I wrote last week about our mission on earth to love each other. No question perplexes me more as to what "the loving response" is than homelessness. A commentary published at the San Francisco Chronicle highlights the complexities.
In it, C.W. Nevius writes of a homeless man, James Allen Hill, who died in a public library restroom of an apparent overdose. Of course it's a tragedy, another life snuffed out by drugs and despair. Nevius says the very homeless advocates trying to "help" Hill allowed his death.
There will be those who will see Hill's death as a failure of the system, another example of how the city neglects its poorest residents.
That's not the story here. The city did anything but neglect Hill. But his case does show a flaw, all right: Chronic and incorrigible offenders avoid the consequences of their actions - aggressive panhandling, public urinating or drunkenness - often through the help of well-intentioned attorneys for homeless advocates.
And instead of being placed in treatment, the offender goes back on the street and continues his destructive behavior.
San Francisco is the same city that gave its homeless population monthly stipends. One of the things you often hear from advocates for the homeless is "the right to be homeless", i.e. that it's unfair for charitable programs dedicated to serving the homeless to have putting that person "back into society" as one of their goals. What if they don't want to be a part of society?
I have to admit this is a question I've struggled with from the time I first started learning about homelessness and in the brief time I did homeless outreach. I still don't feel like I know what the answer is. Perhaps there are hundreds of different answers. There's no question that the pro bono attorneys who kept Mr. Hill out of prison or treatment programs thought they were doing the right thing and were taking care of him by giving him a voice against the legal system, but what if he would have been better served by being put in an addiction treatment program, a housing program, and put on the track to a stable life with a home and a job? And at what point do we deem someone irredeemable?
One day, when I have the courage, I am going to find out the answer to this question:
What do homeless people want?
Of course there are going to be people who want to have a stable life and a stable housing situation. But what of the people who don't want that? How best help them? And is it condescending to even be asking these questions? Do they want to be helped? Do they want to be left alone? I feel like we as a society still don't understand the answers to these questions and it's leading to paternalistic approaches that may be counterproductive. As previous posts indicate, I feel that we are on this Earth to serve each other, but what about when what's "helpful" is so unclear? I'm still at a loss.
For myself, I don't give cash to panhandlers, and I donate to organizations with a charitable mission. That's going to have to do for now.