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Everybody’s Gotta Be Someplace, Part 2

man sleeping on park benchFrom Costa Mesa, Orange County, CA, an online commentator known as Ladya Oo writes:

I have a friend who is temporarily living in his SUV while he desperately looks for housing that he can afford. Costa Mesa police just gave him a $1,000 ticket for sleeping in his SUV.

Not long ago, the Homeless Task Force — which was only established last January and has already been disbanded — recommended demolishing a picnic shelter in Lions Park. The reason, of course, was that homeless people congregated around it. Housed people visiting the community center, rec center, and library were inconvenienced and discomfited by their encounters with the unhoused. Journalist Sean Greene quotes Councilman Gary Monahan:

That picnic shelter, it needs to go […] as fast as we can get it done.

Way to problem-solve! Unbelievably, the city could not find a better use for $60,000 than the demolition of a picnic shelter. Lions Park will be revamped with “family-size” picnic shelters, a running track, and a playground. They’re going to spend over a million on that project. They hired two rangers for the park, tightened up bicycle parking regulations, and closed the library for four months worth of renovation.

The city’s latest count only found 60 “street” or “out of care” homeless people, but claimed there were at least 18 encampments, “some of them large.” So the math has got to be off, somehow. Only two years ago, one of the local soup kitchens reported feeding 300 people per day. There are about 120 “sober-living homes” and a number of motels for temporary housing, including a dozen that are defined as “problematic,” and the rules governing them have been tightened.

Whatever the number of homeless people in Costa Mesa, 28 of them have been branded as chronic offenders who commit major nuisances like public drunkenness, public excretion (and/or indecent exposure), smoking in a public park, and illegal camping. In the first six months of this year, the 28 chronic offenders racked up 112 citations and 24 arrests.

The city developed “partnerships with local residents and business owners to collaborate and reduce the impacts associated with chronic individuals,” and an “ongoing integrated law enforcement/legal strategy to ensure that chronic offenders are prosecuted to the greatest extent of the law,” all of which sounds a bit ominous. But that’s nothing compared to this classic quotation from Costa Mesa’s Assistant CEO, which makes the homeless sound like an infestation of cockroaches:

Unless you are reducing the numbers, they are scattering to other places.

And how are things working out? Well, the tickets for smoking and other infractions, and the cessation of programs distributing food there, have encouraged the homeless to abandon Lions Park. People with nowhere to go started turning up around the historical society and a nearby condominium complex. A recent report says:

Administrators at Tuesday’s City Council meeting blamed the homeless population’s dispersion for the recent increases in burglary, drug use, vandalism and other crimes on Ford Road.

To be fair, Costa Mesa also made some positive plans for actually alleviating the homelessness situation, which can be found in the “City Council Staff Report” (PDF).

In August, merchants in Austin, TX, felt buyer’s remorse over the installation of many benches during a multi-million dollar downtown beautification project. Problem is, homeless people insisted on sitting on the benches. Seven police officers patrol the area during the day and, Jessica Holloway reports:

They say enforcing the no-sit, no-lie ordinance is a never-ending cycle.

A park was shut for remodeling, and the homeless, it is said, have increasingly penetrated the downtown area. Businesses want all the services in central Austin to move away and take the homeless with them. And the benches were removed at the end of August. Is the city cutting off its nose to spite its face? No doubt. Throwing out the baby with the bath water? Absolutely.

An amazing, exuberant book, called Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities, rests on an important philosophical basis. Author David Engwicht reminds us that public streets and squares were the birthplace of democracy and the central stage for the democratic process. The city, he says, ought to be a collective enterprise with the street as its lifeblood. The streets ought to be a place of socio-diversity, a marketplace of ideas and bastion of free speech, a feeder of creativity. Public places should be everybody’s outdoor living room, the “social and cultural epicenter of neighborhood life.” This is why in its glory days, Venice, CA, was visited by sociologists from all over the world.

Reclaiming the streets does not mean kicking out the homeless, but including them. Healthy street life supports informal support mechanisms, human-to-human interactions. When this is taken away, people must rely on government agencies or charitable organizations, and help is depersonalized. Marginalized people, who may or may not be homeless, include senior citizens, eccentrics, children, the disabled, the “ethnic.”

Engwicht writes:

As a person with paraplegia reminded me one day: ‘There is an old person or disabled person in every one of us just waiting to get out.’

How do those on the margin get to contribute their invaluable gifts to society? Or, to change the question, how does mainstream society access this diversity of life experience held in store by those on the margins? Almost exclusively through spontaneous encounters… To destroy the spontaneous encounter realm of the city is therefore to rob ourselves and the city of the contribution these people on the margin have to make.

The greatness of any city can be judged by how well it integrates those on the margins into community life.

Media Bonus: “Everything Must Change
The actual song starts about 3 minutes in. If you can ignore the background noise, the guy has a voice so rich you can imagine the whole orchestral arrangement behind it instead.

Reactions?

Source: “Costa Mesa to demolish picnic shelter that attracts homeless,” The Orange County Register, 05/02/12
Source: “Homeless blamed for crime increase,” Daily Pilot, 09/06/12
Source: “City considers removing benches at new homeless hotspot,” KVUE.com, 08/23/12
Source: “Street Reclaiming,” Amazon.com
Image by grendelkahn.