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Pride and Despair
By Frank Gruber
I had mixed feelings -- pride and hope, and sadness and despair -- at the opening of OPCC's new access center on Thursday. (see story)
As a Santa Monican, I am proud that our city government supported the building of such a needed facility. I was proud that a homegrown organization, OPCC, built and would operate the center, and that a local architect, Ralph Mechur, had designed it with an eye to both function and beauty. (Impartiality alert: my wife is a donor to OPCC's capital campaign.)
At a deeper level, I was proud that the residents of Santa Monica, beset as they are and have been over the decades with a disproportionate number of homeless people, never have descended as a whole to "homeless bashing."
The City's surveys of public opinion regularly show that a large number of residents, but less than a majority -- from about 22 to 40 percent, depending on the year -- cite "too many homeless" as one of the City's more important problems. (Strictly speaking, of course, no one can argue with this statement, since even one homeless person is too many, but the point is that some people are particularly annoyed by having homeless people here.)
Nonetheless, certainly in recent years the candidates for City Council who have proposed simplistic solutions to homelessness in Santa Monica don't receive many votes. The names Jenna Linnekens (2006), Bill Bauer, David Cole and Kathryn Morea (2004) come to mind. In contrast, the candidate who has made the biggest deal about homelessness, Bobby Shriver, has made a point of emphasizing how much more society had to invest in constructive solutions.
Even the downtown business community, which a few years ago flirted with harsh measures, seems to have come back to its senses.
It's not necessarily true that typical Santa Monicans are more compassionate than others, although I'd like to think so. Santa Monicans and their elected representatives have tried to hold homeless people to certain standards of conduct, but always with the intention of encouraging them to seek help. Certainly Santa Monicans are too realistic to fall for demagoguery about homelessness.
I also attended the opening with a fair amount of hope. I mean, who can't feel hope when you meet formerly chronic homeless people who have turned their lives around, or the absurdly joyful people who choose to work in the business of turning those lives around. I don't know what the pay is for those jobs, but they all seem happy with what they do.
Notwithstanding the pride and hope, however, I cannot deny the despair and sadness. After 25 years of the national crisis of homelessness, every building that we build to treat the epidemic of homelessness is evidence that the epidemic isn't going away.
There are no miracle drugs to treat mental illness, or alcoholism, or drug addiction. Nor public health solutions like what clean water did for cholera. Our economy is not structured in a way that produces affordable housing any more, or that even permits the flophouses and other cheap digs of the past.
At a press conference earlier on the day of the opening of the access center, I met an OPCC client who, after more than two decades living on the streets, and four years of sobriety, is now living in an affordable apartment on Sixth Street downtown -- an apartment built, by they way, because of City policies that promote affordable housing.
This client's story was one of those that gives hope, but it's also one that is discouraging. That's because she could recall the early days of OPCC, more than 20 years ago, when it was called the Ocean Park Community Center and its drop-in center was near Third and Hill. You do the math and you realize that notwithstanding conscientious outreach on the part of OPCC, it took 20 years or so to bring her inside.
I thought of this Saturday night when I was walking on Sawtelle after seeing a movie at the NuArt; right in the middle of the sidewalk, next to a fire hydrant, was a human being sleeping under a pile of ragged blankets.
I walked by, of course. Such a scene is commonplace. Every night if you walk around Santa Monica or the Westside, you see the same, and if you're like most people, you walk by. It's our dispersed version of Calcutta.
Homelessness of this sort -- mentally incapacitated people living on the streets -- is personal tragedy, but social crime. How can we let this happen? How can we live with ourselves?
Well, there are a lot of rationalizations, and naturally they break down on political lines. On the left, there's a rationalization that we can't interfere with the civil rights of individuals, no matter what their condition. On the right, there's a rationalization that homelessness is all the fault of a permissive society and personal failure, and thus not the responsibility of taxpayers.
Let's reject both rationalizations.
I've said this before, including four years ago when controversy erupted over OPCC's and the City's plans to build the Cloverfield Services Center (see column), but we're not going to solve the homeless problem within a reasonable time frame without two things -- some more coercion, and a lot more money.
California's mental health laws need to be revised, or at least reinterpreted. They currently allow for the civil commitment of the mentally ill only if they are a threat to themselves or others. We need the law to recognize that a mentally incapacitated person (whatever the cause of the incapacity) is per se endangered if he or she is sleeping outdoors in an urban area. (An unusually high percentage -- 60 to 65 percent -- of the homeless in Santa Monica are estimated to be mentally ill.)
We can't wait 20 years for homeless people to realize they need help when they don't have the capacity to make that realization on their own. We shouldn't prosecute homeless people for their condition, but we should bring them in for treatment often enough that they have to rethink their status regularly. A civil commitment for a limited times is not a criminal incarceration. After 72 hours of respectful care, the mentally ill patient or the inebriate would be free to go, but hopefully, sooner rather than later, he or she will consider treatment instead.
Of course, that would mean spending a lot of money. For all of OPCC's efforts, for all their grants from government and donations from philanthropists, in all these years they managed to put together just a few hundred beds. Tens of thousands are needed, along with the medical personnel and therapists to go with them.
I also know that many of the most caring professionals in the field disagree with any coercion, even civil commitments, as being counterproductive. Perhaps that would be the case for many people. But a decade or two is a shamefully long time to wait for an alcoholic or mentally ill person to accept help. An easier standard for civil commitments is an arrow homeless service providers should have in their quivers.
Events coming up:
The Santa Monica Place remodel will be on the City Council's agenda Tuesday night. Read the staff report.
Heal the Bay will be hosting its annual Coastal Cleanup Day this Saturday, Sept. 15. There will be six check-in locations in Santa Monica. For details, go to http://www.healthebay.org/
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