Today I had a call from the Patt Morrison show to be part of a segment on the Venice street “sweeps” of personal possessions by city workers. They were wondering what my thoughts were on this issue.
I must say I had not focused on the Venice issue because we in Skid Row are dealing with a similar issue. It is a frustrating issue to everyone for any number of understandable reasons.
However, I have observed that there are persons of good will attempting to address the issue – with a small minority who seem more focused on preserving chaos than public safety for everybody.
Rights are a very funny thing in our culture. We seemingly have the right to self destruct through addictions and personal free choices. But when a drunk driver kills a young mother that focus changes from rights to personal responsibility. It seems to me that there is a similar pattern here with the poor, mentally ill or homeless. We allow them to roam the streets without sufficient emergency or permanent help, then, when their actions adversely affect themselves or others, we want to forget the cause and address the symptoms by sweeping away their “belongings.”
Let’s be clear here. “Belongings” for the most part are junk or totally unusable items. One particular donation comes to mind from the Los Angeles Mission – table top fountains! Yes! Electric plug-ins that someone thought the homeless might like for their tents…
These so-called possessions can also include old microwaves, filthy mattresses and the list goes on right to a paper bag of human waste! Really?
When this behavior occurs inside a home we call it hoarding – and make TV shows about it. But it is no laughing matter. It can be downright dangerous, and on the streets it is. Mounds of trash disguise persons in drug stupors or diabetic comas that can end up dead. Waste brings on disease and public health concerns in areas that already have enough public illnesses to contend with such as TB, HIVAIDs and many more.
But, as with most issues, there is some truth on both sides. A laptop, a wallet or other valuable items can get picked up in the “sweep” process, and that is unfortunate. Ideas have been tried to protect against that – such as marked baggies for personal valuables that would not be destroyed by the police or sanitation workers.
However, I think we need to back up and address the issue from its beginning. The problem is that there are not enough beds, housing or safe sleep areas for the homeless. And for those with mental illness the challenge is magnified because they are often hard to deal with, smell bad, act out and upset other service agency clients or their neighbors. Their addictions or mental distresses are left unchecked because they have the right to self destruct without medications or treatment unless they voluntarily comply.
Here is my suggestion based on observation of practices from around the country and the globe.
First – Intervention – Put a qualified social worker on the ground when the problem is discovered, to address the behavior and work towards voluntary compliance. Offer proper medical assistance and emergency shelter, even if refused.
Second – Personal Responsibility – If a person is not willing to voluntarily comply then give them notice to comply with a deadline to do so – a reasonable timeframe. Then follow through with enforcement when needed to comply with overall public safety and health standards. Have a social worker or advocate present in a last ditch effort to achieve compliance and alleviate problems.
Third – Public Intervention – Remove items and store them in secure areas for a limited period of time. AND, provide access to the location by public transit. If not redeemed in a reasonable timeframe then dispose of it like all trash.
Fourth – Communication – Reel back the rhetoric and accurately address the issues. The depiction of these persons as walking off for a few minutes to use a bathroom or get a meal can be grossly distorted. In reality it can be hours or days before they return. We know this from our own experience with baggage storage and abandonment. Police on horseback chasing down the homeless or stampeding through the streets is great movie fodder but not constructive. Suggesting that homeless persons are fully functional and rational persons capable of always acting in their own best interests is equally naïve. They need special attention and special handling to achieve trust that is the basis for any true partnership.
Fifth – Equality – Enforce the laws evenly and consistently across the community. There is no implied right to sleep on the concrete in Skid Row or Venice and not in Beverly Hills or Brentwood. There is no right to a clean safe sidewalk along Rodeo Drive and not on San Julian Street.
I stood in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC recently and reread the lines there: “government of, by and for the people.” However, what really hit me was another line from the other great engraved speech: “…Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding – Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing bread from the sweat of other men’s faces but let us judge not that we be not judged – The prayers of both could not be answered – That of neither has been answered fully…” Abraham Lincoln.