Take a hard look at the accompanying photo. This picture wasn’t taken from some god-forsaken section of Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley. Rather, it took the photo myself, right here, right smack dab in the middle of Santa Clarita, under a bridge at the very crossroads of our valley.
Two Saturdays back was a warm, sunny day in the Santa Clarita Valley. On my regular bike ride through our paseos and city paths, I encountered tons of people. Folks out jogging, riding, exercising. Folks out with their kids, their pets, just walking. Enjoying our incredible public infrastructure – paid for by you and me.
Our city has done a fine job with public infrastructure. We have 34 parks at last count and more than 110 miles of paths and paseos – and then all the preserved natural space. Indeed, SCV has done a fine job, and all this belongs to you and me, paid for by us for our public use and quality of life.
It should be remembered that everything was paid for and built for specific purposes. Parks are for sports, recreation and relaxation. Paths are for walking, riding, jogging. Aquatic centers are for swimming, diving, water fun. Ice rinks are for hockey and skating. Skate parks are for, obviously, skates and skateboards (and whatever else the kids come up with!)
The point is, we build things for the public for specific public uses.
None of what I mentioned above is built to house or treat homeless people. Let’s be direct, and this isn’t about being insensitive or mean. Factually, zero of our parks or paths or ice rinks were built or bought to house the homeless.
It’s also a fact that living on the street is not healthy, conducive to recovery, or helps homeless reintroduce themselves as functional members of society. The longer people remain on the street the worse their outcomes become. Far too often these outcomes are drug addiction, violence, rape, jail and death. The longer we suffer homeless on our streets the worse we indeed allow them to suffer and their lives to degrade.
But it’s worse than just about the homeless. It’s about us. Because, on that Saturday with all those folks running and riding and enjoying their families, they also had to sidestep the sleeping homeless guy flayed out crossways and blocking the bridge over Valencia Boulevard. They had to negotiate past too numerous deranged men meandering aimlessly along the paths parallel to the riverbed. And we also had to pass by full-on encampments, as you see in the photo. A friend’s young child told his father, “Dad, these people chose a terrible place to go camping…” Yes, even a child knows a jogging path is a terrible place to set up a “home.”
The ultimate problem with homelessness is that it degrades quality of life – for both the homeless and for those of us who use the facilities they have commandeered. Jogging isn’t so fun when you’re side-stepping sleeping bags across your way. Taking the kids for walk is just plain disturbing when you negotiate past an encampment of folks in various states of mental illness, distress or intoxication.
Fortunately, our valley is right in the middle of launching two new important homeless aid projects, “Bridge to Home” and “Family Promise.” Together, they will offer hundreds of homeless people and families solid options to get off the streets. I thank, and we all thank, the founders, donors, volunteers and our city for making these places happen. Many folks have given so much to make these facilities a reality.
Still, these solutions can only go so far. They can’t help the heavily addicted and they can’t help people who refuse to get help or leave their encampments.
See this photo? That Saturday I met the owner of the encampment. “Daisy” was clear-headed. She looked healthy. She was easy to engage and speak with. She was plainly smart. Turns out she’s from two states away. She likes the weather here. I asked how she moved four shopping carts of all her possessions, and she pointed into the riverbed. “I have to get all this down there, so ‘they’ don’t come and take it all away.”
She said she wanted to buy a van because that’s an easier way than outside. But she was waiting for a relief check. She really wanted a coffee from the nearby McDonald’s…
I asked her if she had a cell phone and she pointed to it in her pocket. I told her about Bridge to Home and she replied, “That’s not my thing. I don’t want a house and I don’t want an apartment. I like it out here.”
Fine, except for Daisy’s four-shopping-cart mini-city is smack dab in the middle of a public-paid exercise path smack dab in our city. The two are incompatible, so let’s not pretend the problem doesn’t matter. Daisy can’t stay here anymore. Daisy needs a real place, a safe place, a valid solution for her to safely live out her life.
But she can’t stay on the paseos, paths and parks. Her friends can’t just camp over by the transit station. The deranged homeless guy bothering folks at Starbucks each morning shouldn’t be allowed to do so. Daisy’s chosen lifestyle is illegal. She is trespassing on public space. Let’s call it what it is.
Try setting up a tent in the city ice rink and see how long that trespassing is suffered…
Indeed, we need order in our society. We do need to protect our infrastructure investments and use them for the purpose they were built for.
Importantly, we do need to help Daisy and all her friends whether she likes it or not. For her own good. For her protection from violence. For just humanity’s sake, we can’t allow people to slowly die from exposure.
We’ve paid literally billions in special taxes to “cure homelessness.” Through most of Southern California we’ve seen nearly zero for the effort. Corruption and incompetence are the hallmark of those handling all these funds. And most politicians talk action and do close to nothing.
If laws need to change, we must change them. If large-scale facilities need to be built, we must build them. If treatment centers are required, let’s fire them up. And if mental hospitals again are needed, then they must come.
And all this must happen quickly, purposefully and courageously – because indeed, greater SoCal must move nearly 70,000 folks off streets and into whatever responsive facility is appropriate for their well-being and reintroduction to as normal a life as possible.
And yes, this will take tremendous effort, commitment, public will, empathy and courage.
But mainly, public will: We must give and volunteer as we can. And at the same time, we must demand change at the top. We must vote specifically for candidates who will really, finally, end homelessness through both laws and action.
For the sanctity and quality of life of everyone impacted, all of us, we must insist on ending homelessness in all its forms – to be replaced with humane, compassionate, proper, safe living solutions.
Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.