Thursday, January 14, 2016

Homelessness Is Not a Public Safety Issue

Could we please stop talking about homelessness, or, more precisely, "the homeless" as a public safety issue?

As some of you know, Commissioner Carlson is wanting to visit with Salem's neighborhood associations about public safety this coming spring, and has caused this email to go into general circulation, highlight added:
Marion County Public Safety Coordinating Council Email

The document attached to the email was a flyer about a program that used to be called the "reentry initiative" that, apparently, is being rebranded as "justice reinvestment."  (Hear the podcast of a Willamette WakeUp interview about the reentry initiative here.)  In this context, "homelessness" likely was intended to refer to the homelessness of parolees who are at risk of re-offending (which seems like more of a criminal justice concern than a matter of "public safety").  

In any event, the email refers simply to "homelessness", which is all homeless people, including the working families and individuals doubled up with relatives or living in their cars, the elderly and frail, the victims of domestic violence, the homeless children.  If these are considered a public safety concern, it's only because homelessness has been criminalized.  In other words, when we talk about homelessness as a public safety concern, we are euphemistically implying that the homeless are dangerous criminals.  That is both cruel and unfair.  It is also dishonest and hypocritical.  It is also bad social policy.

Stigmatizing behavior that a society considers undesirable has been known to work, but not in every area.  And, just like stigmatizing poverty didn't keep people out of poverty, criminalizing homelessness hasn't put people in homes.  In fact, it has had just the opposite effect. 

In the 1980s, when homelessness was so visibly on the rise, anti-homeless laws might have seemed like a good idea -- a sort of "Just Say No" to begging, sleeping, micturating and defecating in public places.  But, like the War on Drugs, the strategy has proved to be a dismal and expensive failure.  Today, even the Salem City Council has come to recognize that "we're not going arrest our way out of this."  That recognition is good, but it isn't enough. 

Continuing to talk about homelessness as a public safety concern is a vestige of a failed policy designed to stigmatize poverty and "otherize" the homeless that just makes doing what needs to be done more difficult.  Those in a position to know have said that the disgust/anger/scorn response so many people have to homelessness as a result of our stigmatizing it, "more than any specific policy change or resource need, looms as the biggest challenge facing elected leaders and anti-poverty advocates in their question to end homelessness in Oregon."  (Emphasis added.)  Think about it: The.Biggest.Challenge.  

As any social service provider will tell you, it is far easier and cheaper to keep someone housed than it is to re-house them after a prolonged period of homelessness.  They will also tell you that people often wait far too long before asking for help and that the main reason they wait is the social stigma associated with needing/being helped.  That is why it is just stupid to continue, however inadvertently or well-meaningly, to stigmatize and otherize people in need by talking about homelessness as a public safety concern.

Let's be clear: when we talk about homelessness as a public safety concern, we're not talking about the safety of those without homes -- were talking about the safety those with homes.  If you want to talk about the safety of those without homes, you must enter the province of the social services, particularly public health, and that's where our conversations should be taking place, it's where they need to take place.

So when Commissioner Carlson and her colleagues on the Marion County Public Safety Coordinating Council come to your neighborhood association, by all means share your public safety concerns, but don't let homelessness into the conversation as one of those concerns.  If anyone else brings it up, please for heaven's sake, say something, the way you would if someone started talking about the Latino, transgender, or Muslim residents of Salem as a public safety issue.  If you're afraid, or don't know how to confront bigotry, seek advice, here, for example.  However you choose to do it doesn't matter.  What matters is that you stand up and take on The.Biggest.Challenge. 

(And while you're standing up, think about asking why pedestrian and bike safety isn't considered a public safety issue -- it is for most people we know, so why not talk about that instead?)

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