If you’re the mayor of a tony California community and don’t want to spend a dime of city funds on helping homeless residents, the easiest way to justify such a move is to convince yourself that many of them had it coming.
That’s precisely the situation in Temecula, a wealthy area in southern California dotted with golf courses and vineyards, where Mayor Maryann Edwards unveiled her plan last month to “eliminate” homelessness in the city.
“Homeless people panhandling on the off ramps are homeless by choice,” Edwards recently wrote in a comment on an article about her plan. (She confirmed the authenticity in an email to ThinkProgress.) “They have rejected all forms of help and have chosen instead to play on the sympathy of generous residents.”
Edwards also singled out charitable individuals for criticism. “People will know that by giving food, money, or temporary shelter to a homeless person, they are actually enabling the homeless person to continue to live in the creek and use heroin,” she wrote.
A homeless blogger in California, Kevin Barbieux, recently addressed this “enabling” argument regularly used by officials to justify stingy treatment. “On that point they are correct, receiving food, shelter, clothing, etc, does ease the burden of being homeless — pretty much in the same way that medicine and doctor’s care makes it easier to have cancer.” Despite Edwards’ beliefs, nobody wants to be homeless.
Nor do all panhandlers use their earnings for drugs and alcohol. The majority don’t, according to a recent study. In fact, the vast majority — 94 percent — use the money they receive for food.
But Edwards’ claims aren’t a trivial matter; they’re the backbone of the city’s new policy on homelessness.
Introduced last month, the “Responsible Compassion” campaign has three parts: First, housing and services for people who live on the streets; second, increased “surveillance and inspections of areas typically occupied by homeless/transients” and new ordinances to outlaw panhandling; and finally, a “public awareness” campaign to tell people who have the audacity to give alms to the poor that their behavior is only perpetuating poverty.
Unlike steps two and three, which serve to criminalize homelessness and chastise do-gooders, providing housing and comprehensive services would theoretically help homeless individuals. The problem is that Edwards doesn’t want to spend a single taxpayer dollar in the process. She told ThinkProgress that the city would instead rely on volunteers and charitable organizations, all of whom are funded through private donations, to fill the void. “Why would we expend funds when these services are available via volunteers?” she argued. In other words, the city isn’t just looking to privatize the responsibility of homeless services, but completely offload the financial burden as well.
Rick Cohen at Nonprofit Quarterly criticizes this approach: “A very affluent community, Temecula could probably do a lot more to help the city’s tiny homeless population out of its own taxpayer revenues.” Indeed, the median household income in Temecula is nearly 30 percent higher than California generally (just under $80,000 versus just over $60,000) and has a poverty rate more than 40 percent lower than the state’s (8.9 percent versus 15.3 percent). It’s also not as though there are huge swaths of homeless people in Temecula and the city simply can’t afford to help. The most recent count identified 80 homeless individuals in Temecula, 50 of whom had no shelter. In other words, Cohen writes, the city “could probably generate services and supports for the homeless that look more like service and less like policing.”
ThinkProgress asked Edwards whether, in the process of crafting the Responsible Compassion campaign, she collaborated with any actual homeless people. She said she had not, arguing instead that she’d singlehandedly developed the plan “based on common sense and based on services that are available for free.”
The goal of eliminating homelessness isn’t just laudable; it’s also achievable. Last year, for instance, Phoenix and Salt Lake City — both far larger than Temecula — became the first two cities in the country to eliminate chronic homelessness among veterans and are on their way to eliminating overall chronic homelessness. However, they only did so with major organizational and financial commitments from city officials. Offering a plan to “eliminate” homelessness that doesn’t actually spend any money is like offering to alleviate someone’s hunger without giving them any food.