More than 800 people who were unsheltered died on the streets of Los Angeles County last year. There is a deeply held assumption that people living on the streets “choose” to live there. Do they choose also to die there? Two unsheltered people died near our church.
The people we see living on the streets represent only about one-third of all the people considered to be without shelter. I wonder how many we see now were once themselves the “hidden homeless”. Our Core Team at the church learned firsthand from Our House shelter residents that most of them became unsheltered due to a medical emergency, a change in employment or substantial living cost increases (rent, etc.) without any change in wages. Many of the people whose stories we heard were employed and without shelter.
What of the people we do see living on the streets? Why are there so many now and do they really “choose” to be on the street? Do all of them have the capacity to make such a choice?
There is a subset of those living on the streets who suffer with mental illness. Many of these people lack the ability to do more than try to find a place to shelter themselves overnight. The ability to handle day-to-day business of living lies beyond their reach.
Many of us are aware of changes in state law in the 1960s that closed psychiatric hospitals and sent patients back to their communities. These hospitals were closed in favor of community based residential and out-patient treatment. It was a good idea, but it was also an unfunded idea. The idea never received political or financial support. 50 years later we are in the middle of a housing crisis and still not funding help for people who cannot find shelter for themselves beyond a cardboard box.
If we say that people on the streets “choose” to live there, then it gives us a pass on having to do anything to alleviate their suffering. It makes it easier to not fund solutions because we can blame the victim for their choice.
But this is a public health crisis and it is in our self-interest to alleviate their suffering and prevent the spread of preventable and communicable diseases. (Remember the cholera and Hepatitis C outbreak in San Diego?)
The Housing Action Team of ICON (Inland Communities Organizing Network) continues to develop relationships in order to alleviate the suffering we see and the suffering about which we hear in our own institutions. On August 6, 7-8:30 pm a workshop will be held at FCC Pomona to determine some specific and immediate actions we might take together to contribute positive solutions to the threat of displacement so many people are facing. We are working to develop the political will to amplify the voice of “Yes. Let’s!” in order to transform the landscape of “Not in my backyard.”
ICON institutions are doing this work out of our shared values to seek the well-being of people and improve our communities. We share a commitment to the common good and to being a neighbor. As Christians, we know this is the way in which we demonstrate love. The lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus told the story we now call “The Good Samaritan”. Who is our neighbor today and can we love our neighbor as we love ourselves?