Op-Ed

Homeless crisis requires smarter insights for better solutions

Olympia looks for community’s help in creating long-term homeless response plan

Amy Buckler, Olympia's downtown programs manager, outlines how the city will go about creating a long-term homeless response plan.
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Amy Buckler, Olympia's downtown programs manager, outlines how the city will go about creating a long-term homeless response plan.

Homelessness is a serious problem here and nationwide, but many people blame the victims instead of understanding why so many people have no homes. We need to dispel the myths, understand the realities, and create smart solutions.

Basic math is part of the problem. Rents keep rising, but working-class wages have been kept too low. Some people with low-wage jobs sleep in their cars.

Many people have suffered childhood abuse or other traumas, but our society does not provide enough services to help them recover from those kinds of problems. Many of our society’s systems have not functioned as they should, so our dysfunctional systems cause many people to become homeless.

The U.S. treats health care as a profit-making commodity, while all other rich nations recognize health care as a basic human right, and provide good quality health care at low cost. But Americans who can’t afford good health care get sicker or spend themselves into bankruptcy and homelessness.

Many politicians obsess about keeping taxes low and oppose governmental solutions to social and economic problems. They shred the “social safety net” and their “free market” remedy causes people to sleep wherever they can. These politicians hurt society and cost us more in the long run.

People’s first need is for a decent, stable place to live. Local governments need to recognize this basic human right – and to reform public policies instead of using heavy-handed policing to harass homeless people, criminalize their poverty, and disrupt their makeshift communities.

The public responds in several ways to the issue of homelessness. Some people seem annoyed by the mere presence of persons different from themselves. Other people feel concern, and support a charity-based approach. Still others see the larger context of social and economic systems that fail to treat some folks fairly.

Nationwide, many local governments make their police conduct “sweeps” that forcibly remove people and destroy their tents and personal belongings. “Sweeps” are no solution because they don’t provide housing but only push people around.

I believe that all people are one human family. We are all in this together. Every person has a right to exist with basic human dignity and rights. This includes people who do not have a regular place to live.

I live in a house, so I can take for granted the routine resources that a homeless person lacks:

  • I have a place to keep my personal belongings. If I didn’t have that, where would I keep my clothing and other stuff? Drag it around in a shopping cart?

  • I have a bedroom, so I can sleep inside. If I didn’t have that, where would I sleep?

  • I have a bathroom inside my house. If I didn’t have a bathroom, where would I go?

  • I can hang out in my living room at any time and nobody gets judgmental. But for some people, Sylvester Park is their de facto living room. Homeless people need to improvise living rooms.

  • My garbage is picked up by a scheduled truck that visits my neighborhood. Without that, what would happen to my garbage?

Mainstream people take these basic realities for granted. But these are barriers for people with no place to live.

Homelessness results much more from systemic failures than from individual failures. Someone who must worry about where to sleep tonight will not be free to consider solving long-term personal problems such as health or habits. The best research has proven that providing decent, stable housing is the first step toward solving problems such as mental illness and substance abuse. When someone’s housing is stable and secure, that person will be better able to access services, stay on their medications, and get clean, sober and safe.

Since 2016 “Just Housing,” a local grassroots organization, has been working directly and effectively with homeless folks on political advocacy and direct services. Phone them at 360-562-0239 or visit www.justhousingolympia.org

Glen Anderson is a lifelong Puget Sound resident (in Lacey since 1975) who had a career in state government. Since the late 1960s he has devoted his life to working as a volunteer for peace, nonviolence, social justice, and other progressive issues. Learn more about the issue of homelessness on his multi-issue blog at www.parallaxperspectives.org
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