Monday, October 13, 2008

Homeless Nesting in Seattle.

My office is located in a building that is close to an agency that provides direct aid to long term, hard core homeless. There are homeless folks who lost their job, lost their ride, and lost their place because of illness, or a plant shutting down, etc. Give those folks a little training, a little help finding a job, clean ‘em up, help them back on their feet, and they are back in the rat race with the rest of us rodents. I don’t have a problem helping folks like that. Then there are these guys - the alcoholics, the drug users, the schizophrenics who don’t like taking their happy pills, and the just plain lazy. A lot of the time they are sick with stuff that could be or should be treated. Anti-social and aggressive behavior is not uncommon.

And they are living in nests around our community.

My office has been in an ongoing struggle with this social service agency. They attract these hard cores to our block. They sit on the benches and on the curbs around our entrance. They have loud, obscene arguments outside our windows. They smoke, drink, and use drugs. They eliminate their bodily waste wherever convenient. When we ask the social service agency to ask their clients to move along, they make lots of promises. But bottom line, they want us to be more “understanding”, so their efforts are half hearted, counterproductive, or non-existent. The women who work in the office are afraid to go to their cars at night. Our clients don’t want to have to run the homeless gauntlet. Every entrance around our building looks bad and smells bad.

I know I don’t want these guys around my building. I want them to lead productive lives instead of just standing around being bored and getting stoned. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. But if I give one of them a couple of bucks, it is just going to make it more likely that he will be on my doorstep tomorrow. Plus, he is gonna tell his buddies that he has found an easy mark. Even worse, he is not going to be encouraged to get some help and get a job.

And that is what I am afraid this social service agency is doing: Just making it easier for these guys to spend their days hanging out.

They claim that they are trying to get these guys off the street. When I ask them how, they say they are trying to get them placed in residential facilities. So what’s that? Just a place where they get to hang around indoors instead of outdoors? Does that really help them? Sure it makes their life easier, but how about helping them make their own lives better and more productive.

But how can a long term alcoholic who can’t stand or sit in the same position for more than 15 minutes EVER going to do anything useful?

We used to have mental health facilities where people like this could be involuntarily committed. They had the choice of getting better or staying warehoused. But the ACLU decided that was a violation of their rights, and the Reagan administration led the charge for shutting them all down to save money. Great. Now they are hanging out by my building. And these “do-gooders” are making it easier for them to live minimal, unproductive lives.

They give them free food, a place to keep their stuff, free buss passes, and a hassle free place to hang out. Around my building.

But where do they go at night? Well, this week I found out. Some guy, who lives in a public assistance high rise across the street from my office, just dropped off a complaint letter. He apparently thought it was our building because we are the most prominent tenant. Turns out he has been watching from above for months. He can see an empty field in one direction, and the back yard of a business that closed down in another.

The nests.

There are tarps, and mattresses, and cheap furniture that have been dragged to these spaces you can’t see from the street. He sees them eating, sleeping, drinking, shooting up, copulating, fighting, and producing a small mountain of human waste and trash.

It’s funny; the city spent a ton of money to “daylight” a “creek”. It used to be an underground drainage pipe. Now it is a creek running through an empty lot. The lot is probably empty because the owner can’t build on his own property. It’s now a protected wetland, don’t you know. The hardcore homeless now block it up and cause it to overflow in the rain with all of their crap, both figurative and literal.

Are there more of these hardcore homeless because social service agencies make it easier to live out their bleak lives? Are there just more homeless out there (doubtless George Bush’s fault. Somehow.) so there is a greater need for social service agencies?

I really feel like it is the former. It is just too easy in our society to drop out, and live in a vacant lot in an urban paradise. The old mental health facilities may be gone, but they have been more than replaced by a complicated patchwork of overlapping programs, services, and agencies; both public, private, and private supported by public money.

It becomes a hopeless cycle of despair. Hard core homeless find an agency giving them food, clothes, and a message that it’s not their fault that they are the way they are. The agencies reach out to get more tax dollars and donations, using stories and pictures of sad looking desperate people. The hard cores build a nest close to their source of support, and bring in their friends who don’t have it so good. The agency uses the increased population of homeless to justify getting more funds and get more support. And people who might have decided that life on the street was too hard, instead stay on the street to feed they cycle of homeless victimhood.

There are few good answers. There are people out there who need help, and who will really contribute to our society if given that help. There are sick people out there who simply can’t work and need compassion. There are also hopeless cases out there who are just bad people who will never do a damn thing to justify their miserable existence. But for some reason our society doesn’t seem to want to allow value judgments. Either everybody gets services, or there are no services.

But I’ll tell you this – letting them hang out around my business is not one of the better answers. Allowing nest of people to infest overlooked nooks and crannies is not acceptable. Just handing them stuff is not reducing the problem. If they won’t live within the rules of our society then they either need to change their lives or be institutionalized. Even if that institution is a jail. There is a limit to how much help you get, and how many chances you can have. Most of these guys appear to have exceeded their quota.

I keep hearing that these folks need to get housing before they can respond to treatment. I object to my tax money paying for a free apartment where they can continue to abuse their substance of choice. Let them spend some time in a place where they can’t get access. Then when they dry out they might, just might, help a few people. And clear my doorway.


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