works. Kaanon says effective solutions must include accountability for outcomes. We agree. If something isn’t working, we need to know it as soon as possible so we can try something that might.
Risen says to truly help the homeless, we must develop relationships with them; only then will we understand how best to help them. That might strike some as odious, but it is likely the most important step.
Those who refuse help, who defile our community and themselves, must be helped in different ways – ways that remove them from public places. But we believe that is a relatively small number.
Regardless, we cannot give up and that we cannot cave in to our worst impulses – further punishing all the homeless by herding them into camps or prodding them to leave town. There are better ways. It’s good to know so many are willing to help look for them.