If ever there was a Gordian Knot — save for the part about simply scything through the thing — this is it.
Growing numbers of homeless encampments have led to civic soul-searching in cities around the country, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle. Should cities open up public spaces to their poorest residents, or sweep away camps that city leaders, neighbors and business groups see as islands of drugs and crime?
For those on the streets — who have lost their jobs, have suffered from drug addiction, mental illness or disabilities — crackdowns on homeless camps are seen as tantamount to punishing people for being poor.
Activists and homeless residents like Mr. Russell are waging public campaigns and court fights against local laws that ban “urban camping” — prohibitions that activists say are aimed at the homeless. The right to rest, they say, should be a new civil right for the homeless.
Fair enough, as far as that goes, and anyone with a shred of empathy would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.
But that isn't nearly the whole knot.
But camps have become a particularly acute problem in the West, where soaring housing costs and a scarcity of subsidized apartments have pushed homelessness to the fore in booming towns like Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco.
As new clusters of tents and sleeping bags pop up along river banks, on city sidewalks and in parks and gentrifying neighborhoods, they are exposing deep divisions about how cities should strike a balance between accommodation and enforcement.
In Seattle, where violence has flared in a homeless camp known as the Jungle, beneath a freeway, there was a fierce response to a councilman’s proposal to allow the city’s 3,000 unsheltered homeless residents to camp in some parks and on undeveloped public land.
That, right there, is the rest of it. We must have sympathy for the plight of the homeless, yet we must also have sympathy for the users of parks, and those who live near undeveloped public land. After all, park users and homeowners have interests, too. The camps are dangerous their occupants and anyone who lives nearby. They bring with them a plague of trash and feces.
How have we gotten here? The Rue de Rouen. Which doesn't translate as Road to Ruin, but should. Starting in the early 1970s, the US started deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill:
Deinstitutionalization (or deinstitutionalization) is the process of replacing long-stay psychiatric hospitals with less isolated community mental health services for those diagnosed with a mental disorder or developmental disability. Deinstitutionalization works in two ways: the first focuses on reducing the population size of mental institutions by releasing patients, shortening stays, and reducing both admissions and readmission rates; the second focuses on reforming mental hospitals' institutional processes so as to reduce or eliminate reinforcement of dependency, hopelessness, learned helplessness, and other maladaptive behaviors.
According to psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, deinstitutionalization has been an overall benefit for most psychiatric patients, though many have been left homeless and without care. The deinstitutionalization movement was initiated by three factors:
- A socio-political movement for community mental health services and open hospitals;
- The advent of psychotropic drugs able to manage psychotic episodes;
- Financial imperatives (in the US specifically, to shift costs from state to federal budgets)
Boiling that down to a few words, instead of warehousing the mentally ill, often in horrible conditions, we now do catch and release, often in horrible conditions. Warehousing was a disaster, so is dumping.
And while it might be tempting to point an accusing finger at heartless rightwingers who are continually disappointed at not having nearly enough poor people to step on, Europe is no shining example. There are easily enough beggars and people living rough in Düsseldorf. Not nearly as many as in Honolulu, though, which must have the highest number of addicted and mentally ill of anyplace I've ever been. Besides the congenial climate, it might have something to do with municipalities on the mainland deciding one way airline tickets were far cheaper than every other option on offer.
Instead of warehousing, we have the mentally ill and addicted destroying wherever they congregate. Instead of warehousing, we do warehousing by other means — cycling in and out of jail.