By October 1, 2015, homelessness in Modesto and Stanislaus County had become the region’s most urgent social and political issue. That’s when Stanislaus County Supervisors hosted their “Focus on Prevention” symposium to announce, “a ten-year journey of Stanislaus County toward community transformation and prosperity. A primary focus….is to reduce homelessness.”
At the time, a few observers noted that “prevention” wasn’t possible for the hundreds of people already in the region with nowhere to go. The time for prevention had passed. Modesto alone had over 1,000 people without homes.
Almost six years later, there are more homeless people in Stanislaus County than ever. But Modesto and Stanislaus County aren’t alone in experiencing rising homelessness. All along the west coast and as far away as Washington D.C., numbers of chronically homeless people continue to rise, despite the best efforts of local governments and volunteer groups to reduce them.
There are numerous and well understood forces driving homelessness, including job loss from the effects of Covid 19, diminished social and mental health services, housing shortages, rising living costs and stagnant wages. Much less understood are reasons why state and federal governments have been so helpless to stem the rising numbers.
One obstacle to addressing homelessness is the widespread tendency to lump homeless people into one or two broad categories, a dual error of broad generalization and oversimplification. In these scenarios, homeless people are “bums” or “addicts” who “choose” homelessness as a way of avoiding work and responsibility.
Supporters of the “bums and addicts” theories favor “tough love” remedies for homelessness, with the emphasis on “tough.” Typical tough tactics include fines and jail time. The consistent action is a chase — an unending series of fruitless sweeps that push homeless people back and forth around town.
In some cases, the alleged bum or addict is placed in a locked down rehabilitation facility. The belief is that if the bums and addicts have it tough enough, they will shape up and get a job.
Supporters of the “bums and addicts” theories never address the most elementary realities of homelessness, especially the end results of jail and rehabilitation. No matter how “tough” jail and rehabilitation are, the vast majority of people who enter them homeless exit them homeless. That’s because the cause of their homelessness isn’t drugs or indolence, it’s extreme poverty. Tough love approaches turn out to be circular routines back into homelessness.
It takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that most drug users and addicts aren’t homeless. If addiction caused homelessness, celebrity addicts like Rush Limbaugh, Prince, and Robert Downey Jr. would have ended up on the streets.
Soccer legend Diego Maradona had a cocaine habit throughout most of his career. His gifts as an athlete brought him sympathy and compassion instead of the condemnation poor people experience from their drug use.
In 2019, “an estimated 10.1 million people aged 12 or older misused opioids. Specifically, 9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers and 745,000 people used heroin.” The numbers of people who “misused” opioids don’t include those who (mis)used methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol, Adderall and other drugs, nor do they include the millions whose drug use goes unrecorded. If drugs were the cause of homelessness, we’d have millions more homeless people.
The “bums” narrative, along with claims that people “choose” homelessness, are as specious as those that cite drug use as the causal factor. Yes, the homeless population, like any group of significant numbers, contains a proportion of “bums,” people who seek to coast along on the efforts of others. Such people, however, don’t choose homelessness. They’re homeless because they have no other viable options.
Work of any kind must offer an incentive. In the case of homeless people, the most pressing incentive is a place to live. Close behind is a sense of worth and accomplishment. Today, especially on the west coast, but also in cities like New York and Washington D.C., only a tiny few homeless people have a chance at a job that pays a living wage.
Even in Modesto and Stanislaus County, which serve as bedroom communities for Bay Area wage earners fleeing high rents, housing for the poor and homeless is far out of reach.
Recent studies show that renters in Stanislaus County need to earn $4,813 a month to afford an average monthly rental expense of $1,255. Most of the county’s economy depends on retail and agricultural workers who earn far less. Except for those who receive disability or Social Security income, homeless people earn nothing and their prospects for finding a job that pays enough for a rental, even if one were available, are virtually non-existent.
Moreover, Stanislaus County has 15,485 low-income residents who can’t find an affordable home; another 76% of its low-income residents spend over half their salaries on rent, a recipe for imminent disaster; they’re a hospital bill or car repair away from the streets.
When hard work doesn’t pay the rent, the value of work declines. Wage earners who can’t afford a place to live find fewer and fewer reasons to labor.
Despite mathematical facts about housing and wages in Modesto and Stanislaus County, many residents still favor an obsolete narrative about homelessness. According to a widely held view, the remedy for homeless people is to move off the streets and into a shelter where they will be, “connected to services,” that put them back into the mainstream with a job and a place to live.
In fact, local services for the homeless, especially those for the mentally ill, are far too understaffed and underfunded to address the needs of even the seriously mentally ill (SMI), let alone people with less severe but still significant mental and physical health problems.
Consider the case of Mary Baca. Just under six years ago, Mary showed up in a Modesto park after living for several months in her car. It was immediately apparent to homeless people in the park that she was severely mentally ill. Over time, her mental illness got worse.
Approached numerous times by outreach workers, Mary has always refused help, almost certainly because she’s afflicted by anosognosia, a common condition among the mentally ill that makes them unaware of their illness. She once had a 15-day stint in Stanislaus County’s Behavioral Health Recovery Service Center, where she received counseling and prescription medication, whereupon she was released and returned to her favored park location.
Back in the park, Mary’s friends noticed a marked improvement in her mental health. However, she went off her medication after a few weeks and returned to her state of paranoid schizophrenia. Mary can be seen singing and playing guitar on a video taped by Richard Anderson in May, 2016. At 28 seconds in, Mary talks about life in Modesto’s Graceada Park, and the seven underground homeless men responsible for home invasions in the Graceada neighborhood. Her illness is obvious.
Today, Mary is in the Stanislaus County Jail. She’s been there since February of this year, when she was arrested for refusing to leave the premises of a local market where she panhandled during the day and slept at night. After over six months, her next hearing is scheduled for December. Even after all this time, the only “service” available for Mary is incarceration, despite clear evidence of SMI.
Kenneth “Pops” Yarber is a disabled man who spent over 20 years on the streets of Modesto until the opening of the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES) in 2019, when Modesto Police Sargent Mike Hammond told him he needed to get inside or face arrest. MOES was a permitted campsite featuring onsite security and services.
When MOES closed in January, 2020, Pops moved into Stanislaus County’s low barrier shelter in the Berberian Building on 9th and D Streets in Modesto. Except for a short stint when he was kicked out for a dispute with a staff worker, Pops has been there ever since, almost 20 months. Somehow, he’s still not connected to “services.” During the time he was suspended, a period of triple-digit temperatures, Pops lived in a nearby park.
Though clearly erroneous and counterproductive, “shelter to services” is still the dominant narrative for homelessness, and a major reason why the numbers of homeless people continue to rise.
Parasites of the Mind and Perversions of Language
Homeless people are commonly classified as “vagrants” or “transients.” The effect of such words — like the effect of words like “addicts” and “bums” — is to objectify and dehumanize them, to make them something other than people.
One of the most enduring myths about the homeless in Modesto and Stanislaus County is that they’ve been shipped in from other cities — they’re not our own. Despite evidence that the overwhelming number of homeless people in the region have local roots, the “other cities” origin narrative persists because it assists in a process of alienation; it marginalizes homeless people as outsiders and makes it easier to deem them unworthy of help.
Help itself is routinely discouraged by memes about “enabling” and bromides about “teaching a man to fish” or giving him “a hand up instead of a handout.” Instead of its positive connotation, “enabling” becomes a negative because it’s associated with encouraging bad habits.
In fact, we should be enabling more people with disabilities, not fewer. We should be feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. Perversions of language make it harder to think clearly about the realities of homelessness.
In a nation where wealth is seen as a sign of virtue, it follows that poverty must be a sign of vice. So it is that homeless people must “choose” homelessness and “don’t want help.”
It is true that after many attempts to make a living at poverty-level wages and after several rounds of failed “services,” many homeless people become exhausted and burnt out. They’ve discovered “help” is illusory and too often leads back to the streets. They’re also often damaged by the stress of extreme poverty.
Robert Sapolsky, Stanford’s MacArthur-Award winning brain neurologist, has found that the stress of poverty leads to brain damage. The damage increases in social contexts featuring great wealth disparity.
While the damaging effects of poverty on children are well known, it’s only recently that research by scientists like Sapolsky has revealed the damage to adults from extreme poverty. Chief among the effects of the prolonged stress of poverty is damage to the brain’s executive function — the part of the brain involved in making choices. The popular view — that poverty is caused by bad choices — confuses cause and effect. In fact, according to research by Sapolsky and others, the bad choices are an effect of poverty, not a cause.
One of the ways homeless people cope with the stress of extreme poverty is by forming small communities, groups they often refer to as “families.” Loosely associated with a local park, neighborhood, or along a river, homeless families provide their members with security from the bullies, thieves and belligerent young people who often prey on them. They also share food and other necessities.
When Stanislaus County disbanded MOES, the most common complaint among the homeless was the loss of community.
“We’ve got each other’s backs,” was a common refrain from people displaced when the permitted campsite closed. “Now we’re losing our community.”
A number of MOES’ residents, like Pops Yarber, moved into the county’s low-barrier shelter, but with a capacity of 180 beds it left many of the over 450 MOES’ campers with nowhere to go.
Not long thereafter, the county instituted an “accountability” element as part of its homeless abatement program. A key feature made any encampment or gathering of more than ten homeless people subject to citations or arrest. Once again, homeless policy in Stanislaus County had devolved to chasing poor people from place to place. The County’s “Focus on Prevention” program had come full circle, with the major difference there were now more homeless people than ever.
The Covid pandemic only made things worse. Covid relief money took some homeless people off the streets only because they used the money to buy cars and vans. Some of these buyers had been living in shelters. Two residences for homeless people in the City of Patterson became vacant altogether after residents received Covid checks and took off.
The rising numbers of homeless people living in vehicles included many who had lost housing after failing to pay rent or mortgages. Despite moratoriums, renters were still being evicted. Stanislaus County’s eviction rate led the entire state, with 18 evictions per 10,000 households. Mendocino, Kern, and Calaveras Counties tied for second place with 14.
Covid also made congregate living even less appealing than before the pandemic. Many homeless people avoided shelters anyway because colds and flu were prevalent there, especially during winter months. Covid added another disincentive.
In any case, shelters were never meant for long-term residence. They served best during a time when men — and the vast majority were men — who had fallen on hard times or struggled with alcohol or drugs could spend a week or two getting cleaned up before finding a job and moving on.
Those were also the days of cheap hotel rooms and boarding houses; rents were far lower. A worker could earn enough in a couple of weeks to move on from the shelter into a room or apartment. Those days are gone.
Today, shelter occupants seldom have viable options for relocation. Many are disabled and many more will never find a job that pays a living wage. Modesto and Stanislaus County have an acute housing shortage, but funding for construction is dependent on meeting federal and state standards for “affordable” and “permanent” housing. Nothing is affordable for people with no money and no prospect of getting any, and many people’s Social Security or disability incomes fall far short of qualifying for market rentals.
These realities — housing shortages and restrictive laws and regulations — too often delay or prevent the quick action needed to reduce the harmful effects of homelessness. Ironically, Modesto and Stanislaus County had an ideal strategy for reducing the ongoing harm of homelessness with MOES. At an estimated cost of $13 per day per person, MOES provided the most cost-effective harm reduction strategy for homelessness anywhere.
Even as Modesto and Stanislaus County veered away from permitted camping, cities like Sacramento have embraced it. The Sacramento City Council unanimously approved its “Safe Ground” strategy for reducing homelessness on August 10. It includes permitted camping, tiny homes, and round-the-clock service and security.
While Modesto and Stanislaus County double down on congregate living options — following the “shelter to services” narrative — other regions have moved to quicker and less costly options. Among the most efficient are Pallet Shelters and Conestoga Huts.
Pallet Shelters are sturdy, lockable, and can be set up in hours. Fresno, Santa Clara, Los Angeles, Sonoma and dozens of other locations have established sanctioned Pallet Villages already, with more coming. Rather than wait for years for so-called “affordable housing,” these communities have recognized the urgent need for shelter now.
After decades of deferred maintenance, there won’t be a quick and easy fix for our roads, bridges, canals, dams, ports and other crumbling infrastructure, nor will there be an easy fix for the punishing effects of extreme poverty. Every day homeless people spend without a secure place to lay their heads causes more harm, both physical and psychological.
Homelessness also causes loss of revenue to local businesses; it depreciates property values, and contributes to rising numbers of quality of life crimes. Local governments everywhere have been unable to reduce the harms of homelessness in large part because their leaders have been incapacitated by obsolete narratives, obstructive regulations, mindless memes and perversions of language. The effect is to blunt and even destroy political will.
Ending “welfare as we know it” and reducing government “to the size where [we] can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub” sounded like good ideas at the time. Today, while billionaire oligarchs cavort in space, disabled Americans sleep on our sidewalks. Local governments are helpless. The quality of mercy isn’t strained, it’s shattered.