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The Irrational Stupidity of Sweeps, Part 2

homeless guy PTFOSt. Petersburg, Florida, is said to be making progress. Here is Associated Press writer Mitch Stacy’s account of the city’s recent history:

Four years ago, St. Petersburg’s struggles with some of the most rampant homelessness in the country reached a crescendo… The 2007 tent city raid… became a chamber of commerce nightmare after a cellphone video of officers slashing tents showed up on YouTube and TV… and didn’t make a dent in the growing crowd of people living on the city’s streets.

Then somebody came along with a better idea. Robert Marbut is a student of urban problems, with a record of turning things around in San Antonio, where he was mainly responsible for the existence of the huge Haven for Hope complex. He attributes St. Petersburg’s glut of people experiencing homelessness to several causes, one of the chief causes being the large number of veterans with mental health issues.

Marbut is quoted as saying,

What was incredible to me was how much money was being spent, how much energy was being spent and there was no success.

Marbut’s “velvet hammer” plan for the city is described by Stacy as:

… forcing the homeless off the streets but taking them someplace better — a sprawling, one-stop complex where people could be housed, fed and start to get help with mental illness, addictions and the other problems that put them on the streets. More than a just big shelter, it would be a ‘transformational campus…’

The complex is called Safe Harbor, and if there is a bed available there or at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter, the police can make a person either go to one of the shelters or go to jail. Of course, the solid citizens appreciate the cleaned-up aspect of the downtown area. But what about the folks who wind up at the transformational campus? That is a topic for another day.

Ontario, California, used to have quite a sizeable squatter village of some 400 people. Scott Bransford tells how, instead of destroying the camp, the authorities spent $100,000 to turn the place into something like a minimum-security penal institution.

The reporter says,

… [P]olice and code enforcement officers issued color-coded bracelets to distinguish Ontario residents from newcomers, then gradually banished the out-­of-towners. Then they demolished the shanties and set up an official camp with a chain-link fence and guard shack. Residents were issued IDs and a strict set of rules: no coming and going after 10 p.m., no pets, no children or visitors, no drugs, and no alcohol.

Dauntingly restrictive as all that sounds, not everyone has left. Some residents saw this change as a welcome respite from chaos and violence, looking at the place as a (very) low-rent version of a gated community. But for those excluded from the camp, the ones who just couldn’t take it (or had children or pets), there was nowhere else to go, except back to sleeping in cars or on some other vacant lot.

Everybody’s gotta be someplace,” and even a relatively gentle and non-hostile sweep disperses the residents to new venues, annoying the citizenry even more, offering even more opportunities for arrests. The reporter adds,

Many of these outcasts see the camp as a symbol of injustice, a cynical and inauthentic gesture of compassion… Whenever officials act to destroy or stifle them with punitive regulations, they not only wipe out the pride of residents struggling to survive, they also jettison a spirit of self-­reliance and innovation that could be harnessed to help meet the housing needs of the future.

In Watsonville, California, people experiencing homelessness have been living along the Pajaro River for decades, with the authorities breaking up their camps once or twice a year, and the camps being rebuilt, in a cyclical rhythm. Human waste pollutes the river, and now the state is leaning on the city to make monthly sweeps of the area.

Just last week, a major “cleanup” was carried out, as Donna Jones reports for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The inhabitants, some of whom have lived along the riverbank for years, were reportedly given at least a couple days warning of the impending eviction. Volunteers were recruited from local drug and alcohol rehab programs to tear down structures and load dumpsters. Of course, the first question that springs to mind is, has anybody considered providing some toilet facilities, maybe even some washing facilities? This article doesn’t say.

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Source: “St. Pete making progress with legions of homeless,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 09/05/11
Source: “Camping for their lives,” Utne.com, 2009
Source: “Watsonville chases homeless out of river,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 09/01/11
Image by majerleagues (Andrew Majer), used under its Creative Commons license.