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Crosstalk: Don’t criminalize the homeless

Not long ago I was working late and a call came over the police scanner regarding an individual creating a disturbance at a local business, yelling and threatening customers. There wasn’t much said, but I knew who they were talking about: A local woman, homeless and suffering from a series mental illness. Some days you can “follow” her around town as the calls come in, some reporting a disturbance, others requesting a welfare check.

During a brief communication between two officers, one noted that “Pretty soon she will have been trespassed from every business in town.”

You could hear in his voice the frustration of being asked to deal with a real and significant problem, one that at its core is far outside the role of law enforcement.

Sure, disturbing the peace is an offense. But disturbing the peace because you are suffering from mental illness is not: many are “innocent by reason of insanity.”

I didn’t need to check the police report the next morning to learn that the subject of the call spent the night at the regional jail. She spends a lot of nights at the regional jail.

The exclusion zones prepared by city staff for consideration by the council Monday would in effect “trespass” the problem.

Not only would homeless men and women be excluded from the business corridor on the grounds of various misdemeanor violations of law — admittedly rather disgusting ones, like crapping in the public right of way — they would be excluded from virtually all of the public restroom facilities in town.

It seems likely passing such zones would be the first big challenge.

The large crowd that attended Monday’s council meeting suggests that there are plenty of people questioning the proposal, and those commenting during the public comment portion of the meeting suggests many of them will be in opposition to the proposed zones.

Mayor Steve Lawrence noted, in explaining the process were the council to pursue the zones, that public meetings would be held prior to any adoption of the proposal.

He said the council was not in a position to hear comments from the public ... although they did hear a few, and quite strident ones at that ... because the council was simply considering a staff report and not an actual ordinance. It seems unlikely city staff would have spontaneously generated such a report without a suggestion from the council or mayor, but we shall see.

If the zones are adopted, they would have to be enforced.

If passing such zones is hard — and it will be — enforcing them will be even harder.

If the basic problem is a handful of “criminal elements” unwilling to comply with laws regarding public decency, creating an exclusionary zone will not stop them from engaging in that behavior within the zone.

We would have to build a wall — a “big, beautiful wall” like the one proposed by our president — and of course that wouldn’t work either. We have a nice new fence around The Dalles Chamber of Commerce Office and it merely redirects the flow.

If you did manage to exclude them, beyond reach of not just restrooms but food and water and a hot meals, the homeless are unlikely to just stand there and die.

The human spirit — even warped, twisted or crushed — will survive.

At best, such a zone would simply push those creating the problem — only five or six individuals, according to the police — away from business districts into residential areas.

While an exclusion zone seems unhelpful (not to mention offensive and unjust), like many cities we do have a problem and that problem is real.

Some residents and even other homeless individuals in The Dalles are being threatened by the aggressive behavior of a few, according to many reports over the years, and those threats are real.

Having closed our mental institutions and cut resources throughout Oregon, we can’t expect police officers and jailers alone to fill the breach without working tools.

If exclusion zones are not the best tool to give our police force, we — not just the city council — will have to come up with some better ones.

Neither those living or working in the commercial core, nor the police and jail staff should be forced to deal with this issue on their own — with no means of effectively addressing this growing problem.

— Mark Gibson

Just because someone is living on the streets doesn’t mean he or she is a criminal, and yet cities across America are making him or her into one by passing unjust laws so citizens and government leaders don’t have to deal with offensive behavior — or even be made uncomfortable by the presence of someone in poverty.

However, harassment from law enforcement or government officials is cruel because it penalizes people who are already struggling to survive.

If we are going to claim to be a Christian nation, then we need to live up to those values. In Matthew 25, verses 35-40, Jesus told his disciples that they were taking care of him when they cared for “the least among you.” He specifically named prisoners and those in poverty.

Matthew 26:11 says: “You will always have the poor among you…”

It might be unpleasant to deal with the habits of the homeless, but whether we handle people with compassion or callous indifference speaks volumes about who we are really are as a nation.

After all, there but for the grace of God go any of us. Most families are one or two paychecks from homelessness. How would you like to be treated if you lost everything and had to live out of your car, or in a shelter? That is, if a shelter even existed for you to stay in.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, one out of every 10 unhoused Oregonians is a military veteran. One-in-seven has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. A fifth reported being a victim of domestic violence. Nearly a third are families. Ten percent are considered to be chronically homeless, meaning they have disabilities and have been continuously unhoused for at least one year, or have experienced four or more episodes of homelessness in the last three years.

HUD’s count leaves out individuals who are sleeping on a friend’s sofa or temporarily living in hospitals, treatment centers and jails.

These are human beings, not cattle to be shuffled around from city to city.

Nationally, federal judges have repeatedly tossed anti-loitering laws in communities that have not made a concerted effort to give homeless people safe places to go. And the simple truth is that there’s nowhere for police to tell homeless people to go, aside from “not here.”

There are not enough jail and hospital beds to get them off the street for good.

The Dalles cannot show that it hasmade every effort to take care of the homeless when there is no shelter and the Warming Place lacks volunteers, as does Community Meal, which feeds them on weekends.

Instead of sitting in judgement and passing punitive laws, perhaps the city council could volunteer some time in these places?

Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to caring for the underprivileged, said: “If you are busy judging people, you are too busy to love them.”

Instead of criminalizing homelessness and treating people like commodities, let’s figure out a way to actually help them. That is going to require residents to get out of their comfort zone and get their hands dirty.

This state needs more shelters and a change in land use and development regulations so we can overcome a severe shortage of affordable housing and hold down skyrocketing rents.

We need to examine mental health laws that were changed decades ago to prevent people from being involuntarily committed when they couldn’t handle life. Isn’t it crueler to have them wandering the streets, cold and hungry?

The root causes of homelessness need to be addressed and we need to find new and innovative ways to care for people who have lost everything.

We simply cannot, no matter how inconvenient it is, take punitive action against those who already suffer.

Oregon has the second highest rate of unsheltered individuals in the country, and was the only state in 2015 where half of its unhoused families with children were unsheltered.

This is a problem we cannot and should not ignore.

Oregon once had laws against living in idleness or being without employment. Let’s not go back to that time of ignorance.

We can do better, as a community and society, if people really want to find a solution instead of paying it lip service.

— RaeLynn Ricarte


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