From the Left: Our Response Should be Led by Compassion and Coordination Among Every Level of Government

    Lance Simmens

    Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Ultimately, a great nation is a compassionate nation.” Of course, he was addressing poverty and the inequality of wealth and justice. However, it applies universally: Compassion is the root of democratic governance. 

    Compassion is a virtue and an ideal too little appreciated and too rarely applied to address societal issues in our nation today. On the issue of homelessness, many are far too eager to seek remedies that support criminalization rather than compassion.

    As communities like Malibu witness an increasing spread of homelessness, which is occurring at an astounding rate in communities throughout the county and country, too often knee-jerk and insensitive applications that are neither based on statistical data nor compassion capture headlines and hence skew the narrative for policy debate. 

    Just recently, I was discussing the issue with an individual whom I have a great deal of respect for in terms of caring and compassion and was taken aback when his immediate reaction to a recent small brush fire was that it must have been set by a homeless person. I inquired what investigative work led to that conclusion and, of course, the response was obvious: none.

    This is not to say that there are not instances where either arson or encampment carelessness does not result in fire hazards. However, it is the careless application of willful intent that leads to criminalization of a subset of society and does little but exacerbate misguided or even destructive policy approaches to serious and growing problems. 

    According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Criminalization of homelessness refers to policies, laws, and local ordinances that make it illegal, difficult, or impossible for unsheltered people to engage in the normal everyday activities that most people carry out on a daily basis, or in activities that help make them safer. These are known as life-sustaining activities, and criminalizing them makes it effectively illegal to be unsheltered, often without providing a sustainable alternative.”

    So, as city council wrestles with the formation of a Homelessness Task Force, it is essential that the baseline is set as to what the root causes of the issue actually are, because you cannot solve a problem unless you understand what the problem is.

    In nearly every article I have written or researched on the issue over the last four decades, including six years as assistant executive director for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the consensus on root causes include: (1) lack of affordable housing, (2) unemployment, (3) poverty, (4) mental illness and the lack of needed services, and (5) substance abuse and the lack of needed services.

    According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), “for every 10 of the lowest income renters, there are fewer than four affordable homes available to them.”

    Compounding the problem of inadequate supply, NLIHC data show “71 percent of extremely low-income people pay at least half of their limited incomes on rent … and many are living doubled or tripled up.”

    Every analysis on homelessness that I have seen cites lack of affordable housing as the primary determinant of homelessness.

    What is drawing particular ire at this point is the Boise v. Martin decision, the Ninth Circuit Court decision that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives. The Supreme Court has allowed this decision to stand.

    Thus, it is our solemn responsibility as stewards of the public good to help fashion and mold a response to homelessness in our community in a strong, effective, yet compassionate manner realizing the complexities and hardships that the issue raises.

    There is not one of us who, upon seeing poverty and misfortune in our midst, does not secretly ponder “there but for the grace of God go I.” One cannot judge others for their flaws for we are all equally flawed.

    We alone cannot fix the problem. It will take a concerted intergovernmental cooperation that will include county, city, state and federal resources if we sincerely wish to get to the root of the problem. Each unit of government has a specific role and financial resources to contribute to this complex and heart-rending issue.

    There inevitably will be a portion of the homeless population who neither seek out nor accept assistance and it is primarily this subset that will be involved in malicious or criminal activities and will find themselves dealing with law enforcement—just as there are those within the greater society as a whole who reject and/or violate the law.  

    This unfortunate reality will continue to stain the complexion of how we view the issue, yet it should not do extensive damage to the degree to which compassion should govern our actions. For those who need and reach out for help, our mission should be to lend a helping hand.