Whether by coincidence or design, the Modesto Police Department (MPD) waited until after the February 2 election to roust illegal “campers,” otherwise known as people without homes, from Beard Brook Park last Thursday.
The sweep, the second within a few months, forced people to take down tents, gather what belongings they could carry, and leave the park, at least temporarily. Even during the sweep, city workers were making mock bets on how long it would be before the first tents were back up.
The “bets” were one more sign that the sweep policy, like most every other local attempt to address problems associated with homelessness, is based on ineffective city and county ordinances. But when one of our most common memes about homeless people is that they come here to take advantage of our generous and compassionate residents, it hardly makes sense to point out the cruelty and futility of our default harassment policies.
In defense of the police actions, one public official cited problems with trash, crime, and prostitution as reasons for the roust. If people didn’t know the context of his comments, they might have thought he was talking about south Ninth Street, Highway 132 west of the freeway, or neighborhoods around Modesto High School.
Those places, of course, are subject to lower standards of enforcement. And that’s the key to understanding one of the critical factors of homelessness: Without four walls and a roof, you are in far greater jeopardy from the same infraction than someone with even the most humble home.
Even a moment’s thought enables most anyone to conclude that when you are dealing with crime and trash, neither will go away just because the perpetrators have been forced to relocate. Modesto officials seem to think the leaf blower approach to homelessness will end the problem when in fact all it does it spread it around.
Rousting the homeless isn’t just ineffective, it’s also cruel. A large percentage of homeless people are mentally ill. Others are physically disabled. Harassing them instead of helping them violates every humane standard of Western civilization.
Some will say that most homeless people have brought their problems on themselves through drug use. There’s no question that drug use is rampant among the homeless population, but now that addiction has become a growing epidemic in the white middle class, it’s no longer viewed as a moral failing; instead, it’s finally being seen as a health problem resulting from despair, lack of opportunity, easy access to legal prescription drugs, and a host of other causal factors.
So if Modesto does indeed feature a disproportionate number of generous and compassionate residents, why do we persist in cruelty toward people in need? The answer is simple: We no longer hold government accountable. Our politicians have managed to avoid the problems of homelessness by looking the other way while sick and disabled people with nowhere to go are chased from place to place by police officers who would much rather be chasing dangerous criminals than illegal campers.
The remedy is accountability. Every Modesto voter should ask his or her city councilperson to support or oppose rousting the homeless. Voters should also ask the new mayor to take a public stand on homelessness. Modesto has acres of vacant lots and dozens of vacant buildings. If it can afford to house visiting Amgen participants, it can certainly afford portable toilets and space for tents for people in need.