One of the biggest stumbling blocks to dealing with the homeless issue in America are the stereotypes surrounding people on the streets. Often, these stereotypes are divided by political ideology. Right wingers are the people that see the homeless as nothing more than dangerous, filthy perverts who are a threat to their life and neighborhood. Lefties like myself tend to see homeless people as just being down on their luck in a cruel, neoliberal society that's made the world safe for billionaires only. They're no different from you or me. The trouble with these stereotypes is that they're both right!
What's evolving in the treatment of the homeless is that we're gradually moving towards a World War III method of dealing with the people sleeping rough. (I'll explain that later.)Temporary shelters staffed by local volunteers and shelter providers are heated tents now. This is the most modern thinking. Up until now, there's been an emphasis on housing first, which is all very well and good if you live in a rich socialist democracy where the government funds all services at a 100% level.
Unfortunately, this is a totally unrealistic goal given the pitiful inadequacies of services for the homeless and overall demand. Housing vouchers, for example have as much as five year wait times. And rising rents make as much as 40% of the population vulnerable to being homeless. The cheapest method of housing a homeless person is $5,000 or more to build in this country. So until such time as Uncle Sam is much closer to Sweden, real housing is a worthy goal, but extremely difficult to implement.
And that's why we've seen an evolution towards WW III provisions of taking care of the homeless. A regular homeless shelter locally would cost $1.6M, but a temporary shelter with a heated tent and staff can be operating for $250,000. Think of the cost effective shelter as being kind of like a MASH unit. The tent system also has the advantages of being portable -- moving where the action is. And this type of facility is more or less what is identical to national disaster response. A modern shelter would be used by FEMA for a disaster response.
Of course, there are downsides to operating any kind of shelter. First, shelters have rules and they are controlled environments. Privacy is limited by regulations. No drugs or alcohol is to be used in a shelter usually, and there is enforcement that can very quickly evict someone from a shelter. A shelter is not a jail, but it's much more restrictive than a school classroom by its very nature. People incapable of being in shelters -- like runaways, substance abusers, and people with mental and physical health problems -- often have no other alternative than to sleep outside. Shelter life, by its definition limits an individual's civil rights, and it imposes a one size fits all solution. This is why many homeless people choose not to use shelters.
And now I want to tell you the story of the Highway 99 camp that the city allowed to happen. First, it's about as horrible a living situation as you can possibly imagine in America. It's worse than many Third World countries, as those countries have the United Nations and international groups assisting with services. But why do 100 people choose to live in such a muddy hellhole? The answer is -- because a camp is infinitely better than sleeping alone or even in a small group.
If you are homeless -- your are prey. Pure and simple. There are people who will burn you inside your tent. There are people who will rape you and stab you. And people who steal everything you have are some of the nicer people you'll meet in the wilderness.
And here we get to the negative stereotypes surrounding the homeless. And these stereotypes are true. The local governments established the 99 camp as a means of attempting to meet the real needs of people who have nothing. Many expensive government contracts have gone in to supporting the 99 camp. But the 99 camp (no matter how well run) has the same problems with every other informal homeless camp that's ever been set up.
Even though they "live by the rules," there is a nasty element at the 99 camp. Anywhere from 10% to 30% could be made up of a bad element. In Eugene, OR the two main groups are bike thieves and meth freaks. They are in a symbiotic relationship because they feed off of each other. Bike theives are petty crooks supporting themselves, and often they take their proceeds to buy drugs to sell to the rubes at a higher price.
An extremely disturbing minority of bad guys are sex traffickers. Boys and girls are living with their parents in the camp, and they can fall prey to the perverts. The I-5 corridor from Mexico to Canada is a great way to engage in sex trafficking, and Oregon has a reputation as a leader in this field.
Mind you, I've included good people who just happen to be substance abusers and people with mental health problems. This must make up 40% of the total population. You put all these elements into a homeless camp mix, and you can see why camps are by their very nature unstable. Sooner or later, there will be enough of a bad element showing up in the camp that there will be problems in the neighborhood, and some old biddy will call the cops. And then the camp needs to be dissolved.
The most heartbreaking thing about the homeless issue is that good, innocent people are caught up in this living nightmare of what America has become. The most cruel fact of the stereotypes is not that they're true. If there was a perfect system to easily identify the"good" people from the "bad" people, the homeless situation might be cured. But that would probably be a system like Nazi Germany where "bad" homeless people would be forced to wear a yellow star.
Understanding the differences between camps and shelters highlights the complex realities of dealing with our national problem. Unfortunately under the current political and economic climate it's almost impossible to do the right thing for those of us in America who have nothing.