Disdain for street people is nothing new. To Marcus Tullius Cicero, homeless Romans were "the poverty-stricken scum of the city," who ought to be "drained off to the colonies."
Following Huntington Beach's recent mobilization of the city's paid legal staff to oppose a county plan to house 100 homeless people near Huntington Central Park, similar coarse statements appeared in newspaper comment sections.
"Push them out to the middle of the stinking desert," one reader said.
"Building tent villages for bums and hoboes," another bellowed. "This is the level to which demented and deranged Liberals have sunk."
City officials and residents in Irvine and Laguna Niguel, the other O.C. communities proposed as sites for temporary shelters in recent weeks, sounded just as despicable. They aren't alone: In Los Angeles County, where the homeless population tops 55,000, NIMBY outrage consistently greets plans for permanent supportive housing to be built on municipal land.
When one scratches deeper into the homelessness issue, these attitudes appear not just a byproduct of the problem but also a source of it. And while the sentiment dates to Cicero — and exists in Europe, Canada, South America and elsewhere — residents in Southern California seem to shout the loudest about grime, odors and plunging housing values linked to their homeless neighbors.
To United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, who toured Los Angeles as part of a fact-finding tour on poverty last year, one thing stands out about Southern California's homelessness problem. The region, he stated multiple times, has the resources to solve the issue, but chooses not to.
Americans "don't want to put the money into it," Alston said in December. They "want to see homeless people as losers, a low form of life."
In a preliminary report, the Australian law professor notes one factor that may account for Americans' babbling fear of their unwashed neighbors, unequal distribution of wealth, income and opportunity that threatens to push even the middle class out of their homes and onto the street.
"Only a tiny percentage of the [U.S.] population is immune from the possibility that they could fall into poverty as a result of bad breaks beyond their own control," Alston writes. "The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion as the U.S. now has the lowest rate of social mobility of any of the rich countries." He bases his assertions on data from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Income Inequality Database.
Moderating knee-jerk responses to poverty and homelessness is the first step toward addressing the problem. But they're tough to budge — politicians reap benefits by spouting them, the media are complicit, and these ideas gain a foothold in our fears.
"I have been struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor have been sold to the electorate by some politicians and media, and have been allowed to define the debate," Alston writes.
Anyone with ties to Huntington Beach ought to be embarrassed by City Atty. Michael Gates' clumsy response to the recent county proposal for the parcel near Central Park.
"It would be inhumane for the county to relocate up to 100 individuals to create a homeless tent city on that parcel in Huntington Beach," Gates said on March 20, citing methane gas at the site. "It's right by Central Park. It's right near where kids play sports and, more importantly, that piece of property has been known as a contaminated site."
Gates' concern for homeless people laced with a warning about the danger these people purportedly pose to children ought to leave him — and us — red-faced.
Lost in the clamor that defeated the proposal is the fact that a facility for homeless young people has operated in Huntington Central Park for more than 10 years without incident. Since 2006, more than 1,200 youths have passed through Huntington Beach Youth Shelter and moved on to jobs and independence, or returned to their families.
Rather than viewing the aborted O.C. plan as a victory for Huntington Beach, Irvine and Laguna Niguel, it would be more accurate to see it as a regional failure of community. Instead of stepping up, politicians and residents regurgitate narratives in the most cowardly way imaginable.
Contrast this to the calm logic that has emanated from U.S. District Judge David O.Carter's courtroom in Orange County, as he deals with the rousting of homeless people from encampments along the Santa Ana River: We must find a way "humanely and with dignity" to relocate them.
Brave people will need to stand up to ignorance and immorality if anything is to improve on the homelessness front. I would like to be able to invite a portion of Southern California's homeless people to a facility near me that was created by citizens, volunteers and city agencies. I'm guessing others may secretly agree. Funding can come from government coffers, from charitable organizations, from earmarked new taxes of the kind L.A. residents have already voted for — but we must insist rather than resist.
Homelessness cannot be an issue defined by loudmouthed residents, politicians and ignoramuses. If good people stay quiet, nothing will change.
Erik Skindrud is a writer and editor who grew up in Huntington Beach and now lives in Long Beach.