Smith: We need a strategy for dealing with homelessness

Last year, in an attempt to be a good person, and to determine whether a homeless bus-ticket program may work in Costa Mesa, I drove a homeless man 120 miles so that he could reunite with his father.

Two weeks later, I saw him back at Lions Park.

That experiment proved nothing. For the purposes of meeting the challenge of the homeless, it is merely an anecdote. It did, however, enlighten me to the fact that a bus-ticket program is not a solution for all the homeless because many of them are running from home and have no desire to return.

The trip was beneficial because I realized what was needed was not the tactical approach of a bus-ticket option but a fully developed, strategic program that included steps to prevent homelessness.

I began to look for the common denominators and thought that if we could identify at-risk people while they were still in the mainstream and prevent their decline, it would be less expensive and would impact the city far less than trying to fix things after they were on the street.

I did not find such a program anywhere. That is not to say it doesn't exist; it's just that I did not find it.

So I retreated to my original plan of trying to find a city to model. The city I found was St. Petersburg, Fla. Though St. Pete has a larger population (244,000 compared with Costa Mesa's 110,000), its challenges mirrored ours. Located along Tampa Bay, St. Pete has good weather, a significant tourist base and enough motivation to attempt to make substantive changes in the makeup of their homeless population.

Its program combined the compassion demanded by some and the practical, business approach demanded by others. Plus, it had withstood the legal challenges presented by homeless-rights advocates.

In an attempt to reduce or end the homeless presence in Costa Mesa, Mayor Eric Bever recently asked for the investigation of nonprofits that provide homeless services, such as food and clothing. Bever believes that these charities drive the homeless here.

Homeless-rights advocates may not like the mayor's approach, but he is correct that a direct line can be drawn from nonprofit services to homeless presence.

I know this because I conducted numerous interviews with homeless men and women in and around Lions Park. When I asked them why they are in Costa Mesa, instead of in other places, their first response was to rattle off the places where they can get food and clothing. Second on their list was the weather. Third was how they are treated by law enforcement

Bever may be right, but the approach is wrong. Shutting down or relocating homeless services is a tactic. What the city needs is a strategy, a plan that consolidates the various efforts of the nonprofits, plus the services available primarily through the county, and presents them in a way that satisfies the demands of residents without the loss of the compassion that is important to meeting this challenge.

Investigating nonprofits may also be wrong for a tactical reason, which is that doing so could provoke a court challenge, and the city does not need any more legal bills, thank you very much.

Bever knows his approach is not a strategy, but he is frustrated, and with good reason. The city's Homeless Task Force did not provide a practical plan. In a recent email exchange, Bever wrote, "... the lack of an implementation plan was one of the reasons I did not support the Homeless Task Force."

The Homeless Task Force was a good idea. If its final presentation is insufficient, it should be re-examined and adjusted accordingly until it provides a feasible, strategic approach to homelessness.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to

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