I was encouraged when I read the articles concerning housing for homeless people ("Kern supervisors clear path for homeless shelter near downtown Bakersfield," Oct. 29 and "Bakersfield announces homeless shelter for Brundage Lane," Oct. 29). At last! Clearly homelessness is increasing statewide, and cities are beginning to respond. We need to get beyond "preventive jailing."
I found myself wondering about the real scope of what we are trying to do. Are we trying to help as many as possible to get back on their feet? Or do we simply want them out of sight? Business people whose property gets defaced and customers feel uneasy need to be included in any plan.
Shelters will be safe places. At last, a start on a vexing problem and a human disaster. Thought has been given to pets and to the needs of those using drugs. This is necessary and all to the good. Behavioral expectations will need to be spelled out and maintained, but in a way that supports growth.
Looking ahead, though, is what people will do once they have been admitted to a shelter. Is this essentially a place to sleep or is it about helping homeless people get a grip on their lives? For example, will there be psychological counseling, financial counseling, showers or laundry facilities? Will there be some type of job training in skills that are in demand? Is reading instruction "on the map?" Writing? Will there be available care for dental and other health problems? What about recreation?
On a tour of Mesa Verde, I saw a variety of exercise equipment standing idle, with no instruction or encouragement on how to use these intimidating things. Others were so tired, sick or despondent that they were spending all day in bed. The sheriff is concerned about misbehavior. What could be more explosive than collecting into close quarters a large number of struggling people who have nothing to do all day, day after day.
The big overarching goal in my mind is that homeless men and women get every chance for a productive and meaningful life beyond the shelter. None of us are wholly self-made. Some people need more help than others. There is no humane point in punishing people who already are beyond marginalized.
The best program in the world will not reach all the homeless people. However, a well thought out program aiming at enabling people, who are at a low point in their lives, to make a step out of homelessness, could reduce the number of people whose life at this point is misery. There are people today in responsible jobs who a very few years ago were trying to survive street life. It can happen. It will be difficult, because the larger picture includes a statewide shortage of affordable housing as well as drug abuse and a tight labor market.
David Campbell, Bakersfield