Dear City Council members:
I have been attending meetings of the Safety Committee regarding efforts to make it illegal for homeless people to sleep in public places and to make it easier for police to arrest homeless people for “aggressive panhandling.” As a person of faith, I can’t help thinking that this week many of us are honoring the memory of a homeless man who came to preach good news to the poor. Because he was seen as a threat to those in power, he was arrested by the authorities, tortured and killed. He had so much compassion for the marginalized that he told his followers, “As you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”
I have been involved with the homeless people for many years and have homeless friends. In fact, two years ago Jill and I took into our home a man who was living in his car. He was drinking a lot, and was so sick we were afraid he was going to die. He recovered and has stayed with us and become a huge asset. He is not only a highly competent handyman, he also helps us to understand what life is like for homeless people in our city. If you want to solve the homeless “problem” in our City, I recommend that you get to know homeless people.
Since coming to Pasadena five years, I have been involved with the homeless count. Last year, when I was counting the homeless, I noticed half a dozen homeless people sleeping in front of the deluxe animal shelter near the Delmar Station and I asked myself, What’s wrong with this picture? We provide humane shelter for stray animals, but what about people who are homeless?
I am glad that our city believes every homeless person deserves a decent place to live, and I commend the efforts of our Housing Department and many citizens of good will. But until such time as the city provides a decent shelter for every homeless person, I believe homeless people should be allowed to sleep on sidewalks and public places.
I can understand why some Pasadenans feel intimidated by homeless people. Some of them have disabilities, mental problems, or substance abuse issues. Life on the street is so stressful it can cause people to act out in strange and sometimes frightening ways.
Given these disturbing realities, it seems to me that we need to look at root causes rather than symptoms. Why is there an apparent increase of inappropriate behavior by homeless people? What is causing it? Until we know the cause of a problem, we can’t come up with solutions
My Christian faith teaches me that we don’t more punitive laws, we need more compassionate practices that can help homeless people to behave appropriately and find the help they need. I’m glad that the business community recognizes the need for homeless services and housing.
When we ask police to deal with homeless people, we need to insure that they have training and mentoring from mental health professionals so they can learn how to treat homeless people appropriately. This is a very challenging task.
Last year a youtube video went viral showing how four Swedish police officers vacationing in New York City helped to calm down two homeless black men who were fighting in the subway. The behavior of these two men was very aggressive and scary, but these Swedish police didn’t threaten him. “Take it easy, just relax, everything is going to be okay,” one of the officers told the detained man while he frantically screamed that he couldn’t breathe. This seemed to calm him, and the officer asked if he was injured with a kind and gentle hand on his back. The officer seemed genuinely concerned about his well beingThis is the kind of policing we need here in Pasadena and throughout the USA. See Swedish police in NYC subway
When business people and property owners complain about the homeless, it is politically expedient to call in the cops. But I wonder what good will it do to fine or incarcerate people who have no money and nowhere to live. If you fine them, they have no funds so they will have to resort to more aggressive panhandling to pay their fines. If you jail them, they return to the streets even more traumatized and more likely to act out. These punitive measures are not only counterproductive, they are expensive. LA spends $88 million out of its $100 million homeless budget on enforcement, with little good to show for it. Does Pasadena want to follow LA’s bad example?
Instead of targeting homeless people with punitive laws that don’t work, we should follow the example of Rhode Island, which passed a homeless bill of rights. A similar law is being considered in California. Even without such a bill of rights, we should recognize that homeless people have rights, just like property owners. One basic right is housing. If we house the homeless, and give them wrap-around services, most problems would disappear. Studies show these measures even save money. So let’s be compassionate and wise, and use our resources to house, not punish, homeless people. As we do for the least of these, our brothers and sisters, we also do for the one who bestowed on us all the blessings we enjoy.