The June 1 meeting of the Stanislaus County’s “Focus on Prevention” homeless project featured a reality check from Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll. Let’s hope people were listening.
Chief Carroll admitted that the current policy of busting and rousting homeless people doesn’t work. “It’s like squeezing a water balloon,” he said. He said that the majority of homeless people are not anti-social. He also said that most homeless people aren’t criminals and that most crimes by the homeless are, “quality of life crimes,” like trespassing, camping in public places, and creating public disturbances.
Arresting homeless people for such crimes often results in, “putting someone into the system who shouldn’t be there,” said Chief Carroll. He could easily have added that many “anti-social” homeless people are mentally ill, and time in jail does nothing to address their root problems.
Carroll then spoke movingly of his brother, saying they went separate ways after a close childhood. He said that when his brother experienced homelessness after drug use, “I spent a great deal of money trying to help him out.”
Carroll went on to say that, “There’s a lot that families do, but sometimes we get to a point that we need others as well. It’s very easy to say that they burned out their families so now we don’t care about them, but I tell our officers to treat homeless people like family.”
Carroll added that his brother is now back in prison, and his message could not have been clearer. As someone almost uniquely qualified to help a close family member, Carroll still couldn’t prevent his brother from homelessness, and, ultimately, prison.
Chief Carroll’s candid story illustrates a fact more and more of us have begun to accept: We don’t really know how to treat addiction and we need both better understanding of the problem and plenty of help from others before we can begin to help people addicted to drugs.
We also need better understanding of people experiencing homelessness. If, as Chief Carroll says, our current policies of arresting and rousting homeless people don’t work, why do we keep repeating them? The obvious answer is that our police officers respond to citizen complaints and to the commands of our elected officials. It follows that complaining citizens and elected officials need to think harder about real solutions to the problems posed by people with nowhere to go.
Most of all, homeless people need permanent shelter. That’s why the “Housing First” movement has met with growing approval around the nation. Moving homeless people out of parks and off the streets simply puts them in a different public place, often at the expense of business and residential locations.
Last Wednesday’s “Focus on Prevention” meeting opened with a reminder that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That’s what we’ve been doing with the problems of drug addiction and homelessness in general. Maybe it’s time to start listening to experts like Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll. At least then we wouldn’t continue repeating the same senseless behavior.