Harlan: Mayor missed with homeless remarks

"If we managed to put the soup kitchen out of business," opined Mayor Eric Bever at the Oct. 2 Costa Mesa City Council meeting, "it would go a long way to addressing the attractive nuisance," and solving the problem of homeless people coming to Costa Mesa.

Bever made this conclusion after comparing local service providers Someone Cares Soup Kitchen and Share our Selves (SOS) to nuisance nightclubs the city shut down years ago.

Did he really say that? Unbelievable.

Then again, these are the words of a councilman who, when faced with tough decisions before his constituents at a council meeting this year, famously declared in disgust that "he didn't sign up for this."

It is troubling that Bever, who is leaving office after his term is up, made these unsolicited comments as the city is beginning to implement the recommendations of its Homeless Task Force. This committee, composed of city staff, local service providers, homeless advocates and others, undertook a yearlong process to evaluate Costa Mesa's situation and offer recommendations to help serve the city's homeless population and improve neighborhood conditions.

The impatient Bever acknowledged the task force's efforts but rejected recommendations as "putting bandages on a bloody elbow." In his mind, the way to treat the "root causes" of the impacts — SOS and Someone Cares — is to simply close down these operations.

Is this how we treat nonprofits that serve those in our community who need assistance? Is this how little we regard our community members who are struggling to survive? Is this what passes for leadership these days in Costa Mesa?

Bever's ill-informed comments elicited a visceral reaction from across the spectrum.

I believe there are three reasons people find these statements so distasteful. First, the comments are just wrong. They are thoughtless, mean-spirited and factually inaccurate. And they reflect a narrow perspective on who matters in our community. I expect more humanity from our elected officials.

Second, there's a level of discomfort we have in talking candidly about those in our community who need a helping hand. We like to think that the needy are some other population, not our neighbors or friends or colleagues. Many people I know have fallen on very tough times and are grateful for whatever help they can find.

Providing services and resources for people in our community who have lost jobs, lost homes, or struggle to make ends meet for themselves and their families is not only vital, it's just. The fact that Costa Mesa offers critical resources to those less fortunate should be appreciated, not dismissed as a nuisance.

And homelessness, in particular, is a complicated issue. No single city can solve its "homeless problem" unilaterally. Essential services for our homeless — from medical care and food, to clothing and shelter, to counseling and employment training — are provided by a wide range of groups, institutions and caring individuals throughout the county. I'm proud that we have organizations like SOS and Someone Cares in Costa Mesa, which serve the city's 1,200 homeless and thousands of others in need.

The third reason these comments strike a nerve is that they speak poorly of our community. Once again, Costa Mesa has been thrust into the media spotlight for all of the wrong reasons. Bever's flippant and callous remarks have not only been reported and commented on in the local press. Several national newspapers have picked up an Associated Press story that focuses on Orange County cities' hard-line approach to dealing with homeless people.

Costa Mesa, much to my dismay, is featured front and center as a community that has been heavy-handed in its attempt to address our "homeless problem." Is this the kind of image we want to portray to the rest of the country?

What Bever's uneducated comments underscore is that we need men and women on the council dais who can delve deeply into thorny and complex subjects and craft thoughtful solutions. Let's hope our next council demonstrates more empathy and serves our entire community.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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