The official number of homeless in Lake County is 180. What does this number mean? It means that North Coast Opportunities can apply for various grants related to serving the homeless based on the existence of 180 homeless. Is this one day “point-in-time” count anywhere near the number of homeless in this County? No. But because it used an established method and brought in other agencies as part of the count, the number can be considered “official” and used as grant bait. No problem. This is how the grant game is played.
Those who want to wrap their mind around the whole homeless problem are going to have to do more thinking and less counting. This is because the homeless are not some sub category of human with their own language, culture, and distinctly altered DNA that can be tagged on sight. They can’t be pin pointed. Homelessness is a continuum, blending from one category to another and even in and out of the general condition of homelessness. Some of our other housing problems could be considered borderline homelessness.
Assuming that the extreme forms of “living outside” should be the easiest to count, could 180 at least be a rough estimate of those in the most dire straits? No, not if you know the condition of the seriously desperate. Many of these people have had numerous bad experiences with people in authority. Some avoid institutional types altogether because they are paranoid. If you seek them out on their turf they will feel vulnerable. Probably most of these numbers are people coming in to get some kind of no-strings, no-names help. The one day count is more of a cross section with some categories filtered out entirely.
A dividing line can be drawn anywhere on the spectrum of homelessness between outside homeless and having some kind of a housing problem. It largely depends on society’s comfort zones. The middle classes can accept a homeless concept that includes substance abusers, the mentally ill, or even people having a temporary problem getting on disability but the assumption is that most homeless problems are either temporary, the homeless’s own fault, or a fabrication by social workers or political opportunists.
What our society cannot accept are conditions created by an economic system that prevents people who have had a setback from putting together some type of housing situation. We justify our callousness with the belief they must deserve it because they’re drunks, they take drugs, or they have a prison record. But it wasn’t always like this. Even in my lifetime, people could hit bottom and start putting their life back together. There were always minimal housing options that did not require an immaculate paper trail. And families breaking up was rarely a fast track to living out of a shopping cart. There was a plan B with fewer legal barriers.
As safety nets continue to unravel, the middle class is starting to get nervous. One big medical expense combined with fraying family support (I’d like to help but my kids with worthless college degrees and tons of debt can’t get a job.) and anyone could become homeless. The lower middle class has realized with horror that not only are they unlikely to move up but they could easily end up in the despised homeless class. Rather than searching for causes of long term chronic homeless they react against the homeless by supporting more and increasingly punitive anti homeless ordinances – almost as if homelessness was a disease that they could catch. Eliminate the homeless people from sight and I won’t catch the disease myself.
Years ago the attack was on the private sector’s last chance options for otherwise homeless. There used to be drop-in dormitories – YMCA and “flop houses” in skid rows. More respectable, were boarding houses where someone could rent a room or a shared room by the week. Finally we had trailer parks, not mobile home parks, trailer parks. These were perfect for seasonal and construction workers. As property became more valuable, combined with Redevelopment Agency plans that did not include mobile living, trailer parks became scarce where needed most. A few churches trying to make a last ditch effort with below the radar “warming centers” are shut down by the police.
Without legal places to exist most homeless shimmer in and out of view in even more improvised situations, depending on age and personal functioning. The chronic homeless are the stereotype homeless that we see and make up most of the numbers in official counts. At the other end of the spectrum are people who rise out of homelessness but never very far, dropping back into being homeless after the next setback. People who try hardest to not be tagged as homeless are people with jobs or families, living in vehicles, storage sheds, and garages – all illegal as hell. The people in government would just love to turn their class war machine on another target. Then we have the young people, hopping from couch to couch, crash pad to crash pad. There’s still some official drop zones for them but always with deadlines that fall far short of their problems, or are they society’s problems?
The liberal dream of replacing dumpy and marginal types of housing with sprawling government financed ghettos have always fallen short of the need and still excluded many. In my own city of Clearlake there is never any money or expertise to help anyone who can’t write a check to pay building fees. But there is always enough for police, code enforcement, and community development to pursue people trying to survive. No one asks, “How many slices will be cut from the middle class cheese block before its my turn?”