Saturday, July 23, 2011

A tale of two cities' reaction to homelessness

When it comes to homelessness, the public and policymakers must pick their poison: No matter what is done, somebody is going to complain. A pair of stories caught my eye portraying homeless problems in Dallas and San Francisco, respectively. (The last time I was in SF a few years back they had a tremendous homelessness problem; I can recall literally having to step over folks walking down the sidewalk, along with all the other passersby.)

In Dallas, reports a local TV station, "Main Street Gardens Park in downtown Dallas has become a bit of a homeless haven during the overnight hours.  Residents heading to the park for an early morning dog walk are met by homeless people sleeping on benches, playground equipment, or whatever else may be in the park." The response to the story: "residents should start to see an increase in police presence around Main Street Gardens park almost immediately." Even in Big D, though, officials realize there's a limit to how effective a law eforcement response can be (particularly when the jail is already expensive and full):
For Dallas police, it's not just about enforcing the law anymore-- it's about getting the homeless in downtown Dallas the help they really need, so they won't feel they have to sleep in the park.

"We realize that just writing them tickets for just sleeping in pubic is not the answer," said Janse.
So now, officers will work with Crisis Intervention personnel. They'll even take take those found sleeping in public to shelters like The Bridge in downtown Dallas. 

Jay Dunn, Managing Director of The Bridge said the shelter has 300 beds for adults, and once those beds are filled, the facility has buses to transport people to other shelters in the Dallas area that have room. He said there are some homeless people they have had trouble engaging, but they are working to reach out to the homeless in the downtown area each day.

Residents who live near Main Street Gardens park say they just hope to see results soon, before the park's new tenants start driving folks away.
So the problem is homeless people laying around in public with not enough shelters to house them without busing them off somewhere else, which in any event many resist. For that matter, some people understandably prefer fending for themselves on the streets to a homeless shelter with hundreds of others. A subset of homeless folks, many suffering from severe mental illnesses, cycle in and out of the jail near constantly - sometimes dozens of times a year. (The slang term for such folks in the Harris County Jail, which is today the largest mental health facility in Texas, is "frequent flyers.") So what's the longer term solution?

The most effective response I've heard of - something being tried out in Fort Worth, actually - is supportive long-term housing for the chronically homeless. But somebody's inevitably going to complain about that, too. There's a story out of San Francisco titled "Supportive housing: Cure for homelessness or community burden," where neighborhood residents also have complaints about that program. Neighborhood activists complain bitterly when such facilities are opened in their area. However, upon implementing its supportive housing program, "In its first year and a half, the number of homeless in San Francisco dropped by 28%."

One of the SF program critics declared: "It's a containment zone, it's absolutely a containment zone for crime and for the poor." Continued Mark Ellinger, "They're all containment zones, each one of these master lease hotels. They all have huge, huge crack problems. It's not like nobody knows about it - of course the city knows about it. Is there anything done about it to change it, to improve the situation? No, never. Never.  Because it's contained."

Even granting all the speakers' presumptions about what's going on behind closed doors, isn't "contained" better than not contained? Would you rather have the problem of the Dallas neighbors, with homeless folks laying around the local park, or that described in San Francisco where the problem is "contained" through supportive housing? Containment may be the best we get on homelessness: It's not like there's an obvious solution to hand.

So the question becomes: Do cities want to manage the problem as a criminal justice issue, with homeless people either outdoors in the street or locked up the jail, or are urban neighborhoods better off when the homeless have a place to go? It may not be great for property values to have low-or-no rent housing on your block, but isn't that better than people lying on sidewalks and park benches? Supportive housing keeps those it serves off the street at night, as well as creating one-stop-shopping venues to provide mental-health, addiction, employment and other services to help folks get back on their feet. It's expensive, but so is dispatching police, taking people to jail, treating mental illness through the justice system, trying to process Class C tickets on people with no address, or busing people to far away shelters.

These are difficult problems, with every "solution" bringing its own, new complaints. But the whole "trail 'em, nail 'em and jail 'em" approach is particularly ill-suited to the situation, and to me it makes a lot more sense, whenever possible, to address homelessness with homes instead of cops.


Anonymous said...


Interesting article, for a very complex problem. In doing some research recently on poor farms, I wonder how this new solution titled by some as "containment" is all that different from the issue of the old poor farms, where the very poor were separated from the rest of society, In the past, that meant signing away rights, such as voting. I do agree that a housing solution is better than using the criminal justice system.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

For one, 10:12, as I understand it "poor farms" were out in the boondocks. In SF, the supportive housing is right in the middle of town. It just gets folks physically out of the street by giving them somewhere to go.

If anything, the complaint by the SF neighborhood activist, if you click through and read that story, is that people don't have to sign away ENOUGH rights to get housing. (He thinks they should require abstinence, etc..) So there's potential there for abuse, I suppose, but perhaps not as severe as that iconized by poor farms. That comparison may not hold muster.

Anonymous said...

I was in San Francisco for four days last year. During that time, I must have been asked for money about 100 times. Nobody crossed the line, but they were pushy. My vacation became all about them and me talking to them and that wasn't all that fun. The hotel was reasonable (about $120) but they hit me with a $40 surcharge on top of that.

Sandy said...

Homelessness is a tough problem, too complex for a one-size-fits-all solution. I don't think jail should be a part of the solution, though, for many reasons.

I'd prefer to provide housing, along with counseling, health care, and job training opportunities, instead of merely warehousing people we don't know what to do with. Seems to me our schools, nursing homes, and penal system warehouse enough people already and I'm not seeing much result for the effort or expense.

Poor farms may not be such a bad idea. People feel better about themselves when they have to work for what they have, don't we? Things might have not been ideal at poor farms in the past but I see no reason why we can't learn from the past and adapt a better work/earn/housing system today.

I don't think anyone should be getting government-funded assistance of any kind if they test positive for drugs or alcohol so I see no problem with abstinence being a requirement. I feel that way about food stamps, Medicare / Medicaid, the whole nine yards. Lose voting rights? How many homeless people vote anyway?

BTW - During last winter's bitterest days, we opened our home to a homeless man. He communicated with his mom (in a Houston nursing home) via phone; both of them were hoping his stay here would be a 'turning point' in his life. I naively entered this personal social experiment hoping so, too.

I tried to help him find work, as did his brother in Austin and his sister in Houston before me, but he insisted on a job in radio (the dying field in which he said his college degree was based) or something in a managerial position; said he was too over-qualified for entry level jobs that required manual labor of any kind. His attitude about working with his hands kind of irked me, since I've spent much of my loving my work in the food/beverage/hospitality business.

He bad-mouthed all the things other people were doing to help him; said it was more for their feel-good benefit than his. He wouldn't take used clothing, insisting instead on new, never-worn, designer clothes (wanted a particular Patagonia-brand winter coat; I can't afford Patagonia for myself, new or used!). Ours is a very healthy, natural diet but he wanted junk and was dismayed when I refused to rush to the store during an ice/snow storm and buy him a stash of expensive food trash. He stayed in the guest room all day, door closed, and only came out at night after everyone else was in bed. Creepy. Thank goodness he chose to leave before we had to ask him to.

It's a tough problem that can be as tough on the people trying to help as it is on the people living without a home.

Kim said...

As a homeless worker in the city of Fort Worth I can say that many efforts are being made in the DFW metroplex to address this issue. Homelessness is not a one size fits all issue and cannot be treated as such. I appreciate this writer's objectivity about the subject. As for Sandy and her comments, I think she needs to get more education and do more research about the needs of the homeless before making assumptions based on one bad experience. I also believe she showed poor judgement by letting a stranger into her home and trying to "fix" him by herself. There are several programs where she lives with trained personnel to help homeless individuals. If she, or anyone, would like to help the homeless these organizations would be the best way to get started.

Sandy said...

Thanks for the feedback, Kim, although it seems to me it jumps to a number of false conclusions:

1) I've been homeless myself. Have you? That's an education you won't get from a classroom or a job description, where I bet you got your expertise on the subject. Right?

2) I did not invite a stranger into my home; I don't live alone so that's the reason I used the plural pronoun 'we' when I stated 'WE opened OUR home," not the singular. As a member of a multi-person household, I do understand the need to compromise and try to make the best out of the decisions, including the invitations of hospitality, that other members of my household make. Ours is a happy home; generosity and the willingness to share are part of what makes that so.

3) I merely listened, I made no attempt whatsoever to 'fix' anyone. After an afternoon of one-on-one conversation with this man, it became apparent he would do nothing to help himself. He was looking for an easy answer to be provided by someone - anyone - else and was apparently OK with his on-going pity party. He seemed quite satisfied to tell me all about how wrong-minded were the people in his past who'd tried to help him. I listened, asked a few questions, accepted his rejection of my every suggestion, and allowed him to vent. There was simply nothing else I could offer him except a warm home and an endless supply of warm, nutritious free food, neither of which met his high standards. He frequently mentioned how nice Hyatt hotels are. Duh.

4) The organizations you allude to were rejected by this individual long before he came into my world; he told me so. They required active participation and sacrifice from him and he simply wasn't willing to make the effort. In his past, one of the many organizations willing to help him had offered to provide him with food, shelter, a job, and assistance in getting a regular (mental) disability paycheck. Know what was wrong with that? He'd be required to pray with and help feed the homeless and the disability paycheck wasn't going to be big enough to make him happy. Said he hated homeless people and didn't want to waste time with them.

5) This was not my only experience, bad or otherwise, with a homeless person. I never stated it was.

Your response to my comments leaves me with the same lesson learned from my experience with this homeless man: Let no good deed go unpunished.

Thanks again for your expert feedback. Homelessness is a complex problem, one that won't be solved by people who've never walked the walk. It won't be solved by incarceration, either.

And how do you know where I live? That statement's just plain creepy.

Kim said...

Wow Sandy, didn't mean to offend. Although I do not believe a prerequisite for working with the homeless is homelessness, there are many things to be gained from both points of view. I hope you find the answers you are looking for.

Sandy said...

Oops! Kim, you did not offend me. I just pointed out your reading comprehension is a bit off and offered some relevant examples where you might have misunderstood. I thought clarification might lead to your enlightened understanding of my comments and perhaps hone your reading skills a bit. Sorry to have been mistaken on both counts.

For example, nowhere at any time did I state or imply that "a prerequisite for working with the homeless is homelessness" - those are your words. It wouldn't hurt, though, to include the voice of experience in the solution-seeking discussion instead of smugly thinking the problem can be solved by people who have no actual experience of the subject matter. Full immersion in a topic brings to light awareness that book learnin' misses entirely. That goes for homelessness as well as all other problems anyone will ever try to solve.

What answers am I looking for? What questions did I ask, other than have you yourself been homeless and from where your voice of experience comes.

And I'm still waiting for the answer to my very important question about how you know where I live. That's a very invasive, creepy statement to make and it deserves an answer.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits, can you make some popcorn while this Kim v. Sandy thing goes on? This is one of the best debates I've seen on here in awhile! Classic!

Sandy said...

Anonymous 4:08 - glad you're being entertained :) It's too hot to go outside anyway. Might as well stay amused in front of the computer and the AC, right?

jdgalt said...

I lived in San Francisco for several years, and SF does not really have a "tremendous homelessness problem" -- it has a tremendous problem with persons who pretend to be homeless because they've found it very profitable to hang around the tourist areas of the city and beg. I've seen some of the worst-looking examples getting picked up by folks in very expensive cars around sundown.

There may be a few real homeless unfortunates in SF, but only a few, and they congregate near welfare offices or under bridges, not in the Castro or Fisherman's Wharf.

So I don't see that nice treatment is going to make the problem go away -- at least not unless it is accompanied by escalating hostile measures toward those who insist on staying in the tourist districts and ruining the experience people pay for.

I also suggest a "don't feed the bums" campaign (with or without a law to back it up) aimed at the tourists. When being a nuisance is no longer profitable, people will stop wanting to do it.

Anonymous said...

While the poor farm may not be a good comparison, I think some of the many things that marginalize the homeless being placed together in isolation carry over. Atlanta has seen some dramatic results with mixed-income housing, and believe that raising expectations and standards are necessary to change circumstances. With the NIMBY attitude being prevalent, this is probably a hard sell.

Kim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kim said...

Thanks for your enlightenment Sandy, I will take it under advisement.
Anonymous 6:46 I love what you are saying! There will be opposition, but change is not easy for people who are happy in their present circumstances. Great comment :)

Anonymous said...

I can't agree that abstinence should be a requirement. The most destitute of the homeless population are often suffering from addiction, and denying them basic food and shelter because they are addicted and quite possibly mentally ill as well does nothing to solve anyone's problem.

Do we simply expect people to pull themselves out of a lifetime of addiction by themselves while struggling with homelessness, mental illness, poor physical health or who knows what other challenges before we will help them to have a simple roof over their heads? As someone in long term recovery from addiction, I can tell you that won't be happening and is not reasonable to expect.

I have read of housing facilities where alcoholic residents are allowed to have a bottle of liquor which is kept at the front desk and which they may check out at any time to use on a backyard covered patio made for that purpose. They cannot take the bottle upstairs with them. They are provided with addiction treatment upon request and other basics of living and there is always someone there to monitor things. An approach like that is more realistic and does not exclude people from the most fundamental basics of life based on an addiction they are suffering from.

Forcing people into treatment does little good. Treatment for long term, ingrained addictions is spotty at best when it comes to success--depending on the addiction, you may see anywhere from 10% to 30% success rates even at the nicest places--and relapse is extremely common. This is not due to "stubbornness" or selfishness as many believe, but rather, the permanent changes that often occur in the brain chemistry of the addict.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

Just a note to KIM and SANDY.
I would like to speak with both of you, via email or phone, I have a few irons in the fire in regard to the homeless community. I am formerly homeless, been through treatment and now in a shelter + care apartment. please contact me at and I will give you the phone # correspond as you wish. Thank you, great discussion. Thanks Scott for having it.

Anonymous said...

I wonderful discussion indeed. The quality of writing in plain, educated English is a joy.

Sandy said...

Thank you, Anonymous 8:05, for your comments on addiction and abstinence. If you were offering a counter argument to my comments about requiring abstinence in return for assistance, please note I never suggested the cold-turkey approach. I did, however, mention counseling and health care in several places.

I do not believe addiction is a diagnosis unto itself. I believe substance abuse begins as a means for someone troubled by bigger issues to self-medicate in the absence of more effective treatment options. Over time and with frequency of use, addiction develops. Addiction doesn't solve the underlying issue, it compounds it. Until the underlying issue is addressed and treated, the addiction will be there.

I do believe that a controlled approach to sobriety is more effective than an abrupt end to use of the offending substance but neither approach will be effective for long until the underlying issue is also treated. By working on the two issues at the same time, I think miraculous changes can and do occur.

I further think that any long-term financial or housing assistance should be allowed to only individuals willing to work through their addiction and their underlying issues. Unless measurable effort is made on the part of the addict, I see no long-term value to merely housing and enabling them further.

No one will ever overcome addiction until they, personally, are willing to make the effort. It's a personal choice that public / societal measures will never relieve until the addict is willing to help him/herself. If a warm home, a steady food supply, and a paycheck are the carrots that get the horse moving, offer it but make sure the horse pulls the cart.

BTW - the homeless man WE befriended last winter did not drink or do drugs of any kind. Please do not equate homelessness with addiction. These two conditions often co-exist but it's possible to be an addict and have a lovely home or to be homeless and stone cold sober.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, interesting subject, especially since I was recently homeless. I stayed in a shelter while looking for work. The folks I met seemed like regular guys who had fallen on hard times; no addictions that I saw although problems were probably there as a lot of them disappeared around the first of the month when their checks came in. I thank God that a company I interviewed with last year hired me. The only problem I saw was the caste system at the shelter; those in the programs versus those who were in rescue. Those in rescue were treated as untouchables by those in the programs. I was glad to get out of there and rejoin society.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I'm clean and sober, don't even smoke. I just had a hard time finding a job and became homeless when my money ran out. I had been working contract and had no unemployment insurance.

austex1151 said...

This has been one of the most interesting and educating discussions I have seen on this great site for a long time.
I'd offer two things: 1) Clearly the law enforcement approach does not work. What are we thinking in giving a ticket (fine) to somebody who's scratching just trying to eat? Really think they're going to just write a check?
2) This is a VERY complex issue. I have a medical provider background, have worked in prison, county jail, as well as public health clinics. I also know a number of homeless people. Whoever it was who claimed that most homeless people were just scamming and making a lot of money is just delusional. There are always people who see suffering, walk away, and justify their lack of compassion by claiming the suffering is not real, only a scam to take their precious money.

The old idea of "poor houses" has a few good points (not many, tho). If containment helps offer one stop service access, why not go the extra step and include a work place there as well. Many homeless would LOVE to have work, and work whenever they can. Some have such abysmal education and lack of skills that work is really not an option - yet.But they're trainable. And many of the thing city an county govts do could easily be contracted out to a reputable homeless center(trash cleanup,graffiti removable,mowing,etc)

Finally, today's American Statesman carried an article about scientific progress on the subject of drug use, with two categories- drug abuse( mainly poor choices, little info about consequences, resistance to change, some effectiveness of punishment,etc) and chemical dependence (altered brain chemistry that CAN sometimes be restructured, NOT based so much on poor choices as compelled behavior from an altered brain,etc). Worth a read. In both cases, treatment is often long and complicated- yet always cheaper than the lock 'em up approach of today. The so-called War on Drugs is an abysmal failure, but the anti-drug industry has risen to a multibillion dollar business that fights ANY threat to their profits. Where are the true conservatives when ya need them? They're always carping about throwing money at a problem and making tax supported projects prove their worth. Yet still more than willing to keep throwing money at an approach that has been failing for 60 years..

Anonymous said...

Imagine if you will, a person with drug issues. Which environment do you think will be most conducive to their ability to deal with those issues, whether abuse or addiction? 1. living on the streets, begging for money for meals and sleeping under a bridge, or 2. living in permanent housing with support services available?

Turns out, not only is permanent supportive housing more effective at getting people off drugs or alcohol, it's also cheaper than paying for jail time, emergency room stays, etc. I would just about bet that the person complaining about "containment" in San Francisco doesn't realize that the "support" in supportive housing includes case management, support groups, and I don't know what all. It is not in any way accurate to say that nothing is ever done to "improve the situation." The complainer demonstrates his ignorance on the matter.

A Texas PO said...

San Antonio has tried this with their Haven for Hope program. It is a program that was designed to provide services that the previous nonprofit shelter couldn't: actual services. But, as mentioned in this post, not everyone is happy with it. Some of the same people who complained about too many people sleeping under bridges and in downtown parks also complained that the city tried to actually provide housing, employment training, and substance abuse & mental health treatment. When it comes to working in this field, you can't ever win. But at least there are dedicated people actually trying to make a difference. The Haven for Hope isn't perfect, but the awesome folks working there are doing their best and making changes as needed.

Anonymous said...

Sandy, I wanted to respond to your comments on "underlying problems" and your belief that addiction is a symptom rather than a disease.

In a sense you are correct--however, addiction is often caused by or heavily contributed to by an imbalance in the brain chemistry rather than the causes so often attributed to it such as a "spiritual vacuum", selfishness, childhood abuse, misplaced anger, etc. We now have studies showing clearly the alteration in brain chemistry that occurs due to overuse of chemicals and also, the disruption in brain chemistry that can and often IS present before any use occurs, and that drives that person to use to seek relief from their symptoms. Therefore, traditional "treatment", which often consists of counseling, 12 step principles, prayer, meditation, art therapy, etc may do little good to treat what is often, in essence, a physical, biochemical problem.

Medical treatments exist but are often looked down upon by those who feel the only "true" recovery is one in which the person embraces a "higher power" and abstains from all mood altering substances, be they medically needed or not. This has led to countless tragedies as people struggle to remain clean while feeling like walking death.

A greater emphasis on truly medical, evidence-based treatments for those suffering from addiction would do much to counteract the stigma and help many towards a more productive life--however, even so, the science is still in its infancy and not all can be helped this way, nor by way of traditional therapy. What, then, do we do with those people?

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