Gary Horton: Public homelessness defiles us all

By Gary Horton

Last update: Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

O Beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam,

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

– Katharine Lee Bates, ‘America the Beautiful’ lyrics

Let me be blunt: Our new American toleration of public homelessness defiles us to our souls. That we – as a modern, rich society – allow such grotesque levels of poverty and debasement of fellow humans to exist right under our noses speaks tons about our most expressed and cherished values.

It speaks to the heart of who we are, right past all our public panting and praises of morals and values and God and country.

We are, simply, hypocrites. For all the words and efforts from all sides, be it Christian right or godless liberals and all space in-between, we’re suffering the problem to worsen and worsen again.

The evidence of expanding makeshift tent cities shows us we’re not putting our actions where we say our hearts are. Plainly, more direct action is required.

We have a homeless population in Los Angeles approaching the size of other small cities.

Estimates now top 60,000 fellow Americans living under bridges and in alleyways, all in open view.

I grew up in Mission Hills and am quite familiar with the lay of the land there. The Valley used to be a fairly clean place.

This past Sunday we were driving our daughter to the Flyaway terminal near Van Nuys Airport. On our return trip we made a right on Roscoe and proceeded under the 405 freeway overpass.

Right there, bam! Total shock. Right next to my old home was a full-blow homeless encampment, every bit as shocking as what you see on Skid Row in L.A.

Dozens of makeshift tents and shelters, made from everything from blankets to cardboard, pressed against both walls of the overpass, blocking the sidewalk for anyone who would dare cross the huddling masses of destitute camping there.

We were stopped at the light observing all this when a man approached the encampment waving and punching at the air in obvious psychosis or chemical delusion.

Carrie teared up in disbelief. All this playing out, all in the public, all tainting every last person passing by.

Thousands seeing this, each day. Thousands thus desensitized daily. What was once a typical, predictable public roadway is now taken over as a degraded homeless encampment, replete with suffering, crime, destitution. And these scenes will get more common as time moves on.

First we tolerated Skid Row. Then the giant encampments over the 110. Now the Valley is filling up.

And don’t think we don’t have overpasses and tunnels and riverbeds and public benches in Santa Clarita. On any given early morning we encounter homeless people in and around our shopping centers.

Homelessness is everywhere around us – and when it bubbles over we see it obviously filling up what was once our sidewalks and roadways. Kiss “awesomeness” goodbye.

We sing “America the Beautiful” with pride of everything we stand for in the Greatest Nation on Earth. But oh, how our Alabaster cities don’t gleam, and oh, how we are so dimmed by human tears.

I love “America the Beautiful,” but I wish we would take it as a call to action rather than a salve to smear over our shortcomings.

We’ve got to hit bottom on this and get into recovery mode. We’ve got to finally accept that something is very, very wrong in our American society and we have to determine to face the problem for what it is, taking the hard, necessary steps to solve it.

We’ve got a hernia in our economy and what’s herniating isn’t guts, but human souls. Something in our machinery is either causing or allowing this crush of homelessness, and we can either watch it further infiltrate our communities, depressing all our spirits on the way, or we say “Enough is enough!” and retake our public spaces, making them safe, secure, and attractive for all our citizens.

Quality of life for the majority matters. There, I said it.

Can we admit there’s a pressing, permanent problem? If so, we’ve got to get our backbones out and make some direct, very determined choices.

Homelessness, or “public camping,” must be made illegal and enforced as such. We simply must not tolerate it, as it degrades the quality of life for the vast majority even as it suffers such terrible conditions for the victims.

Those harsh words said, now what will be our response? Having removed 60,000 homeless, we can’t just imprison them. We must help them.

So far in the Santa Clarita Valley it’s been a very well-intended but seasonal humanitarian response. In L.A. residents just passed measure HHH intending to build 10,000 shelter apartments.

This is all a start, but not nearly enough. There are lots of great responses that can get us so much closer to “Crown thy good with brotherhood” and “Cities undimmed by human tears.”

We can be firm, but fair in our resolve. We just have to want it enough to follow through with productive response to a very pressing problem.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.

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Gary Horton: Public homelessness defiles us all

O Beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam,

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America! God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

– Katharine Lee Bates, ‘America the Beautiful’ lyrics

Let me be blunt: Our new American toleration of public homelessness defiles us to our souls. That we – as a modern, rich society – allow such grotesque levels of poverty and debasement of fellow humans to exist right under our noses speaks tons about our most expressed and cherished values.

It speaks to the heart of who we are, right past all our public panting and praises of morals and values and God and country.

We are, simply, hypocrites. For all the words and efforts from all sides, be it Christian right or godless liberals and all space in-between, we’re suffering the problem to worsen and worsen again.

The evidence of expanding makeshift tent cities shows us we’re not putting our actions where we say our hearts are. Plainly, more direct action is required.

We have a homeless population in Los Angeles approaching the size of other small cities.

Estimates now top 60,000 fellow Americans living under bridges and in alleyways, all in open view.

I grew up in Mission Hills and am quite familiar with the lay of the land there. The Valley used to be a fairly clean place.

This past Sunday we were driving our daughter to the Flyaway terminal near Van Nuys Airport. On our return trip we made a right on Roscoe and proceeded under the 405 freeway overpass.

Right there, bam! Total shock. Right next to my old home was a full-blow homeless encampment, every bit as shocking as what you see on Skid Row in L.A.

Dozens of makeshift tents and shelters, made from everything from blankets to cardboard, pressed against both walls of the overpass, blocking the sidewalk for anyone who would dare cross the huddling masses of destitute camping there.

We were stopped at the light observing all this when a man approached the encampment waving and punching at the air in obvious psychosis or chemical delusion.

Carrie teared up in disbelief. All this playing out, all in the public, all tainting every last person passing by.

Thousands seeing this, each day. Thousands thus desensitized daily. What was once a typical, predictable public roadway is now taken over as a degraded homeless encampment, replete with suffering, crime, destitution. And these scenes will get more common as time moves on.

First we tolerated Skid Row. Then the giant encampments over the 110. Now the Valley is filling up.

And don’t think we don’t have overpasses and tunnels and riverbeds and public benches in Santa Clarita. On any given early morning we encounter homeless people in and around our shopping centers.

Homelessness is everywhere around us – and when it bubbles over we see it obviously filling up what was once our sidewalks and roadways. Kiss “awesomeness” goodbye.

We sing “America the Beautiful” with pride of everything we stand for in the Greatest Nation on Earth. But oh, how our Alabaster cities don’t gleam, and oh, how we are so dimmed by human tears.

I love “America the Beautiful,” but I wish we would take it as a call to action rather than a salve to smear over our shortcomings.

We’ve got to hit bottom on this and get into recovery mode. We’ve got to finally accept that something is very, very wrong in our American society and we have to determine to face the problem for what it is, taking the hard, necessary steps to solve it.

We’ve got a hernia in our economy and what’s herniating isn’t guts, but human souls. Something in our machinery is either causing or allowing this crush of homelessness, and we can either watch it further infiltrate our communities, depressing all our spirits on the way, or we say “Enough is enough!” and retake our public spaces, making them safe, secure, and attractive for all our citizens.

Quality of life for the majority matters. There, I said it.

Can we admit there’s a pressing, permanent problem? If so, we’ve got to get our backbones out and make some direct, very determined choices.

Homelessness, or “public camping,” must be made illegal and enforced as such. We simply must not tolerate it, as it degrades the quality of life for the vast majority even as it suffers such terrible conditions for the victims.

Those harsh words said, now what will be our response? Having removed 60,000 homeless, we can’t just imprison them. We must help them.

So far in the Santa Clarita Valley it’s been a very well-intended but seasonal humanitarian response. In L.A. residents just passed measure HHH intending to build 10,000 shelter apartments.

This is all a start, but not nearly enough. There are lots of great responses that can get us so much closer to “Crown thy good with brotherhood” and “Cities undimmed by human tears.”

We can be firm, but fair in our resolve. We just have to want it enough to follow through with productive response to a very pressing problem.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.

About the author

Gary Horton

Gary Horton

  • nohatejustdebate

    Gary, while I appreciate your passion about homelessness, I think you are generalizing too much when you say, “WE allow such grotesque levels of poverty and debasement of fellow humans to exist right under our noses” or “It speaks to the heart of who WE are” and that “WE are simply hypocrites” Who’s WE?

    Can we allow for the countless volunteers, the homeless shelters, the churches, the beds, the meals, the healthcare, the rehabilitation programs, and the millions of dollars that are donated each year to help the homeless in our area before we label us all as heartless hypocrites with a broad brush stroke? I suggest you visit some of the homeless shelters and see the work firsthand before saying that WE don’t care.

    • indy

      Unfortunately for the homeless, those providing charity, while important, ignore the economic foundation for homelessness in modern America.

      As our population has increased so has the price of land. Likewise, as population increases with limited resources, wages fall. Thus, the result can be seen in the rise of the homeless population.

      This is just basic economics . . .

      The Op-ed writer like many Americans can’t grasp the driver of homelessness but can ‘see’ the consequences. His fixation with ‘folklore’ blinds him to the economic reality facing the homeless.

      And while it’s popular with religious conservatives to assert most the homeless are ‘mentality’ ill, most of them are not. Many are just people that simply have fallen through the economic cracks in our economy and can no longer find jobs or shelter that they can afford.

      Until our leadership can see the actual economics in play here, the homeless population will continue to rise.

      I would suggest exploring the reality of sustainability that links population to resources and provides a vehicle to grasp issues like homelessness.

      Simply telling the public that we’ll simply ‘grow ourselves out of this problem’ is just political ‘happy talk’ that appeals to those still working and don’t really want to understand the driver of homelessness.

      We can do better . . .

      Sustainability Info:

      http://www.steadystate.org
      http://www.worldwatch.org
      http://www.populationconnection.org
      http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sections/view/9
      http://www.postcarbon.org

      • tech

        Prior to this recent repeat post, I’ve perused your links, Indy. They’re a repackaging of socialist philosophy, i.e., government at the core of society centrally planning and allocating resources as determined by technocrats. It’s a simplistic belief that society is a machine that can be run with inputs and outputs with one universal salient aspect; failure wherever it has been attempted. See: Cuba and Venezuela.

        Were they serving “folklore” here, Indy?

        http://www.signalscv.com/2016/11/24/thousands-feast-newhall-library/

    • indy

      Other Facts About the Homeless Population in Los Angeles:

      •The average age is 40 – women tend to be younger.

      •33% to 50% are female. Men make up about 75% of the single population.

      •About 42% to 77% do not receive public benefits to which they are entitled.

      •20% to 43% are in families, typically headed by a single mother.

      •An estimated 20% are physically disabled.

      •41% of adults were employed within last year.

      •16% to 20% of adults are employed.

      •About 25% are mentally ill.

      •As children, 27% lived in foster care or group homes; 25% were physically or sexually abused

      •33%-66% of single individuals have substance abuse issues.

      •48% graduated from high school; 32% had a bachelor degree or higher (as compared to 45% and 25% for the population overall respectively).

      http://laalmanac.com/social/so14.htm

  • Gary Horton

    Nohate:

    You’re absolutely right about all the volunteers, effort, caring that goes into our attempt to solve the problem. I should have clarified that better. (For our part, we supply the van to the Bridge to Home shelter that drives the clients back and forth to appointments.) My point hoped to go beyond this: As an overall society, in the BIG PICTURE, we have failed, homelessness is overrunning us, and we are very slow to respond, and when we do, it’s been half steps or less. My point is that we finally have to come to a determined decision. “No more.” “We will not dilly dally on this further.” Homelessness harms overall society, not just the homeless. Tent cities degrade real cities. Mentally ill people on our streets scare our citizens. Pan handles make everyday experiences less fulfilling. Property values plummet. Crime is increase. We have to say, “No more.”

    And then what? Setting the “No more” standard, we must respond with a wave of action to aid and assist. “You can move into this transitional home. You can “camp” at this transitional camp. You can go back to your families. You can get back on your feet. You can enter this mental care facility.” We have to have enough resources in play that “they can do any of the above, with social services help and direction” – BUT, they cannot loiter or camp out on public spaces.

    Think of it. When you go real camping… you’re allowed only your designated days at the camp ground or RV parking space. You don’t get to just squat and take over public camping areas! The ranger will chase you out! Why are our sidewalks and public benches any different. Sidewalks are for walking. Bridges are for traffic. Benches are for sitting for buses. Riverbeds are for water. And HOMES are for sheltering humans. We must return to that principle as a society. HOMES are for humans. NOT SIDEWALKS.

    It bothers me greatly that we allow (that we suffer) sick people, drugged people, hopeless people, needy people, people desperately needing help to not only suffer themselves, but to inflict the general public with some of that same despair. BY NOT SOLVING THE PROBLEM we put that problem back on all our citizens. Young, old, kids, wives, grandpas… all get stuck in the morass.

    If we have the determination to launch wars in Iraq, to send rovers to Mars, to bail out Wall Street, to supply 35 billion in oil industry subsidies, WHY can’t we help these people and clean up our public areas.

    It’s about finally getting to real priorities that matter in a very personal way to millions and to us all.

    • James de Bree

      Gary, you wrote a very interesting column. It reminds me of Proverbs 21:13, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” In this column, you have listened to the cry of the homeless and have done a great job of chronicling the existence of homelessness, but you offer no solutions. That may be because we can never truly solve this problem as many want to live the homeless lifestyle.

      Two weeks ago, I was driving on Roscoe Boulevard, taking the exact same route Gary did. I was astounded at the number of homeless tents under the bridge. There was one where a Chihuahua was sticking its head out of the tent while its master was sleeping in the tent. That was a true Kodak moment. The dog appeared to make the best of the situation, while its owner was sleeping.

      Others have mentioned Santa Barbara. Isla Vista, where UCSB is located, reminds me a lot of Venice–a local beach community with an active drug culture that is attractive to those who want to live the homeless lifestyle. If you are going to be homeless in winter, southern California is one of the best places to do so. That is likely to be the principal driver of our homeless population. If you are going to be homeless in February and had the choice of Santa Monica Beach or the Chicago lakefront, which would you choose?

      We have a lot of homeless in Santa Clarita, but our city council does not appear to be interested in dealing with the problem. TimBen Boydston was interested in exploring the issue, but he is no longer on the city council. About five years ago, my church decided to attempt a homeless outreach program for those who live in the riverbed behind our church. It turns out that most of those homeless people want to be left alone and they did not take kindly to the church’s outreach efforts. I have no idea how the city plans on dealing with the people who live in the dry riverbeds.

      Santa Clarita cannot play the ostrich game with respect to this issue. If it does, we will find that we will have the next Roscoe Boulevard underpass in our city.

      On the flip side of the coin, not all homeless proactively choose that lifestyle. Over the weekend, I was watching a TV documentary program about our healthcare system. There was a segment alleging that a prominent Los Angeles hospital discharged at least some mentally challenged patients by putting them in taxis that dropped them off on skid row. These were people who did not want to live on skid row, and they probably are best placed in a facility that can assist them in meeting their needs.

      Gary mentioned Proposition HHH. I am terribly concerned that we are going spend a billion dollars building homes for the homeless, only to find that money was not effectively spent. As many have stated in this thread, a significant portion of the homeless community prefers that lifestyle. Furthermore, building homes does not deal with the underlying causes of homelessness.

      I have yet to see a well-conceived comprehensive program of dealing with homelessness. The homeless are not a homogenous group. Homelessness is a generally a symptom of an underlying issue. There are drug addicts whose addiction must be dealt with. There are mentally ill people who we don’t do a good job of treating. There are people who are just plain down on their luck. While some of these subsets of homeless people may overlap, we need to address the underlying issues of each subset rather than try to treat the symptom of homelessness itself.

      Doing so is going to be extremely expensive. But before we deal with the costs we must devise a plan for dealing with each homeless subset.

  • Brian Baker

    There’s an underlying issue that I believe can’t be “solved” in a free society. A very large proportion (I’d guess a majority) of the homeless are suffering from mental illness and/or drug/alcohol addiction. We’re talking about people who refuse to take advantage of services and alternatives that actually are available to them.

    There used to be a time when such people could be involuntarily committed to some kind of institution that would provide shelter and treatment. Ultimately, such involuntary institutionalization was deemed to be an unconstitutional infringement on their autonomy, and I think there’s a strong case to be made for that determination.

    Obviously, this creates a conundrum: you can make services and facilities available to people, but you can’t force people to use them.

    The only way to try to do that is to use enforcement action. But loitering, for example, is an infraction, and infraction level violations don’t provide for any kind of detention. What then? Elevate such violations to the level of misdemeanors, which DO provide for detention? I don’t think that’s appropriate, either, and would be an abuse of the state’s regulatory power, as misdemeanors are state-level crimes. Further, it would take us right back to the state of affairs that was already deemed unconstitutional decades ago.

    Frankly, I can’t think of a single solution to address the problem that conforms to the nature of our society short of depriving these people of their constitutional rights. This may just be one of those problems society CAN’T “solve”, sadly.

  • dukie

    And believe it or not, there are a lot of homeless who want to live that way. Doubt it? Then go around and offer to take some of those homeless to the nearest shelter. Prepare to be turned down on your offer, as homeless shelters have rules (no drugs or alcohol) that impose on their ‘freedom’. I would also caution you to take their claims of being a veteran with a grain of salt. A lot of the homeless claim to be vets because of the added sympathy they will get. There are some vets out there, but there are just as many non-vets who claim service for the extra handout.

  • robert stauffer

    Maybe if we can solve the climate we can solve homelessness. There’s just not been enough activism. How about requiring all people with ‘2nd homes’ open them up to the homeless in that area?

  • nohatejustdebate

    As you know Gary, we had a president who declared war on poverty more than 50 years ago. The $22-trillion tax payers have paid for this war is significantly more than all military wars combined in our history. And yet, here we are talking about how much worse things have gotten. Even Jesus Christ said we will always have poor people. (Matthew 26:11)

    What’s the solution that $22 trillion hasn’t been able to solve?

  • Steve Lunetta

    Gary- as you know, I’ve written on this topic as well. Here is something that startled me. I have heard that Los Angeles has roughly 50% of the homeless population in the U.S.. 50%! How can one community bear this load?

    And, as Santa Barbara has discovered, offering more programs is not the answer. It simply attracts more homeless that overwhelm the system.

    Unfortunately, by government assuming the role of charitable provider from faith organizations (which is where all of this used to reside), it is government that must solve it. That is, unless government wants to give up that responsibility and give it back to faith organizations which would mean cutting taxes to allow the public to give more to charity.

    Any solution to homelessness needs to be regional and comprehensive that embodies solutions for not only economically homeless but also addiction and mental health services. That means federal involvement. It is naïve to think that one community has the ability to cure homelessness.

  • Steve Lunetta

    Dukie- 100% agree. For many, homelessness is more of a lifestyle than anything else. However, who in their right mind would want to live on a sidewalk? Mental health is a huge factor here. We must have the power to commit people to mental health facilities against their will, as ominous as that sounds. We must also build the mental health system to allow it to service this need.

    • Brian Baker

      “We must have the power to commit people to mental health facilities against their will,…”

      That was public policy decades ago and was held to be unconstitutional. Rightly so, IMO.

      It’s a very tiny step from altruism to tyranny. In several totalitarian systems political nonconformity was deemed to be a “mental disorder” that sent people to “re-education centers” and other “mental health facilities”. That was a policy that helped populate the Soviet gulags.

      No thanks.

  • noonan

    Some of them are just bums. Worthless people have existed forever and as was noted above, trillions have not done anything to solve the problem. Some of them are professional panhandlers. I was at a fast food place a couple months ago and there was a guy with a “I’m hungry” sign in front. I bought the guy a couple of tacos and he said he wasn’t hungry anymore but could he have a couple bucks? Some of them are mentally ill and/or experiencing drug and alcohol problems. Some simply cannot be helped.

    I do know what would help though. Maybe if we closed our borders and removed a couple million illegal criminals from our system, we would have extra resources to spend on our citizens.

  • nohatejustdebate

    Santa Barbara is a good example, Steve. It is somewhat of an isolated community that has all kinds of wealth and an excellent homeless shelter and yet it’s hard to walk down any street downtown and not be confronted with vagrants on the sidewalk.

    On a side note…today Democrats in the House voted to keep Nancy Pelosi as Minority Leader. After losing blue collar, working class Americans in the last election (bigly), I would think the last thing you’d want to do is continue having a 76 year old, far-left liberal from San Francisco to be the face and voice of your party. And next the DNC will likely appoint as their party chairman another far-left liberal who used to be a spokesman for hate-peddler and racist lunatic Louis Farrakhan. Democrats have lost most of the state legislatures, state houses, the House, the Senate, and now the White House and they are still in denial while blaming the Russians. While this is great for America, it must totally suck to be a Democrat these days.

  • tech

    For the record, I’m not “hypocritical” or “defiled”. I speak for myself, thanks.

  • Bobs R

    So, I am going to speak as someone who volunteers and donates to help homeless. I am at Bridge to Home every year first hand.

    As mentioned above by others, the homeless can be broken down into general categories:
    1. Those on the brink. They are working but don’t make enough for rent.
    2. Mentally ill.
    3. People who don’t want to work, and chose the lifestyle

    For #1, places like Bridge to Home offer job training, help with resumes, etc. This is (hopefully) a temporary stop in their life and I am very glad to help them break through to self sufficiency.
    For #2, we need to do what we can to help. Vet’s with PTSD among other things fall into this category. I feel it is our duty to help those who served us. They should be on the top of the list of people getting help. End of story. Many gave up so much for us, why is it so hard for many to do anything at all for them?
    For #3, there is nothing you can do.

    So I agree we need to help those who want and deserve it. I also agree the government should not be involved. They have a history of mismanagement and waste.

    • indy

      Poster: I also agree the government should not be involved. They have a history of mismanagement and waste.

      Indy: Interestingly the US has the best schools of management on earth.

      Why do you suppose the GOP which has access to such knowledge nevertheless runs on the ‘waste and fraud’ in government slogan the last 40 years?

      Why do republicans cry about the issue but do nothing?

      When Wilk addressed the ‘dead’ voters on the voting roles, why doesn’t he address this? Isn’t he in a position of power being a legislator to accomplish things? And if he isn’t, who is?

      • tech

        Non sequitur. Government isn’t suited to solving complex social issues despite trillions in spending. It’s not something better management will solve.

        It’s akin to proposing someone should use premium grade butter to lubricate their engine because it failed with a generic brand.

        Communities are best situated to assist those who desire it.

      • tech

        “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to a teenage boy.” – P. J. O’Rourke

  • tgtrotter

    Its a lot of filler to here you complain about the homelessness but no solution. How about we stop allowing illegal immigrants to take jobs away from Americans ? Any of those homeless you saw, would you call illegals ? Probably not. How about going after companies that hire illegals ? How about work for welfare programs ? Gary, you are not special because you notice the problem. Our government and liberals enable the homeless through sympathy. Empathy and truth will go way further than excuses.

  • Gene Walker

    I wonder if Horton would apply the same standard to a society that allows abortion on demand if the dead babies were stacked up where he could see them.

  • Ron Bischof

    I am not “defiled” by homelessness. You really need to drop the habit of speaking for others, Gary.

Gary Horton

Gary Horton