You may have noticed that Durango shepherded part of its small homeless population at the end of September from an area near the Tech Center, where they were not supposed to camp, to a new site near the Purple Cliffs, behind Home Depot.
We are doing a little more than shuffling the homeless around in lieu of a solution to their predicament, but here is the kicker: So is everyone else, pretty much, in cities big and small. No one has found a solution – and it may be because no one has accurately diagnosed the problem.
Los Angeles has about 44,000 people living on the streets within its city limits, a figure that is still growing, apparently.
Michael Shellenberger, a California-based environmental activist, recently wrote a three-part series on California’s problem with homelessness for Forbes.com. “How did things get so bad in California?” he asks.
“The state has long prided itself on being humanistic and innovative. It is home to some of the world’s largest public health philanthropies, best hospitals and most progressive policies on mental health and drug addiction. The Democrats have a super-majority. What went wrong?”
After talking with frontline experts, including advocates for the homeless, Shellenberger, who identifies as a progressive, determines that this visible homelessness – people living on the streets – has been exacerbated by hyper-progressivism.
“California made homelessness worse by making perfect housing the enemy of good housing, by liberalizing drug laws and by opposing mandatory treatment for mental illness and drug addiction,” he writes.
“Homeless” is probably the wrong term and the wrong diagnosis for many of these street people. Neither a straight nor a crooked line, for example, can be drawn from a lack of affordable housing or a housing shortage to them.
“I’ve rarely seen a normal, able-bodied, able-minded, non-drug-using homeless person who’s just down on their luck,” Los Angeles street physician Dr. Susan Partovi told Shellenberger. “Of the thousands of people I’ve worked with over 16 years, it’s like one or two people a year. And they’re the easiest to deal with.”
“One hundred percent of the people on the streets are mentally impacted, on drugs, or both,” Rev. Andy Bales of L.A.’s Union Rescue Mission tells him.
“Most of the time what people mean by the homelessness problem is really a drug problem and a mental illness problem,” Shellenberger reiterates.
What is primarily wanting is not housing, which Los Angeles and other California communities have built at exorbitant cost, with relatively few units to show for it, but treatment for addiction, mental illness and their combinations. Some services are already available but are underused or ineffective more than underfunded.
That leaves involuntary commitment – but commitment to better therapeutic care.
Even the best possible care probably would be less expensive than building housing, even tiny homes, for the number of people on the streets (or in designated campgrounds) who actually want homes or are able to make socially good decisions about housing.
“The ACLU will come after me if I say the mentally ill need to be taken off the street,” Partovi tells Shellenberger, “so let me be clear that they need to be taken care of, too.”
There seem to be three pressing problems bedeviling the U.S. Two of them, the lack of access to affordable health care and global warming, get plenty of attention from about half of American politicians; Democrats and other reformers at least pay attention to them and generally are divided between moderate or incremental solutions, on the one hand, and radical plans to solve them by regulating capitalism more and redistributing wealth.
They do not talk as often about the third, much as it stares them in the face, on Skid Row or on a corner in downtown Durango; perhaps because we still do not know what to properly call it, or what it is; and because the remedy may fit no ideology but real and practical care.