I live in a town with a huge drug problem. In my naiveté, I knew there was a lumber company called Green Diamond. I thought “Emerald Triangle” referred to another lumber business; I had no idea it referred to what is probably the area’s largest cash crop, marijuana.
I was incensed when I had to sign a drug contract with my physician to have my daily pain medication renewed, agreeing, among other things, to random drug testing and not filling my prescription at multiple pharmacies, but apparently drug contracts are standard procedures up here. In my town DUI can mean under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and both are dangerous and often fatal. Robberies and thefts are on the rise, usually to pay for drugs.
We have a panhandling problem on a par, I’d say, with San Francisco. You see it at the entrance to the large shopping mall, at the strip malls, and at Costco. Some claim to be broken-down drivers needing gas, some say they need money for medicine, or pet food, some say, “Why lie, I need it for drugs,” or booze. Some claim to be disabled vets, although I understand it’s now illegal to claim that status unless you truly are a veteran. And we do have some very active veterans’ groups here that take care of their own.
We are also a town with a homeless problem. We’re not the only community with a homeless population. Even Bishop, the small town where I used to live, had homeless people. But this is the first place I’ve lived that is so vocal about its homeless - and where so little is actually done about it.
We have a wonderful woman, Betty Kwan Chinn, who finally brought her drop-in center to fruition last year. It provides free day services and case management. We have a Rescue Mission that provides separate men’s and women’s emergency shelters (the women’s shelter accepts children as well). They also provide extreme weather shelter, but nothing permanent. The St. Vincent DePaul Society has a dining hall and some “safety net” services. Most people are left to live on the streets; for the past few years they have been living in a marsh area behind the shopping mall in what is called “The Devil’s Playground.”
Now the effort is on to clean up the Playground, in the guise of cleaning up the marsh out of environmental concerns. An ordinance concerning how many possessions a homeless person can have has been enacted, as well as a ban on camping in the Playground. Unfortunately, although the City owns land set aside for homeless housing, it has done nothing about setting up homeless housing there, nor has it opened it up for campsites. The campers were given 24 hours to remove their property and store it within a 60-gallon garbage can that the City would safeguard. Any items too bulky to fit in the garbage can, with the exception of tents, would be removed without notice. The City Manager has stated several times that it is not the city’s responsibility to solve homelessness.
I think the biggest problem we have is heart disease. Drugs and homelessness and even panhandling are all difficult problems. But hearing “they’re all drug addicts” or “thieves” or “dirty” or “they all want to live that way” each time we try to discuss the homeless situation, or try to offer solutions, hurts me. I’ve never lived in a place that had so many “Bathrooms for customers only” signs in the doors, nor have I seen so many shopping centers without garbage cans. And then I wonder where people are supposed to go to the bathroom, or throw away their garbage, if there are no facilities?
The last Point-In-Time Survey I could find of the homeless in my town was conducted in 2011. It found that 45% had a physical disability (43% permanent), 50% had mental health issues (24% serious), 22% were homeless due to domestic violence, 20% served in the military, 25% were once in foster care, 36% completed high school or a GED, and 26% completed some college or trade school. So a good number have been abused, need medical assistance, and are educated. Twenty-five percent have been homeless three years or longer. Contrary to popular belief, most want to get off the streets. It’s not easy. Just getting into an apartment here costs about $2,000.
In my town we have an unfortunate habit of grouping the panhandlers and the addicted and the homeless together into one supergroup, and throwing a large cloak of shame over all of them. Most people, if they want to feel charitable, will concede that “some people” might want to help themselves and climb out of their situation, but “most of them don’t, so why should we bother.” As a person of faith, I can’t help but see the spark of God in every person and know that it’s my responsibility to respond to that spark, just as Christ responded to the thieves on the cross. One thief may have scorned him, but Jesus did not rebuke or condemn him. And the other thief Jesus welcomed into Paradise. It is never too late. We never know what is the word or gesture that will make the difference in that life. We have to try.
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Matthew 5:44-46