Golis: In homeless crisis, doing nothing isn’t an option

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LOS ANGELES — Walk down certain blocks in downtown Los Angeles and you will find yourself trying to navigate around sidewalks jammed with rows of ragged tents. You pass weary people trying to get from one day to the next, mounds of trash, small piles of whatever belongings the owners can carry, someone shouting at demons no one else can see.

This jumble of people and tents marks one of the locations where the L.A. homeless population is crowded together.

As it happened, we came upon this scene while walking to dinner at a trendy restaurant, leaving us to ponder why a city with so much wealth cannot find a better way.

It’s been 2½ years since Los Angeles voters approved a $355 million a year sales tax measure to support homeless services, and while many have been helped and 1,400 new housing units are under construction, many more people remain on the street. The homeless population in L.A. is up 12% over last year, officials say.

The most recent survey determined there are almost 59,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County (a number nearly equal to the population of Petaluma). Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez reported last week that the city is on track to record more than 1,000 deaths of homeless people this year.

There are about 130,000 homeless people in California, one fourth of all the homeless in the country.

It’s difficult to write about homelessness. I want to be able to write that if we only do a certain thing, everything would be OK. People would find housing. People in need would receive the care they require. Neighborhoods would be spared the disruptions associated with nearby encampments.

Unfortunately, we’ve been here before. Three years ago last month, the Santa Rosa City Council declared a homeless emergency. The latest survey in January counted 2,951 homeless people in Sonoma County, 45 fewer than were counted in 2018.

Meanwhile, we’ve experienced an infinite loop of news stories — the latest programs, the neighborhood complaints, the encampments that have to be uprooted by police, the stories of people struggling to survive, the police reports in which homeless people are the suspect, the victim or both.

We read last week about the folks who found shelter in the abandoned Sutter Hospital complex. We can call it irony when homeless people occupy a site long ago earmarked for new housing.

“They’re leaving behind clothes, bike parts, simple and ornate graffiti and the occasional dirty needle,” wrote Staff Writer Tyler Silvy.

We’ve read, too, about the stops and starts. Owing to budget issues, the county health department recently reduced the number of beds available to treat people with mental health emergencies. Police agencies said the services will be missed.

As a Press Democrat editorial recently noted, Gov. Gavin Newsom has now backed away from his promise to create a cabinet-level czar to lead the state’s efforts to combat homelessness. Instead, he will rely on a task force of local officials — as if local officials have figured out what to do. (Newsom has supported spending an additional $770 million on homeless programs, as well as legislation that makes it more difficult for local opponents to block new homeless service centers.)

No one can say the lack of success comes from a lack of trying or a lack of good intentions and compassion. From social service agencies to law enforcement, from elected officials to homeless advocates, everyone engaged in helping the homeless is trying his and her best to generate good and humane outcomes.

But a combination of circumstances has brought us to this moment where there are no obvious or easy answers.

There can be no one-size-fits-all solutions for a problem that involves so many different circumstances. Some homeless people suffer from addictions, some suffer from mental illness, some are trying to survive a personal crisis and some simply can’t afford a place to live.

In a state where housing is both scarce and unaffordable, this last group continues to grow. In California, we now have working people living in cars and under bridges — and in tents. “If we as a region — as a state — cannot make affordable housing available, we are going to be very hard-pressed to get ahead of this,” a homeless services official told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

The people trying to make things better will keep trying because in the end, there is no other choice.

But it’s a tough assignment when progress can be fleeting. We could all wish their efforts produced more ready signs of progress.

It remains that every homeless person who finds shelter and a new life becomes a success worth celebrating. Imagine it is your life or the life of someone you love. Shouldn’t that be worth the effort?

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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