Compassion Trumps Decorum in Handling the Homeless

Compassion Trumps Decorum in Handling the Homeless

Photo by Sam Hodgson

A volunteer tallies homeless people sleeping in front of the Central Library for the Regional Task Force on the Homeless' annual count.

I have worked with the homeless in San Diego for the past 18 years and I agree with Christie Ritter on one point: I wish there weren’t homeless people at the Central Library.

In fact, I wish there weren’t homeless people in San Diego. I wish there weren’t homeless people anywhere, but there are. And the thing we must remember is that homeless people are still people.

fix san diego opinionThere are as many paths into homelessness as there are homeless people. No two lives are identical but no matter how they get there, when a person’s life leads to sleeping on the streets, it is natural to assume there is something about that person, something he or she did or didn’t do that led to their state.

It’s a kind of victim-blaming of which we’re all guilty to a degree. We believe, on some level, that the least among us probably deserve their circumstance.

We know that isn’t true, but in our hearts we still react to “the homeless” as if their homelessness was an essential trait. They’re our modern-day lepers and their greatest offense is to be visible while poor. I wish there weren’t homeless people and because of that, I wish a number of other things.

I wish there weren’t domestic violence and abuse. Every year, tens of thousands of women will experience homelessness as they flee an abuser. Tens of thousands of youth will also hit the streets, running from predation, exploitation and victimization at the hands of a family member.

I wish there weren’t recently returned combat veterans with untreated and often undiagnosed post-traumatic stress and other adjustment disorders. San Diego is home to one of the highest concentrations of returning veterans in the country and has one of the largest populations of veterans on the streets.

I wish there weren’t people with severe mental illnesses living on the streets with no connection to mental health care. Untreated mental illness leads directly to psychiatric in-patient stays, ambulance transportations, police responses, incarcerations and other drains on public systems that are far more expensive and far less effective than housing and treatment.

I wish there were none of those routes into homelessness in San Diego.

At Alpha Project, we operate several programs downtown serving more than 1,000 people every day who have followed these paths. Our partner organizations and other community-based groups serve thousands more. Reasonable estimates put San Diego’s total homeless population at more than 6,000 each night. Most of those cases are people whose homelessness is brief, who use services to get housed and acquire or re-acquire a reliable income to end their homelessness.

Other cases involve long periods on the street, often cycling in and out of emergency shelters. Those cases might involve addiction. They might involve mental illness. They might involve physical disability or other impediments to self-sufficiency. Whatever a homeless person’s circumstance, shouldn’t he or she have access to the same resources as all other San Diegans? In fact, shouldn’t we go out of our way to make sure that the homeless, especially, have access to all the benefits of a new library?

According to San Diego library surveys, by far the most common reasons people visited the old Central Library were to look for work and to find information about health care. Are those not uses of the library that we should encourage for homeless San Diegans?

Still, I feel for Ritter and others who understandably pull back in mild fear, or maybe revulsion at the obviously homeless. I’m sure any parent could sympathize with Ritter’s concern when her 10-year-old was frightened by a woman who “let out a long, loud screech” for no apparent reason. It is perfectly natural to react to the unfamiliar with alarm. But as a commenter on Ritter’s editorial put it: “Too bad a[n] … opportunity to teach compassion was missed by the author.”

As downtown continues to grow and change and our urban core undergoes further redevelopment, I hope we remember that there were people on downtown’s streets long before the area became the place to be for the rest of us. There were homeless people downtown when I came to San Diego 18 years ago. There are homeless people downtown still and just like the rest of us, they have to be somewhere.

Amy Gonyeau is chief operating officer at Alpha Project, an agency combating homelessness. Gonyeau’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

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