Gary Horton | Homelessness Can’t Be a Life Choice

Gary Horton

Above all our society’s deep-rooted challenges, none is more nebulous or difficult to confront and solve than our entrenched, growing homeless problem. Toss in our drug and alcohol addiction pandemic as well, because the homelessness, abuse and addiction are joined at the hip. 

There are all too many who argue, “It’s the born-free right of the people to camp or live wherever they choose.” That society does not have the right to remove these people “just seeking shelter” from their unilaterally chosen public squatting grounds. 

We’ve lost our collective minds from all sides of our political spectrum. From the law-and-order conservative crowd who somehow bend on this one issue, or who feel like “the lazy bums have it coming,” to the bleeding-heart folks who somehow have mollified themselves that allowing deranged/disabled/incompetent/addicted/afflicted/overlooked/underserved/desperate people to live in squalor is somehow “being tolerant and compassionate.” That, “moving or interfering with the homeless” would be stomping on the homeless’ rights and choices. 

Nearly all are in denial about the scope and drivers of the problem. Homelessness is growing, not slowing. Despite our billions of dollars wastefully thrown at the problem, and despite the giant bureaucracy we’ve created to “solve the problem” – still, homelessness grows, spreads, and impairs and impacts the lives of all around it. 

I fully support Bridge to Home, Family Promise and the others who similarly perform incredible work assisting those homeless who choose to find a way back to normal living. So many have donated so much time, effort, funds, sweat – all to create facilities and staffing to protect, guide, teach, mentor homeless folks who want and are willing to get back to contributing society. To assist those who want to return to living safe, sanitary, purposeful lives. These folks can be helped and we’re helping them, and with our new local initiatives, we will be able to help even more. 

Still, this is just the relative tip of the iceberg as most professionals believe a majority of long-term homeless folks have developed addiction and mental disease problems that keep them on the streets because that’s where they can live and do “their thing.” It’s where their friends are. Where there are few rules to comply with. It’s where drugs are easily available. Where life is less complex than trying to wind their way through our homeless response mazes of outreach and legal compliance. Having compromised one’s mind on whatever drug of choice, living in the normal world feels overwhelming and unnavigable. 

And so, the problem persists and grows proportionally as our addiction and mental illness and general societal stress problems increases. Homelessness is an artifact of dozens of societal ills behind it. But society’s failures are not an excuse to forever view homelessness as “normal.” 

Homelessness is not a victimless problem. This isn’t just “municipal camping.” The awful situation of humans living in public squalor hurts virtually everyone. Certainly, the homeless themselves. They suffer far shorter lives. Way higher crime victimization. Higher teen and young fatherless pregnancy rates. Legal and criminal problems. Mental and physical anguish. Pick it – any aspect of life for you and me is far worse for even the most fortunate of Americans living homeless. These folks often live in the worst of third-world squalor – right next to us. 

But it’s not just the homeless suffering: It’s compromised local businesses, impacted by encroaching encampments. Just last week, a national newspaper reported on Starbucks closing six L.A. stores due to criminal activity and harassment by local homeless on staff and customers. Starbucks doesn’t want the risks associated with business impacted by petty crime, intimidation and the loss of customers. Pity those businesses with front doors literally blocked. Look downtown. Businesses, real estate, some folk’s life work – all diminished due to the encroachment of homeless camps. 

And the associated crime: Just last week a reported a stash of $100,000 of stolen property found in a dug-out homeless bunker in L.A. A bunker, complete with tunnels and framed rooms and a stash of weapons and drugs and stolen stuff – a homeless crime central of sorts. And that drug crime is often waged against you and me and anyone near encampments. It’s not impersonal and it’s not just “someone else” getting impacted by homeless drug crime. It’s so rampant, we’ve nearly decriminalized homeless-driven petty crime and theft because there’s not capacity to process the volume of infractions. 

You and I shouldn’t have to live in fear of crazy, weird crime in and around our homes because of public inaction in enforcing loitering, trespassing and drug laws. We’ve worked hard to build reasonable, secure, orderly lives and we want it to stay that way. Suffering homelessness is anathema to a safe and sane society – for all involved. Suffering homelessness is an affront to decency toward homeless people themselves, and an affront to the housed population working and living around them. 

Yes, all our efforts to help 100% of all those wanting help is to be highly lauded – and is much-needed. But we’re kidding ourselves if we, at the same time, don’t address all those homeless who don’t want to enter programmed facilities or systems. 

I agree with the most proactive in the homeless-response community: We need multi-pronged interventions. We need laws changed to allow relocation of homeless to whatever care facilities are most effective for the individual’s present needs. We need to reopen mental health facilities and hospitals to care for the mentally troubled. We need mandatory treatment, housing and even detention for criminal drug addicts. When serious crimes have been committed, some may need reformative incarceration. Hard words, but also realistic. Our efforts must be super-focused, with the effort and guts to get things done quickly, building whatever facilities are required for the uptake and care of California’s more than 120,000 homeless. 

This all-encompassing, high-level response isn’t “mean.” It’s caring about fellow humans to impactfully intercede in this dehumanizing challenge. It’s caring enough to stop the cycle of drug addiction. Caring enough to stop real human suffering and crime. Caring enough to save communities and businesses and families and their homes. 

Ending homelessness ultimately is caring about our fellow Californians and the future of our great state. 

We’ve got upcoming elections. Across the board, we need leaders of action – and certainly not more of the same good-intention half steps. If our politicians can get at least one thing done for California, let it be aggressively ending homelessness. 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect those of The Signal or its editorial board.

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