Close to Home: Why we can’t and won’t fix the homeless problem

Early in “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge is asked for a handout by two young men. He squeals: “Have we no poor houses? Have we no prisons?” He pays his taxes, so why are these two bothering him?

I count upwards of 25 agencies, secular and religious, in Santa Rosa that address (but do not cure) the needs of the poor, homeless, battered women, drug addicts, etc. Nevertheless, on any day we can see many homeless hanging out downtown, tenting beneath overpasses, sleeping in store doorways.

Who is ultimately responsible for homelessness, anyway?

Town elected officials? If not, it might be so because the homeless pay no taxes. Attention to net users of precious resources might not be the best career path for an aspiring elected official.

Religious institutions? Many sponsor food kitchens, temporary or permanent housing, detoxification programs, job training, etc. Many also receive partial funding from the state, county and city. But despite these efforts (and thanks for them), the homeless are evident everywhere we look.

Is it the duty and responsibility of the homeless to “cure” themselves, pick themselves up by their bootstraps, get back on track, snap out of it, get a job, be a man? A cursory survey shows a more complicated picture: up to 20 percent of the homeless are veterans, many suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some of the homeless are workers displaced by a digital economy with little use for their non-technical skills. Some are priced out of their housing by a “market pricing” economy that makes no effort to build housing for the poor. The message from us to them is: “You’re on your own.”

The homeless also face a thicket of well-intentioned services that are not always coordinated - some may even be at odds. Stay at a bed overnight; pack your gear in the morning, walk half an hour to eat at a food bank; walk another hour to get some job training; walk another hour to see a clinic for medications. Maybe it’s better to just hang out at the library?

But the biggest problem facing the homeless is the trait of the modern Scrooge -?NIMBYism. For many citizens of Santa Rosa, the single overarching value that transcends even religious belief, ethical sensitivities and political affiliations is housing values. The very thought that a solution to help others in need might compromise the value of our house, of the presumed quality of life in our neighborhood, is anathema, a non-starter.

There are successful projects for the homeless all over the United States. “Dignity Village” in Portland is 10 years old. The folks there build their own mini-houses from recycled materials. They must leave alcohol and drugs behind. They create their own jobs. They regularly visit doctors and therapists. When they have recovered their footing, they move back to general society.

Does it really seem beyond our compassion that a comprehensive, coordinated effort among all the stakeholders - elected officials, service agencies, the homeless and the citizens of Santa Rosa - cannot address a permanent solution to this shameful problem?

Robert Frost once said, “Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” To see our brothers and sisters on the way to health and recovery is not a threat to housing values - it’s our greatest common hope.

Terry Rowan is a retired high school teacher and book author who lives in Santa Rosa resident.

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