Much as many of our neighbors would love to see homeless people just disappear from sight, the politicians who want their votes can’t actually do that.
Instead, some will do the next best thing: They’ll promise to “crack down” on homelessness. They’ll promise to issue fines or jail time. They’ll promise to make it illegal.
What they are actually promising, though, is to waste your tax dollars.
Those who support fines, jail time and sweeps see these measures as the prompt people might need to change their ways. But without offering any scalable, sustainable alternative — housing that works around employment, school or family obligations; shelter conditions that allow people to decompress and reduce their cortisol overload; rehabilitation and assisted recovery for people whose brains have been permanently rewired by the trauma of homelessness — what change is even possible?
And moreover, why do we keep trying these same “tough love” tactics when research, history and common sense make it clear that they only exacerbate the problem?
Sure, a lawmaker could make camping “illegal,” but to what end? Think through the steps of this cycle:
A person sleeping in a park gets cited for camping illegally. If they weren’t already engaged with the legal system, they are now.
The person has no ability to pay the fine, so they don’t.
They can’t spontaneously get housing to avoid a future fine, and they can’t just go stay in a shelter because they sometimes pick up shifts working concessions at Mariners games, which means the shelters are closed by the time they get off work.
They move their tent, and their life proceeds as it did before: Nothing has been solved, nothing has been corrected, none of their needs have been met.
They are homeless, they are struggling and, now, they have an unpaid fine that could result in further fines or even jail, costing them their job and effectively making it impossible to rent an apartment.
Fines and jail time achieve nothing because they provide no way to change. Even those who don’t believe that housing is a human right should be able to see that this system of shuffling people around, saddling them with fines and wasting time and public money just to make a point won’t fix anything.
We can’t fine our way out of homelessness. We can’t sweep our way out. And as much as voters might like to live in a world where all of the tents they’re forced to see every day are whisked away to that Big Dumpster in the Sky, that’s not reasonable.
So we have to figure out another way — one that actually works.
Read more of the June 7-13, 2023 issue.