For decades, there were a few stock responses to homelessness: “They don’t want help — it’s the drugs — they’re bums” were among the most popular. “They made bad choices” wasn’t far behind.
Though none of these explanations holds up to thoughtful reflection, they comprised the largest part of the conventional wisdom about homeless precisely for that reason — they enabled most of us to avoid thinking about a problem that has grown exponentially worse almost by the day.
Even the knowledge that a high percentage of homeless people are mentally ill seldom influenced these stock responses, though no one should expect mentally ill people to make good choices, nor would we expect them to “want help.” In fact, many mentally ill people also suffer from anosognosia, a condition that prevents them from realizing they’re sick; most mentally ill homeless people in fact think they’re perfectly okay.
Things changed dramatically earlier this month when California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed formation of the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Court, a program that will empower local authorities to force mentally ill people into programs for treatment. Newsom’s announcement amounted to acknowledgement of two long-denied realities about homelessness: (1) Mental illness is the compelling factor in homelessness for thousands upon thousands of people and (2) There are far too few facilities and services available for poor people who suffer mental illness.
Early last year, when authorities in Stanislaus County added “accountability” to their “Focus on Prevention” program for homelessness, people with on-the-ground experience were exasperated at the prospect of demanding accountability from people too sick to realize they need help. Governor Newsom’s proposal assigns accountability where it belongs — to the cities and counties that have let their systems of care atrophy and die while forcing sick people into our parks, streets and sidewalks.
As local authorities begin the difficult transition to providing services and help for sick people among the homeless population, it’s going to be impossible to keep blaming the victims of collapsed systems of care for their plight. The problem will become even more burdensome when people assessing mental illness among the homeless begin to face inconvenient truths about the prevalence of physically and developmentally disabled people who’ve been driven into the streets by rising rents and flat incomes.
At some point, even the most persistent arguments about such things as drugs and addiction will founder on the hard realities that addiction is far better treated as an illness than as a failure of character. When we have an accurate tally of the number of homeless veterans who’ve taken to drugs as way of dealing with PTSD, when we finally realize the damaging effects of severe poverty on brain function, and when we account for homeless people who’ve been displaced by rising costs of living, we’ll at last be on our way to better understanding how to reduce the manifold harms we all suffer when people who need help are forced into our streets. The false narratives will fail and facts will prevail.
Demonizing people suffering the horrors of addiction, mental illness and extreme poverty isn’t just wrong, it’s cruel. We have the resources to do better. Now, Gavin Newsom has acknowledged the need to restore and improve our systems of care. It can’t happen soon enough.
James Comegys says
When a person is mentally ill and addicted to drugs also, they are called “dual diagnosis” because the treatment for them is far trickier than if they had only one set back to deal with. For the homeless we need a similar designation for the hardcore cases. Of course if we had jobs with living wages, affordable housing, and affordable medical care, that would be a plus.
brad johnson says
“Demonizing people suffering the horrors of addiction, mental illness and extreme poverty isn’t just wrong, it’s cruel. We have the resources to do better. ”
Bruce Frohman says
Sticking negative labels on those suffering economic hardship has been the lazy and inexcusable way for politicians to deal with social problems. Doing nothing is an unacceptable default position.
One cannot drive down McHenry Avenue without realizing doing nothing is not an acceptable option.
John Glynn says
Council members and board members do not care or have a clue. Change will come only went their property is impacted.
Lou Valero says
THE MOST EXPEDIENT AND LEGAL WAY TO IMPACT THEIR PROPERTY IS TO VOTE THEM OUT OF OFFICE. THEY PROBABLY ONLY CAMPAIGNED AS A LAST RESORT, OR BECAUSE SOMEONE BACKED THEM TO TRY FOR A SEAT, SO THAT THEY COULD BE IN A POSITION TO PLEASE THE BACKERS. YOU RUB MY BACK AND I WILL RUB YOURS KIND OF GROUPTHINKING.
IF THEY CAMPAIGNED FOR SOME IDEALISTIC REASONS, I CERTAINLY DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE IDEALS WERE. I DO KNOW ONE OF THEM WHO HAS DONE ENOUGH TO CONTINUE HOLDING OFFICE, WHICH TRULY BELONGS TO THE CITIZENS, INCLUDING THE ILL: MENTAL, DUAL DIAGNOSED MENTAL AND ADDICTED, AND/OR POVERTY STRICKEN (EACH COMES WITH SETS OF COMPOUNDING AILMENTS). I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO REMIND ANYONE THAT THE ILL LIVING ON THE STREETS ARE CITIZENS, YET I THINK I MUST…
POST TRAUMATIC STRESS: COMES UNDER MANY DIFFERENT SCENARIOS, AND LET US NOT FORGET HOW QUICKLY MANY DOCTORS DISPENSE ADDICTIVE DRUGS WHICH FURTHER SCREW UP NEUROTRANSMITTERS AND PARTS OF THE BRAIN. UNFORTUNATELY, THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE ARE CHEMICALS IN MOST DOCTOR’S TREATMENTS FOR PAIN. PAIN IS NOT ALWAYS PHYSICAL…
GETTING BACK TO IMPACTS: SINCE NONE OF THESE OFFICE HOLDERS HAVE DONE NEARLY ENOUGH, IF AT ALL, TO SUBSTANTIALLY IMPACT ENOUGH OF THOSE WHO ARE LIVING ON THE STREETS WHILE ILL OR BECOMING ILL, NEXT TIME, ANY ONE OF THEM CAMPAIGN, DO NOT VOTE FOR ANY OF THEM.
EVEN THOUGH A GOVERMENT OFFICE SEAT IS NOT TECHNICALLY THEIR PROPERTY, IT IS A STEP IN THE DIRECTION OF IMPACTING THEIR INCOME, AND POPULARITY WITH THEIR BACKERS, AND BIZ PARTNERS.
PERHAPS, SETTING IN MOTION A SIMILAR DOWNWARD SLIDE, LIKE THAT CAUSING THE DOMINO EFFECT THAT FACED THOSE WHO WOUND UP ON THE STREETS, COULD BE HEALTHY FOR THEM: PERHAPS THINGS MAY LOOK DIFFERENT FROM THE OPPOSITE SIDE.
BEING ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN, RATHER THAN BEING AN UNJUST EMPTY SHIRT OR SKIRT, WITH CRED THEY DIDN’T EARN, WOULD GIVE THEM A TASTE OF WHAT THEY NEED, OR A HARD PILL TO SWALLOW. MAYBE THEIR DOCTORS WILL THEN PRESCRIBE THAT PILL, WHEN ECONOMIC STRESS SETS IN. THEN, MAYBE, THEY WILL GET THE POINT: THEY ARE NO DIFFERENT.
YES, I AM RIGHTEOUSLY ANGRY AT THESE CURRENT LOCAL OFFICE HOLDERS. WAS I TOO VAGUE? I THINK READERS GET MY POINT…
Roberto Alaniz says
Public mental health and substance abuse treatment services in California are primarily the responsibility of counties. Most cities, and especially small and medium sized cities, do not employ people with the expertise to effectively deal with such problems. Partnerships between cities and counties to address homelessness is the most practical approach to the problem. However, county behavioral health departments will need additional resources in order to be responsive to city homeless program needs.
Eric Caine says
Thank you Roberto. Most people don’t understand the need for counties to be involved, especially since most of the homeless are in cities. Counties need to be active players in addressing homelessness, as you say.
Lou Valero says
OOPS!!! MY APOLOGIES, VALLEY CITIZENS and ERIC CAINE.
I MADE A TYPO, LOCATED IN THE 2ND PARAGRAPH, 2ND SENTENCE, OF MY COMMENT ABOVE. TYPO CORRECTION IS: “I do NOT know one of them who has done enough to continue holding office…”
Keith Law says
Thank you for this thoughtful piece regarding the psychological forms of denial that help perpetuate a completely unnecessary homeless problem in the richest nation in the world.
What was exposed here in detail takes a rich kid less than a moment to rationalize away between meals, or deals.
I am old enough to remember when on vacation my family would cross the border into Mexico and all of a sudden there were human beings living in tent cities and cardboard shacks. My father would say, “that’s the difference between a third world country and the USA.”
If correct, doesn’t that mean that neo liberal (supply side/ trickle down) economics has been the ruin of a once decent economy?
Eric Caine says
As you note Professor Law, no matter what we call it, concentrating wealth in fewer and fewer hands doesn’t promote prosperity for all. In fact, as wealth inequality grows, so too do apathy and cruelty. The rush to privatize all things did away with our sense of the public sphere. While we commodified public resources and privatized everything we could, we failed to notice that once human beings become costs, they become expendable. Ultimately, we’ll have to decide whether we want to continue down this cruel path or change direction toward a more humane world.
Keith Law, it is so good to hear from you.
I certainly look forward to hearing much more from you, Professor Law. Would you honor us with additional wisdom?!?!?!
I always wanted to take your courses, yet was already working on 12 units towards a major, and a Conflict and Peacemaking (Mediation) minor, at Fresno Pacific University, plus completing another 9 units at Merced Community College, simultaneously. Taking even one of your courses would have been a luxury that I could not afford, timewise, nor could I risk bringing my cum down from where it needed to stay.
To think that you could give us, Valley Citizens, even some of, your well-honed nuggets of truth, is quite refreshing. I use “refreshing” because, as you may very well know, “Refresh” occurs a few times in the Old Testament as the translation of naphash, “to take breath,” figurative “to be refreshed” … I found your comments to be appropriate in that they “get” beneath the surface, to where many fear to tread. Foundational, in fact!
I know there are those of us who are not willing to rationalize away all that absolutely needs to be exposed, then remain visible. Please, continue to raise our consciousness. Encounter us with truth.
All in good faith,
If you recall the student club that created such a stir amongst the administration at Merced Community College, simply because we printed a paper titled VOICE (Views On Issues Concerning Everyone), then you may know who I am. Concerned people came to me, on the q.t., to tell me where some of the bones were buried. The Dean would no longer allow me entrance into her office, emphatically stating, “I do not want to read in your newspaper about what I talk to Student Government about in my office.” Odd she would fear that. One of her puppy deans retired, shortly after she and I conversed. Some do not want to be faced with the truth. No matter how freeing it can be. Hope to read more of yours. We all need to get to the root of matters… Some of us end up being lightning rods whether that was our intent or not.