Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Being homeless is not a crime

Skid Row. A failed experiment in the “containment” of poverty. The location of one of America’s largest unsheltered populations. Hopelessness swells amidst the backdrop of Los Angeles, one of America’s most glamorous cities. Every night, over 55,000 homeless people in the city sleep in shelters and the streets, without a place to call home. It’s a travesty that so many people have to live without basic amenities, especially in such a “progressive” city. There are nine bathrooms for the approximately 1,800 people that live in the surrounding streets of Skid Row. This comes years after the Los Angeles city government actively hauled away bathrooms meant for use by the homeless while shutting down shelters.

This problem isn’t limited just to Los Angeles. New York, Seattle, San Diego and Washington D.C., some of the nation’s largest cities, also have large homeless populations. There needs to be more done to address the health and societal issues within homeless populations — the public perception of homeless needs to change. Instead of seeing the homeless as a public nuisance that should be hidden or made invisible, we as a society need to recognize that the homeless are people with basic human needs. We must address the growing homelessness crisis as soon as possible. Los Angeles is just now pumping funding into improved infrastructure, shelters and bathrooms for the homeless, and it may be too late, as cost of living increases trap the homeless in a vicious cycle of poverty.

The homelessness crisis isn’t a problem that can be swept under the rug. It is a serious problem with serious implications for the health of those living on the streets.

Living in unsanitary conditions with limited access to medical attention, it’s not a surprise that mental health is a massive problem among homeless populations. There are too many instances of patients just being dumped back onto the streets after receiving brief, short-term treatment at a hospital. Knowingly discharging a homeless patient back onto the streets, known as “patient dumping,” does very little to help in the long-term — it is common for patients to relapse and end up back at the same hospital a few days later. An audit of the Department of Public Health’s Behavioral Health Services stated “Linking these clients to services on discharge is important, because without service linkage, these clients are at risk of not only decompensating mentally, but of also resorting to alcohol and substance abuse after being discharged,” and Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said that “[Hospitals] need to do whatever they can to find a place for them.”

In an extreme version of patient dumping, Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas in Las Vegas was literally bussing patients all over the continental United States to states patients had no relation to. This is unacceptable in so many ways. The lack of regard for human life is unbelievable. People at a psychiatric hospital obviously need help — shipping them off in a Greyhound bus to somewhere completely new is horrible and inhumane. What kind of message does that send about mental health and the homeless? In a heartbreaking case, James Flavy Coy Brown, a man with schizophrenia and depression, was bussed from Las Vegas to Sacramento, a place where he had never been before and knew no one. The hospital didn’t even bother to check whether he had a place to stay or if he had medication. Brown was found in the UC Davis Medical Center emergency room, and, in a happy ending, was reunited with his daughter with help from Sacramento officials. However, though this story has a happy ending, what happened to the other hundreds of patients bussed out to an unknown land, cast away from an institution meant to help them through their troubles?

Perhaps this isn’t the fault of the hospitals. After all, hospitals must operate with a budget too, and it can be too much of a financial burden on hospitals to care for so many ailing patients, especially so many without insurance. In this case, the burden should fall on the local and state governments to secure ample funding for the hospitals so things like this should not happen.

Simply bussing the homeless to somewhere else will not solve the root issue. Cities seem more concerned with hiding the issue than actually addressing it. For example, hostile architecture such as anti-homeless spikes and benches do absolutely nothing to solve the growing problem. Though more predominant in England, this aggressive trend is also popping up in the United States. For example, the Seattle Department of Transportation inserted bike racks under a bridge partially to stop “unsheltered living” in a quite blatant anti-homeless statement. In Philadelphia, benches are intentionally uncomfortable to preclude homeless from sleeping there for the night, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, benches were removed from parks to prevent loitering and panhandling.

In addition, the law is also against the homeless — in some cities it’s literally illegal to be homeless. In many cities, people are not allowed to camp outside at night. For example, in Santa Cruz, even sleeping in vehicles is illegal, as well as outdoor shelters, even though surveys have shown that over 80 percent of homeless don’t have access to housing or shelter anyway. There is no reason to criminalize homelessness. Studies mentioned by CNN have shown that it costs way more money to enforce these anti-homelessness laws; for example, a study from Creative Housing Solutions notes that Central Florida could save $149 million by providing permanent housing to the homeless. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) also did a study on city laws and found that cities are increasingly cracking down on the homeless.

Hostile architecture and criminalization only seek amplify the cycle of homelessness. Arresting and penalizing the homeless simply for being poor does nothing to solve the problem. If a person is in trouble for not being able to pay a fine or afford a necessity, what good will come from fining them again? Even though fines may be small in value, as the number of fines accumulates, it can be crushing, especially for someone trying to make it off the streets. Instead, governments should create policy to address the real issues behind homelessness, namely gentrification and a lack of affordable housing. Though I won’t go too much into detail within this article, gentrification generally refers to the displacement of poorer tenants in a neighborhood by wealthier people, who often change the entire landscape and culture of the area. In some ways, gentrification can be good, but what often happens is that those displaced by gentrification are forgotten and end up much worse.

Governments need to invest in better infrastructure and more affordable housing before it’s too late; if else, the plight of the most vulnerable will only get worse.

 

Contact Tiger Sun at tgsun ‘at’ stanford.edu.