New: The Homelessness Situation (Opinion)

David Esler
Monday January 04, 2016 - 11:57:00 AM

Re: your December 21st editorial, “The Sun Will Shine on Berkeley -- Tomorrow”. The situation with the homeless is indeed distressing, especially in this harsh weather and given the resources of this town and its alleged heritage of compassion. As a volunteer and donor at Berkeley Food & Housing Project for many years, I know that Terrie Light and her staff are working hard on a long-term solution -- the planned consolidated downtown homeless support center -- and supporting a short-term one to address the El Nino season as best they can with limited resources and person power. But the City could certainly do better without the Council voting to criminalize homelessness. If they’re so upset about public urination, then why not provide some damn public restrooms overseen by a few homeless who are willing to work for a little cash (what a concept)? 

The roots of homelessness are hugely complex, involving many factors, the most significant -- and the one in which both the City of Berkeley and Alameda County are woefully deficient -- being better community mental health care, since so many people living on the street suffer from schizophrenia, paranoid delusions, and other forms of mental illness. If the Council were to turn its energies more from development and high-rise buildings that violate the height limit and toward a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan to address homelessness in a compassionate manner, we might find fewer homeless congregating on the streets, threatening residents, defecating in the parks, and sleeping in doorways in near-freezing weather. 

The current situation of homelessness in California’s cities largely dates from a governor and legislature more than forty years ago choosing to close mental hospitals with a promise to replace them with urban clinics and day-care centers that miraculously failed to materialize when funding was never made available to support them. In truth, the mentally ill were simply turned out into the streets to fend for themselves, thus becoming a burden for city governments that lacked proper resources and money to deal with. These decisions didn’t cause homelessness, of course, but they severely exaggerated it to the condition we see now. 

It’s a question of priorities. We see these people every day and turn our heads away from them, knowing subconsciously that there but for fortune go we. (That’s why we refuse to acknowledge them, as they remind us of our own vulnerabilities.) Too many of the scions pushing downtown development and gentrification wish they could solve the “homeless problem” by snapping their fingers and making the street dwellers disappear. Well, folks, they ain’t going to go away. They’re here, a daily test of our compassion, tolerance, and resolve. We have to do a better job of providing care for them and a realistic solution for dealing with the inherent causes of homelessness. It can happen; we just have to make it as important a priority as building high rise luxury condominiums for the well off.