Folks talk about “the homeless problem” a lot. I’ve actually always found this framing and phrase highly problematic, because it erases the actual people involved; it makes it sound like people are a problem. Homelessness is the problem. Being a homeless person is not. But, this aside, let’s talk about homelessness.
Here in Fort Bragg, Red does a fair amount of work with the local homeless community, and she interacts with homeless folks a lot. A few years ago, she started noticing some interesting trends. The first was that the number of homeless were increasing, and coming from all over. The second was the reasons behind the increase; instead of just studying people from a distance, she actually just talked to them, and in the process she learned a number of interesting things.
The first thing she found out is that temperate climates like ours are naturally appealing to people who do not have places to live. It’s unlikely to get so cold that people can die of exposure during the winter. It doesn’t snow and force people to try and shelter in slush. It doesn’t get so hot during the summer that being outdoors can be dangerous, can cause heat stroke. The temperatures stay fairly stable, and that means that it’s a relatively safe place, climatewise.
This makes total sense to me. And it didn’t surprise me to learn, as Red did, that word trickled through the homeless community as people relocated to Fort Bragg and told each other about it. The community itself identified Fort Bragg as a good place to live. Not just because of the climate, of course. Fort Bragg also offers some services to homeless folks, primarily through community-based charities, many of which are associated with various churches. Safe places to sleep are sometimes provided in harsh weather. Food. Blankets. Tarps.
I’m not trying to paint Fort Bragg as some kind of idealist paradise. Yes, we provide some assistance and some services. But we are far from welcoming and far from kind. A small percentage of our population works very hard to provide assistance to people who want it, and the rest of us either ignore homeless folks or actively work against them. For many people, it seems to be personal. The only way to deal with people who do not have homes is to try to erase them, because admitting that they exist is to take on some moral culpability for the fact that some people have homes and others do not.
There’s another reason people are relocating to Fort Bragg. It’s because they are being told to, by social workers and other people who work with the homeless. Red has told me that a number of the folks she’s talked to were basically shoved onto a Mendocino Transit Authority bus and told to get off in Fort Bragg, where they would be “taken care of.”
Some people may genuinely be referring their homeless clients to us because they believe that we are a better climate for homeless folks. But I think a lot are more cynical. They know that once you get to Fort Bragg, it can be hard to leave. Foisting their unwanted population on us buys them some breathing time because people will have difficulty arranging transport out of Fort Bragg. They might end up just staying. And, meanwhile, they will spread the word; [City X] is not a good place to live, it’s not friendly to homeless folks, don’t go there.
And voila, [City X] doesn’t have “a homeless problem” anymore. It can be commended for clearing its streets. Citizens breathe safely once more, knowing that they will not be confronted with the reality of people sleeping on sidewalks and in doorways.
Meanwhile, what happens when you get to Fort Bragg? Well, as it turns out, most of Fort Bragg doesn’t want homeless folks around. The police repeatedly harass and harry people. As soon as a safe space is found and it turns into a community hub, the cops show up and hustle people along. Glass Beach has become a popular gathering spot not because it’s particularly pleasant, but because only the Rangers can go down there and we don’t have many Rangers right now, so it could be hours from the time a nosy neighbor files a complaint to the time someone shows up to say “move along.”
Here in my neighborhood, members of the neighborhood watch were incensed to learn that they couldn’t actually call the police to complain when homeless folks walk through. It’s a high traffic area because we’re on the way to Glass Beach, so people who have been turfed out of other places are forced to go through our neighborhood to get to the next safe place. Meanwhile, curtains twitch and people pause while washing their cars to glare pointedly.
Unwanted wherever you go. This is supposed to be a country of compassion, filled with opportunities, but that’s only true for the right people. Homeless folks aren’t the right people. And that means that we will continue to chivvy them somewhere else. We will continue to remind them that their kind aren’t wanted here. Instead of compassion and a chance, a police car and a sternly worded warning.
Homeless folks are informed that they are dirty and drive up crime rates, that they make communities dangerous and people feel unsafe. In fact, the opposite is true. Homeless folks are extremely vulnerable to crimes, including violent ones. Hate crimes like burning people alive in parking lots for fun. Being without a place to live, without a base, without a home, is dangerous. All the more so in a society where it is generally accepted that homeless folks are unwanted. In a society where it is acceptable to avert one’s gaze and pretend that other human beings don’t exist, there isn’t much of a leap to tolerating the torture and abuse of those very human beings one is trying so hard to ignore.