BY KATHERINE KELLY
On any given night in America, between 700,000 and 3.5 million people are going to bed homeless. That is, if they are allowed to even go to bed. In Nevada City, California, a law has recently passed to make sleeping while homeless a crime.
Permits will be granted to sleep in public if the person is willing to be subjected to a background check. But only 6 to 10 permits will be issued for the first 6 months, so where are the 50 unfortunates who did not qualify for a permit supposed to sleep?
The city has also passed a no camping ordinance to stop people from sleeping in a car, a tent, or in the woods. It’s worth noting that if you are not homeless you can sleep in the park without a permit, otherwise it’s off to jail for you.
While many may applaud this as an effort to rid society of ragged ne’er do wells, it is nothing more than a veiled attempt to criminalize poverty and it does nothing to alleviate the myriad causes of homelessness. It is merely a way to kick the can to the next town and let someone else deal with this uncomfortable symptom of a society gone astray.
While most of the homeless population is comprised mostly of families with children, communities tend to focus on the visible chronically homeless panhandlers and think these few are representative of the entire homeless demographic. It’s easier to vilify and condemn a miscreant panhandling on the sidewalk than a single mom with children in the battered tent in your neighbor’s backyard or a family of four housed in the sedan on the corner.
For a little perspective, 40% of the homeless in this country are families and children under 18. The rest is a diverse group of veterans (23 – 40%) and the mentally ill (25%). It’s easy to see the numbers don’t add up to a majority of hobos bumming change for a bottle of wine. So when communities pass laws to make life difficult for homeless people, children are also caught in sweeping generalities of bias against the homeless.
I can attest from my own personal experience of being homeless, twice, that it’s not a place people aspire to be, and once you’re there, it’s like being in a foreign country where you don’t know the language and the natives hate outsiders. Life becomes unbearably difficult, even for the simple little functions of life that we take for granted like using the bathroom or washing up.
For me, the first time, it was due to a divorce in which I left an abusive situation and was not prepared for the struggle I found myself facing. Anything had to be better than what I was living through, but then I found out it was an awkward trade. The second time, six years later and after I had created a new and stable life for myself, it was due to sudden and catastrophic illness. Neither situation was something that provided planning to avoid homelessness, and many times, families are caught living paycheck to pay check and finding an emergency situation can push them out into the street.
Instead of having a safety net to fall into with enough help to climb out the situation, you are now part of a despised class of society: someone without a home to live in. It’s not your fault maybe, it’s only temporary probably, and you haven’t lost your morality and turned into an evil demon, but this is how you are treated. You are now unworthy of help, of sympathy, encouragement, or kindness. You are to be pitied, perhaps, as in look at that poor woman carrying that rumpled bag of clothes, trying to find a safe place to pee. The library stopped her at the door, most have guards now, gas stations and restaurants display signs that facilities are for customers only. A safe place to pee is beyond reach for many if not all homeless people. Think about that. You gotta go, look around. Where?
In this day and age where jobs are few and low paying if you can get one, people are so vulnerable to becoming a statistic. Yet we turn our heads and scowl, not in my neighborhood! So where? Where is that family with the kids going to sleep tonight? Relatives may be in as bad a shape or their landlords will not approve the extra bodies even for a short time. Shelters are overflowing. Some places, like Crescent City, don’t even have shelters. Where is that family going to sleep in Crescent City?
I have seen the anger when people talk about the bums panhandling, like making laws to scare them away will solve the problem of homelessness. Nevada City will soon find out that passing a law making it illegal to sleep while homeless is not going to solve the problem of homelessness. Instead they may find their jails will be used as shelters by those they arrest.
Laws will not help this situation. Compassion and understanding will. Instead of punishing a person falling on hard times, try reaching out. Provide some shelter, a hot shower and a place to wash clothes. They will be able to find stability a lot faster when they have these support services. But most of all provide a safe place to pee. No one should have to pay a fine or go to jail for something as basic to living as having to go pee.