Time to quit playing games with the homeless

There’s a skill at which canny Solano County politicians and their select cadre of bureaucrats are adept – paying lip service to a problem until it dies of old age.

At no time was this skill more in evidence than on Oct. 30 when Solano County closed the doors on its Homeless Day Center in Fairfield.

The center, located on old county hospital property off West Texas Street, had provided an invaluable safety net for the homeless since 1997, offering hot meals, showers, laundry, mail and referral services to the community’s less fortunate. It was a place of respite for those with no other safe harbor in an increasingly hostile world.

The property, however, was sold to a developer and the county Board of Supervisors was quick to tell the homeless to move along without providing a replacement Day Center.

To their credit, county politicos have talked a lot about doing something. County supervisors, Fairfield City Council members and their well-paid factotums are good at that.

They say they looked for another central location to help the homeless but – sigh! – they just couldn’t find the right place. That’s because, deep down inside, they think the best place for Solano County’s homeless is in some other county. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

And to make sure the homeless get the message, the county is busy formulating a plan whereby the needy will be provided counseling, food and basic hygienic services at a half dozen widely separated locations from downtown Fairfield to the hinterlands of Cordelia.

Marvelous. All the homeless will have to do is climb into their $30,000 SUV’s (hey, everybody’s got one …) and spend the day driving from place to place in an attempt to get a shower and a bologna sandwich. Then, after having been driven stark, raving mad by the bureaucracy, they can go to yet another office to receive advice about where they might go to seek mental health counseling.

The rainy season is coming and Solano County is offering its homeless counseling services …

“There’s a good chance of precipitation tonight, so be sure to not get wet. There, er, may be some dry spots over in San Joaquin County …”

What this all comes down to is that too many of us have begun to think of the homeless as a problem rather than as neighbors who are down on their luck.

I know all the arguments that make us feel a little bit better about ourselves:

* The homeless are all short-term transients who don’t really belong here.

* The homeless don’t contribute to society.

* The homeless are all alcoholics and drug addicts and they like being that way.

* The homeless have no respect for our property values.

Sorry. The homeless are just some people who’ve hit more than their share of rough spots in the road. They’re men, women and children, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who’ve been tripped up by everything from bad credit to a bad liver. Somewhere along the way, they got lost.

It’s time to for Solano County to quit playing silly bureaucratic games with the homeless and provide a helping hand – regular food, shelter and guidance until they can get back on their feet.

And if they can’t get back on their feet, at least we can all work together to keep the rain off their heads.

Originally published November 4, 2001

Welcome to Fairfield – now please go away…

In its finite and stunningly misguided version of municipal wisdom, the city of Fairfield is trying to stamp out homelessness by ordinance.

And despite truly spectacular failures by such nearby cities as San Francisco (remember the – shudder! – Matrix Program?) Fairfield’s leaders seem to think that criminalizing homelessness will somehow make their community a better place to live.

Shocked by reports of panhandling, public urination and littering by the picturesque beer-brewing community’s less fortunate, city government earlier this month began trying to find a way to make homelessness more difficult while encouraging the needy to leave their temporary camps and “take advantage of social programs…”

The encouragement comes in the form of a proposed ordinance that would make it illegal for anyone to camp or store personal property on a public street, parking lot or in a public area. If approved by the City Council, the ordinance would carry a $100 fine for the first offense. A second violation could result in a maximum fine of $1,000 or six months in county jail.

Hmmmmm, that’s encouraging…

The problem with this kind of simple-minded “C’mon, let’s make a law!” approach is that it rarely works.

Sure, the average citizen is appeased for two or three weeks because city government actually appears to be doing something, but it’s mostly smoke and rhetoric.

This kind of ordinance does nothing to get at the root causes of homelessness – unexpected economic hardship, lack of affordable housing, substance abuse, mental and-or physical disability. They provide neither food nor shelter nor educational guidance. Nor are they much good when it comes to preventing public urination. The latter activity comes pretty much naturally to most folks equipped with a bladder…

All such laws do is make it a little more difficult for the disadvantaged to survive.

They also give already overburdened law enforcement agencies plenty of relatively meaningless tasks to perform on their daily rounds – such as issuing $100 citations to people who might have as much as a dollar in their pockets on any given day.

Of course, if these homeless troublemakers can’t pay the fine, local law enforcement will also have the dubious pleasure of hauling them off to an already overcrowded jail.

County sheriff Rick Hulse is positively going to love this enlightened approach to helping the homeless…

What the city of Fairfield fails to recognize is that homelessness is an ever-present human condition that can’t be cured by simply drafting another painstakingly written piece of legalese.

This is like trying to enact an ordinance against hunger or despair. It may look good on paper but it won’t play on the pavement.

No, what this is all about is encouraging homeless people to take advantage of appropriate social programs…somewhere other than Fairfield.

If you don’t have a four-bedroom home and an SUV, maybe it’s time you took your act down the road where you’ll be less of an eyesore. And don’t even think about urinating in the park before you leave, pal..

Originally published April 22, 2001