The sharp division among public officials in Aurora about remedies for homelessness is an object lesson in the difficulty of dealing with this problem in the face of irreconcilable ideological differences.
After Aurora officials visited other cities and studied their various policies on homelessness, two distinct approaches stood out. In Dallas, the policy is “treatment-first,” with the emphasis on changing the behavior of the majority who can be rehabilitated, approaching homelessness as a temporary condition. In Houston, the priority is “housing-first,” which unconditionally provides housing and fails to adequately deal with chronic homelessness.
In one camp are the city council’s Republican majority and Republican Mayor Mike Coffman who favor a comprehensive hybrid of the Dallas model. It combines an emergency shelter for anyone but prioritizes supportive services and transitional housing for structured, rehabilitative programs that include preparation and assistance for employment where appropriate, all of this to be contained on a unified new campus. Government funding would be supplemented by private and philanthropic sources.
In the other camp are the council’s Democrats led by Juan Marcano, a radical progressive with tunnel vision on the issue. He’s a social justice warrior whose ideological agenda on almost anything is obsessed with identity politics, equity, inclusion, systemic racism, and compassion with little regard for the welfare of the general public.
In deliberations, Marcano was insistent on the unconditional Houston model and impeded the council’s proceedings with a raft of amendments to undermine the comprehensive resolution. His amendments were rejected; the comprehensive resolution was ultimately passed. Compassion is commendable but it’s not the only consideration. It needs to be tempered with reason and practicality to be effective.
Homelessness has many different causes and types, each calling for different public policy responses. The great majority of the homeless aren’t sleeping on a sidewalk, under a bridge, in a train station, in an abandoned building, or a in car. They’re in government-provided congregate shelters, hotels, motels, transitional housing; or in facilities provided by private charities. For most, these are designed to be temporary arrangements after an unfortunate life setback until they can get back on their feet. This is costly for taxpayers but it’s within the charter of civilized societies and can be productive if well managed.
A much smaller share of the homeless is what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as “unsheltered.” It includes those “lacking a primary nighttime residence that’s not a public or private place designed for regular sleeping accommodation.” Within that group are those who were once termed vagabonds, drifters, or hobos who don’t want a regular job or family life and choose this lifestyle in the name of freedom and independence. A very small fraction of the homeless, but the most visible, are the “street people,” unfortunate souls plagued with drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness who shun treatment and rehabilitation. They claim a “right” to occupy, obstruct, befoul, and vandalize public venues while they indulge their self-destructive lifestyle.
You can sympathize with or pity their plight but accommodating their demands endangers public health and safety, obstructs public access, and undermines neighborhoods. This drives people, businesses, and tourists from places like downtown Denver. In 2003, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper pledged to end homelessness in 10 years. In the interim, it’s only gotten worse.
To be sure, the homeless aren’t beyond our help. But sadly, and realistically, some are beyond rehabilitation. There was a time when people with severe psychiatric afflictions and addictions were confined to state mental institutions. Conditions in some of those institutions were abhorrent. In the 1970s, the ACLU litigated this as a civil rights cause in New York. When they prevailed in court, the doors to those institutions were flung open, with many of those patients left to their own devices. This has contributed to the rise of homelessness today and is a significant factor among the chronically homeless, some of whom might well be better off in today’s more humane mental institutions.
The damage to our inner cities and public places from street people is a serious problem that should be dealt with separately and distinctly from the worthy efforts to deal with the overall problem of homelessness. Surely, there must be better alternatives for street people — and the public interest — than to have these people take permanent residence on the streets.
A primary goal of homeless programs should ultimately be to reduce the number of homeless. The unintended consequence of creating a homeless oasis in Aurora, Denver, or any city would be to make it a magnet, a Mecca, to which multitudes of the nation’s homeless will flock. Think of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.
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