Thursday, March 24, 2016

House, Don't Punish, Homeless People: An Open Letter to the Pasadena City Council

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 being. By showing  concern  for this  homeless  man’s   welfare,  the police were able to calm him down. This 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. 

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