Newsletter - March 2020

As a citizen of Sonoma County driving around doing your daily tasks have you suddenly come across a person passed out on the sidewalk or propped up against a building and thinking to yourself: Is this America?  Is this the greatest and richest country in the world not knowing how to solve the problem of homelessness?

All of the experts know the different categories of people who are homeless.  We have the mentally ill who are getting no or very little medical treatment.  We have the people who have major drug problems and cannot function on a regular basis.  We have veterans who are still dealing with physical or mental issues as a result of military service.  And of course we have those who are working but just cannot afford a place to live in this county.  If they have transportation they land up living in their car or truck.

The homeless problem is not new.  There have always been people who were on the road and never had a real home.  Remember the men who rode the rails.  In Sonoma County, county government had  established a Poor Farm in 1875 for men and women who could not support themselves.  These people were described in the terms of the time as tramps, vagrants, transients and some as unhinged.  It was illegal at that time to have no visible means of support and you would go to jail or to the Poor Farm.  At the Farm, people living there grew grain, vegetables and raised livestock.  They fed themselves, the hospital and the jail.  The farm was very profitable.  People at the Farm had a purpose and also learned a skill.  They had not been just moved to a parking lot.

Robert Marbut, the head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness believes that the rise in homelessness is due in part to the policy of “Housing First” which started in New York City in the 1990’s.  The aim of this policy is to get people reliable housing before focusing on services such as rehabilitation or getting a job.  Mr. Marbut wants to tie services to housing vouchers or placement.  He believes we need services and housing together.  A successful federal initiative is a supportive housing program run jointly by HUD and the VA known as HUD-VASH that relies on a Housing First model but provides extensive services and requires a case worker’s involvement.  This system has been credited with helping reduce the homeless veteran population from 73,000 to 30,000 in a decade.

Another argument in the best way to help the homeless is the return to mental hospitals to treat the mentally ill instead of having them spend time in jails, shelters or the street.

The Institutions for Mental Disease Exclusion (IMD) is a federal policy which creates a financial incentive for states to kick the mentally ill out of hospitals.  The White House has proposed easing the exclusion.   The IMD Exclusion part of the 1965 law that established Medicaid prevents the program from funding care for mentally ill adults while they live in hospitals or even adult homes with more than 16 beds.  Many people thought that newly developed antipsychotic drugs and community mental-health centers would remove the need for institutions.  This policy has been a disaster.  Since the 1950’s the country has lost more than 450,000 mental-hospital beds, 12,000 since 2005. 

Legislation has been introduced in Congress by Texas Democrat Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (a former psychiatric nurse) to abolish the IMD Exclusion.  This proposal has stalled in Congress because civil libertarians and mental health advocates continue to argue that everyone with mental illness recovers with proper support and wellness initiatives.  This is so patently false that it is hard to take these arguments seriously.  Community treatment may be cheaper but it does not help everyone and it has not reduced institutionalization.  The number of mentally ill people in jails, prisons, shelters and hospitals in the 1950’s was roughly the same as it is today.  However, in the 1950’s the majority of those people were in hospitals. 

The IMD exclusion is resulting in business districts being turned into homeless camps. Police are forced to run shadow mental health systems which drives up costs and causes chaos for families.  Mental Health Hospitals today are not run like the snake pit hospitals of years ago.   

Now, a federal judge in Idaho has ruled that people could not be removed from public property if there was no place for them to go.  This actually makes sense.  The judge was really saying: Fix the problem.

Let’s take a moment and go back to the purpose of government.  People are elected or appointed to public sector jobs supposedly to serve the public.  Unfortunately, some of our officials develop a frozen foot syndrome.  It is easier to ignore a problem or shove it off to another office.  The homeless problem should have been dealt with as soon as any number of homeless people started living on the streets or under the overpasses.  When the problem was basically ignored, it just got bigger.  More homeless areas become a magnet for more homeless people.

Problems in society are not isolated issues standing by themselves.  How the bureaucracy of a civil entity operates affects all residents of a community.  Building anything in Sonoma County is a tedious and expensive process.  Large amounts of money are required even before starting a project.  Building a granny unit is a Herculean task.  Large amounts of money are required up front.  Many people would be willing to rent to someone who did not have large amounts of rent money.  They just don’t want to deal with the endless bureaucracy.  If you believe that the bureaucracy works well, ask some of the people who had to rebuild after the fires.  Rules that delayed construction and made no sense were issues that home owners had to deal with as they tried to rebuild their homes and their lives. 

There are people who are homeless by choice.  If there is a place for them to go then legally they can be removed off the streets.  The challenge of course is where do they go?  A number of solutions are being worked on such as the Los Guillicos site where 60 people are currently being housed. There are buildings being constructed that will be apartments for homeless persons.  There are other options that are available. 

A census of homeless people is done in the county every year.  This actually becomes a social welfare project so that the right solutions and options can be made available.  If there is a place for persons with mental challenges to go, they can no longer live on the streets or in a park claiming that they have a legal right to do so. 

Given the increase of virus borne disease entering the country we cannot tolerate the health issues that arise with a homeless population that is living life on the edge.  A return to a sanitary public area is absolutely something that Americans have the right to expect. 

Get the politics and the bureaucracy out of the way and solve the problem.  Sonoma County can solve this challenge.  

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