Guest opinion: We can’t afford not to help everyone
People who don’t have permanent addresses have the same constitutional rights as any of us. A recent letter writer urges the police to do their jobs and protect us and our property values. I ask, what would you have the police do? They can only enforce the laws that exist. Thank goodness that we have no law here that bans a person from asking another person for help or standing on a street or sitting on a bench, and thank goodness that our police are not willing to violate the rights of people who don’t conform to the social norms (by choice or not) of living in houses, having jobs or bathing every day.
Homelessness is an issue nationwide. When we pass laws banning “them” from one place, they are forced to go to another. Denver passed a law in 2013 banning camping and sleeping in vehicles, even if those vehicles are legally parked. These laws don’t solve the problem, they just make it less visible and/or push it outside of Denver’s jurisdiction.
Yesterday I heard the chief of police of Glenwood Springs (Terry Wilson) share his theory that the main reason we have seen a rise of the visibly homeless in Glenwood Springs in the past few years is that we provide many services for them and that there is a vast and sophisticated network of transients who help each other to take advantage of our compassion and good will. I actually don’t doubt that there is communication among transient people and it only makes sense that if a person needs help, they would ask someone where they might be able to get some help and then go there. Terry is not a mean-spirited, unethical or unintelligent person — he is kind-hearted, generous and highly intelligent. And yet I do not agree with him about the motivations of “them.”
In the Human Services Commission meeting this week, I heard a simmering resentment and frustration coming from members of some of the helping organizations. Some feel that there is a segment of the homeless population that is increasingly demanding, entitled and ungrateful (a few paying tourists and business owners, really, any of us, might fit this description on any given day, depending on whom you ask). Some expressed that when there aren’t enough resources to help everyone and they have to somehow prioritize who their services and resources will go to, they want to be able to choose to help those who are more deserving.
This idea that some human beings are more deserving of shelter, of food and of our compassion than others is deeply troubling to me. I spoke up in the meeting to say so and to make the case that it is not our generosity that is the problem, but that we don’t go far enough. I believe that this community, this state, this country and this world will be better served by becoming even more generous, even more compassionate, and even more loving.
I love “The Daily Show” segment about how Salt Lake City solved the problem of chronic homelessness in their community by — gasp — giving homes to the homeless.
In the segment, the director of Utah’s program points out that it costs them $10,000 to $12,000 per year to house someone versus $20,000-plus per year if they are on the street (EMT runs, emergency room visits, police contacts, jail time).
“But aren’t you just incentivizing mooching?”
“We don’t see them as moochers. We see them as people who are in great need of some support to fulfill their lives.”
What if we treated all members of our community and all visitors to our community as if they were simply human beings who all equally deserve our kindness and hospitality?
What if our helping organizations didn’t have to prioritize whom to help, but had the resources they needed to help everyone who was in need? Some argue that we can’t afford to help everyone. I argue that we really can’t afford not to help everyone.
There is no “them.” There is only us. Let us lift ourselves up by lifting up each other.
If you want the visibly homeless to quit sitting on the benches downtown, give them someplace else to sit. If you want them to quit asking tourists for their leftovers of really tasty food from our downtown restaurants, give them access to really tasty food of their own. If you want them to quit acting crazy on our streets, give them access to mental health care. If you don’t want to smell their body odor or see their ragged clothes, give them a place to shower and access to quality clothing. If you don’t want them sleeping in your library or in a tent on the side of “your” mountain, give them a safe place to lay their heads, not just some room with lots of other homeless people where they, like you, won’t feel safe.
I’ll say it again, I don’t think the problem is our generosity. I don’t think the problem is that we are attracting the wrong element of society by offering them services. I think the problem is that we are not generous enough and that we don’t offer enough services.
Let’s be like Utah and address the problem at the root. You don’t like seeing homeless people on the streets? Let’s give them homes.
Dawn Dexter is a Carbondale resident.
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Intro: Brisa Chavez is lead educator and Hispanic engagement coordinator for Garfield County’s Public Health Services.