Gary Horton: Public homelessness defiles us all

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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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