Members of our Community Editorial Board, a group of community residents who are engaged with and passionate about local issues, respond to the following question: The Boulder City Council is exploring creating a Homelessness Day Center where individuals experiencing homelessness can come to engage with service providers in a single location. Your take?
We, as a country, have never found a “solution” to homelessness. The number of homeless people notably increased during the 1950s and during the Reagan administration in the 1980s when the big state mental hospitals were closed and replaced with smaller group homes that were often not well-run and patients not well cared for. As one New York Psychiatrist put it, “The chronically mentally ill patient has had his locus of living and care transferred from a single lousy institution to multiple wretched ones.”
In Boulder, we were intent on ending homelessness — at least in our town. For a number of years until 2017 local churches took turns providing meals and a warm place to go. That ended with the advent of the Coordinated Entry system where a person without a home was required to take a variety of measures before they were eligible to receive help. It was designed to discourage what the city considered temporary vagabonds who were just traveling through town but did not really belong in Boulder. These people may receive a meal and a bus ticket out of town but not much else.
The hope was that only the serious, chronically homeless who were ready to change their lives would remain — and this was the group we were prepared to help through Coordinated Entry and the Ready to Work program that provided housing and job training for those who had the wherewithal to benefit from it.
The problem is that there are many people living on our streets who — because of mental health and other issues — are unable to successfully participate in such programs. They cannot comply with the requirements we have laid out for them. We have people who cannot even sleep in a shelter, much less train for, or hold a job.
We have to accept the fact that we will always have homeless people in our city, and it is our responsibility as a civilized society to provide a safety net — however small and temporary — for them. Hence, the Homelessness Day Center. This center has been approved by City Council and is one part of a multi-pronged plan proposed by our local nonprofit organizations that work with homeless people every day. I hope we listen to these experts, accept our homeless population and do what we can to help them wherever they are in their difficult lives.
Fern O’Brien, firstname.lastname@example.org
As with any homelessness policy, this proposal will be controversial. Some of the debate involving homelessness issues is caused by the imprecision of the word “homelessness.” Individuals experiencing “homelessness” include, at one end of the spectrum, Boulder residents who may have lost their housing due to misfortune (such as a job termination or health crisis) and need a helping hand to get back on their feet. On the other end of the spectrum, they include travelers passing through who made a lifestyle decision to live off handouts in public spaces of inviting cities like Boulder. Most members of society (and certainly in Boulder) are empathetic to the plight of the former category but not so much to the latter.
If we were more precise in describing which individuals we are speaking about we might create some common ground for discussion. Even then there are multiple shades of gray between the two extremes. Mental illness and drug addiction complicate the discussion further. The extent of mental illness and addiction may affect whether such persons are able to take advantage of opportunities given to improve their situation. There is debate over whether their decisions are voluntary or involuntary. Most individuals suffering from mental illness or drug addiction are considered fit to enter into legally binding contracts and to have the mental state to be subject to prosecution for criminal actions. Should such persons also be accountable for failing to take advantage of services designed to help them out of their situation? Opinions differ on where to draw the line.
However, providing a day center so that individuals can spend the day interfacing with services designed to help them help themselves should be something most citizens are willing to support. The devil will be in the details: Will the center provide meaningful opportunities for individuals to improve their situation, or will it enable and encourage the status quo?
In addition to the program itself, its location will raise concerns. Given that the homeless population tends to congregate in the central Boulder civic area by day, it seems that something in that area would create the greatest opportunity to interface with those in need. Considering that the City Council will continue to make decisions regarding homelessness services and would be well-served in observing the center firsthand, either the Municipal or Park Central buildings are good locations for the City Council to walk the walk in siting the center’s location.
Andrew Shoemaker, email@example.com
Boulder recently unveiled a very welcome consolidated dashboard of everything homeless. While it’s important to quantify the outreach outcomes, it’s more telling about what information is not there. Once again, Boulder is trying to solve a problem it doesn’t understand. I like the instinct to solve the problem, but as long as they stubbornly refuse to characterize the problem with specific data, they are doomed to fail, as they will likely solve a different problem than the one we actually have.
We all know that the homeless problem is complex and multifaceted. There is no silver bullet, and that includes Housing First. To help the homeless we need information about them. In Portland, a yearly effort is made to interview every homeless person, not just the ones reaching out for help. We need to do the same. Here are some questions I’d like to see asked and the data displayed on the dashboard:
Do you have a job? Where? How many hours a week? Is your job panhandling? How do you get to your job? Car? Walk? Public transit? Do you have a smartphone? Do have access to the Internet and know how to use it? Where do you normally sleep? Where do you erect your tent? Do you have any substance abuse issues? Have you ever sought treatment? Are you interested in getting treatment? Do you have a history of mental problems?
I suspect the reason these questions aren’t being asked is fear that data on drug usage or joblessness or mental issues will make us less sympathetic towards them. It might. But that isn’t justification for hiding the information and saying, “Trust us. We know best.” What’s the point of community engagement meetings if people don’t have the relevant facts from which to start their reasoning? Facts and data should come before opinions and plans, not the other way around.
Bill Wright, firstname.lastname@example.org