Will opening a homeless shelter in downtown Fort Bragg help the homeless population or address the problems associated with homelessness in Fort Bragg? The idea reminds me of a quote from an old movie called Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." That certainly is what has happened in other cities. The more shelters they build, the more homeless there are that still do not fit into those shelters and just simply overflow on to the streets. As a police officer for more than a quarter decade, I have seen it with my own eyes.
I was born and raised in Fort Bragg. I went to high school here, graduated from College of the Redwoods and worked for Fort Bragg Police Department for several years back in the 80’s. As a police officer, I interacted with our homeless population more than a few times. Back then, most of them were locals. Most of them were harmless. There were always a few “homeless tourists” who would drift through town, usually in the summer when the weather more easily allowed sleeping outdoors. It wasn’t until I moved out of the area that I saw what a real homeless problem looks like.
In my new city you will find homeless people sleeping in outcroppings of bushes, under bridges and other “hidden places.” You will also find them sleeping out in the open on the sidewalks in downtown. When I say downtown, I mean right in front of City Hall, right in front of some of the busiest stores and office complexes. Sure, there are lots of rural areas for them to populate, but downtown has a particular draw: homeless shelters and related services. And so, local businesses now contract (for a fee in addition to their city, state and federal taxes) with a local entity called “Downtown Clean and Safe” to try to make downtown just that, clean and safe. Others get the job of cleaning up the area, hosing down sidewalks and business doorways to try to remove the stench of human urine and the like.
It seems when an area is developed as a magnet for the homeless population, it does just that: it becomes a magnet. Not only are local homeless people drawn to the area, but soon word travels outside the town’s borders that there is an area where you can get a free place to sleep and a free meal. Soon, homeless from around the country arrive. The shelters overflow, and now we end up with full shelters and even more people sleeping on the sidewalks. It probably sounds like I am exaggerating. I wish I was.
Some cities end up with large numbers of “street kids.” These bands of young people are a mix of largely out of town homeless who feel they should not have to abide by the “corrupt laws” of society. Many have traveled from other states after hearing about the plethora of services available. So they leave home, refuse to work and get by through begging for money, taking government handouts, and sometimes through criminal activity. They form their own gangs, create their own lingo and find ways to get money to buy things the government does not provide, such as alcohol, drugs and the like. Of course if you attract a group of people who have a higher than average drug use rate, you will also attract drug dealers to that area.
So we build homeless shelters out of good and pure intention to help the homeless and address homelessness in our area and what is the result? More homelessness, more crime, a less attractive business core, the need to spend more business money to make the area look and smell like there is not a homeless problem. But there is. And it keeps growing, and we keep building, and they keep coming. So we allocate a large parcel of property outside the downtown core. We call it “Dignity Village” and tell the homeless to make their homes there. And they do. They put up a tent city which fills to capacity and then more people come, and the shelters overflow, and the sidewalks again become their beds. Now we have more mouths to feed, more health care issues for our local hospitals to address (for free) and more crime to address. What I am describing is not scarry fiction. It an unfortunate reality which I have seen play out before my own eyes.
I say all of this not to imply the homeless population is undeserving of help. Quite the contrary. We are not a civilized society if we do not care for those who are less fortunate and unable to care for themselves. Unfortunately, it is by trying to be civilized, kind and well-intended that we make the problem worse for the homeless and for our towns. We assume most homeless people are “less fortunate” or “unable to care for themselves” when that is not necessarily the case. We have developed a culture of entitlement and an entire subculture of opportunistic feeders who know how to play on the emotions of our good hearted citizens. They devour the scarce resources we cobble together, meant to help those who actually want to get off of the streets.
If we want to address the homeless problem, we shouldn’t make it easier to be homeless. We should address the reasons individuals are homeless. And the reasons truly are individual. Some are homeless out of choice. Let them chose to be homeless somewhere else. Buy them bus tickets back home and let their hometowns care for them if they want to. Don’t offer services for the homeless tourist. For some the reasons for their homelessness are related to mental illness. Develop strategies to get them assistance specific for their illness. For some the reasons are economic. Help them find jobs. Yes, give them an address to receive mail (such as a post office box) and a place to wash their cloths, etc. Maybe for those few a temporary home is needed. Look around the nation, however, at the places where the government allocated a specific area for those living off of government handouts. Are the businesses thriving around those areas? Is crime lower in those areas or higher? Would you want to live there or even invest money there?
Let’s do what is right. Let’s find ways to care for others. But let’s be thoughtful and deliberate in our efforts. We must learn from others who have gone before us and learn from their successes and failures. The last thing we want to do is spend valuable resources and personal effort to end up only making things worse for those we are trying to help. Building a homeless shelter in downtown Fort Bragg would be a mistake. It would degrade an already struggling downtown business core, create a drain on scarce resources, and draw more out of town homeless who will only compound the original problem.