California has a homelessness crisis, but Californians don’t agree about what it is.
To homeless advocates, social service providers, many politicians and most journalists, it’s a humanitarian problem — a social tragedy of rapidly increasing numbers of men, women and families living without shelter, vulnerable to crime, disease and degradation. This state of affairs, they believe, is a “moral disaster.”
For pedestrians pushed into the street by blocked sidewalks, women afraid of unruly men screaming obscenities, patio diners beset by panhandlers and homeowners discovering human feces in their yards, it’s an environmental catastrophe — the neighborhood equivalent of an oil spill. They want someone to clean it up and prevent it from happening again.
Both are correct. Any serious attempt to address the crisis must take both problems seriously. Activists who ignore, downplay or stigmatize the threat to public order are hurting their own cause.
The compassionate view overwhelmingly dominates press coverage and official statements. It defines the problem and the acceptable ways of discussing it.
Perhaps we should stop deferring to “activists,” who are neither morally nor intellectually serious and are often self-interested.
Most Californians in cities beset by homelessness would never vote for Trump, but he’s voicing their disgust and unease. People who pay their taxes, keep up their homes and consider themselves law-abiding feel besieged and unheard. Whatever empathy they may have had melts away.
“This is about people yelling and screaming at three in the morning and openly flashing weapons,” a woman told the San Francisco Chronicle after neighbors pooled money for large boulders to keep homeless settlements off their sidewalks. “I’m not rich. I’m having a hard enough time making it myself.”
Placed in the “furniture zone” next to the street, the boulders left room for pedestrians and complied with local codes. The public works department said they could stay. But pressure from enraged activists, who began rolling them into the streets at night, led residents to ask the city to haul the boulders away. “We traded criminals for activists and the media,” one told the Chronicle. “We don’t want to feel the fire anymore.”
Ignoring the public-order side of the issue has an ironic side effect. The chaos associated with homeless encampments appears to be fortifying a growing opposition to new housing intended to get people off the streets.