The Elephant In The Room

As coronavirus continues to spread, with the total number of reported cases now exceeding 77,000 people worldwide, stock markets plummeting because of the impact of the virus on the global economy, and the World Health Organization saying that the world should be prepared for a pandemic, scientists are trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the apparent pathways for the disease is through the fecal matter of infected people.  The Chinese CDC “recommends strengthening sanitation and hygiene measures to prevent fecal-oral transmission” in areas where the coronavirus is present, with the hygiene measures to include “drinking boiled water, avoiding eating raw food, implementing separate meal systems, frequent hand-washing, disinfecting toilets, and preventing water and food contamination from patients’ stool.”  The concern is that infected persons’ “stool samples may contaminate hands, food, water” and cause infection when the microbes enter the mouth or eyes, or are inhaled.

gettyimages-693551624What does the apparent transmission route through fecal matter tell us about who is at risk in the event of a serious outbreak in the United States — something that hasn’t happened yet?  It seems that one logical course should be to target specific populations where sanitation and disposal of human waste aren’t well controlled.  If I were a public health official in America, I’d therefore be considering what can be done to anticipate and prevent a nightmare scenario in which coronavirus reaches one of the colossal homeless encampments found in some U.S. cities, like Los Angeles.  Public health officials have already identified poor health conditions and contact with fecal matter in “homeless zone” as the source for transmission of diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis in Los Angeles.  What would happen if a rapidly spreading disease like coronavirus were to reach one of the densely populated, squalid encampments?

America hasn’t shown much of an appetite for tackling the issue of homelessness, which has become the unspoken of elephant in the room in many American cities.  When it comes to public health and disease prevention, however, we’re all in this together, and potential avenues for rapid disease transmission can’t simply be ignored away.

I’m hoping that the potentially disastrous implications of coronavirus reaching homeless populations will cause local, state, and federal officials to finally work out a solution that helps the homeless find places that are safe, secure, and healthy, with adequate sanitation facilities and running water.  If we’re going to get a grip on the spread of coronavirus, or the next disease coming down the pike, it’s time to be proactive and to act to protect the vulnerable and the rest of us as well.

Hostile Spaces And Homelessness

In many large cities, public spaces have been modified.  Metal bars and blocks and bolts and even spikes have been added to benches and ledges and other seating areas, to make it uncomfortable, or even impossible, to stretch out and lie down.  In other places, the public spaces have no seating areas of any kind.  The underlying purpose of the additions and modifications seems painfully clear — to keep homeless people from sleeping or otherwise camping out in the spaces.

ae22fd62-197a-42f7-9714-d9d2702dc70c-2060x1236A recent New York Times article addressed this phenomenon of “hostile architecture” in public places.  The article reported that such actions have “increasingly drawn a backlash from critics who say that such measures are unnecessary and disproportionately target vulnerable populations. They have assailed what they call “anti-homeless spikes” for targeting those who have nowhere else to go at a time when many cities are grappling with a homelessness crisis.”  The article quotes an NYU professor who says:  “We’re building barriers and walls around apartment buildings and public spaces to keep out the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life.”  Supporters of the modifications argue, on the other hand, that this new approach to public spaces is necessary to help maintain public order and safety and security.

So, what’s a city to do?

Most cities are struggling to deal with homelessness.  In Columbus, which doesn’t seem to have homelessness issues to the same degree as, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles, it’s not unusual to see a homeless person stretched out on a bench or sidewalk from time to time.  No one wants that — including, presumably, the homeless person.  Is it wrong to try to discourage that behavior by adding internal armrests to benches that prevent someone from lying down on the bench, but that aren’t going to bother office workers who are sitting outside eating their lunch, rather than trying to sleep? Are we really to the point where taking steps to prevent sleeping and camping out in public spaces are criticized as contrary to “the diversity of people and uses that comprise urban life,” as if dealing with homelessness, aggressive panhandlers, and public sleeping were part of some rich tapestry of city living?  Or, put another way, by not taking those steps, are city planners enabling conduct that also interferes with the real, intended public use of public spaces — because most people aren’t going to want to hang out in a square filled with sleeping homeless people and their stuff?

Proponents of “broken windows” theory would argue that allowing public sleeping and camping out creates an atmosphere of disorder and lawlessness that encourages criminal activity and other improper conduct.  I strongly support trying to help the homeless, but I also think trying to maintain order and promote the personal security of the non-homeless is an important goal, too.

Voting With Its Wallet

Seattle is home to some of the largest corporations in the world, with one — Amazon — growing like crazy and fueling a boom in downtown construction.  But when Seattle politicians decided to impose a tax on large employers in the city to deal with a homelessness crisis, Amazon very publicly decided to pause work on a new downtown office building until after Seattle City Council votes on the tax.

03062018_amazongrowing_132746-780x513The proposed tax would have a real impact on businesses.  It would be a “head tax” of $500 per employee on approximately 500 businesses that gross at least $20 million annually in Seattle.  For Amazon, which currently has about 45,000 workers in Seattle, the tax would cost more than $20 million in 2018 and 2020, with that tab increasing when the form of the proposed tax would shift to a .7 percent payroll tax in 2021.  Even for a company that is highly profitable — Amazon recently reported quarterly income of $1.6 billion — $20 million a year isn’t chump change.

Amazon typically doesn’t mess with local politics in Seattle, so its pause in construction planning until after the City Council vote has had a real impact.   One City Council supporter of the tax accused Amazon of attempting “blackmail,” but other voices in city hall and in the real estate development community shuddered at the thought that the company might stop its investment in Seattle.  The concern is only heightened by Amazon’s announced search for a new city in which to build a second headquarters — a process that is already underway, in which Columbus and other cities have made the first cut.  Some people are concerned that Amazon might just direct its growth exclusively to the new home of “HQ2,” leaving Seattle in the dust.

Why should large employers, alone, pay a tax to address Seattle’s growing homelessness problem?  Supporters of the tax say that the large tech companies have contributed to the problem by bringing in highly paid workers who have caused a spike in home prices and rents — the median price for a house in Seattle is a whopping $820,000 — and that has contributed to the homelessness problem.  The sponsors of the tax also note that Seattle doesn’t have an income tax or tax capital gains, and claim that the city has few options to raise funds to address homelessness.  It’s curious, though, that the tax would be limited to only  large employers, as opposed to all employers, or that it doesn’t target various forms of real property transfers.  After all, a lot of people have presumably made a lot of money selling property that dramatically increased in value due to Amazon’s growth — why shouldn’t they contribute some of that profit to address the homelessness problem?

The reaction of the City Council member who characterized Amazon’s decision to pause construction as extortionate reminds me of the hubris that caused cities like Detroit to assume (wrongly) that large employers wouldn’t move away — or the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs.  As Amazon’s experience in its “HQ2” search proves, other cities would welcome a large employer that offers thousands of workers high-paying jobs.  The reality is that Seattle needs Amazon more than Amazon needs Seattle.  Does it really want to risk killing the goose?

Los Angeles Homelessness

Los Angeles has a huge, and growing, problem with homeless residents.  According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, as many as 58,000 people in Los Angeles are living on the streets.

It’s a staggering number.  Even for a city as big as Los Angeles, with a population of about 4 million, 58,000 people is a lot.  To put some Midwestern perspective on that number, those 58,000 homeless people are just a bit below the population of the 10th-largest city in Ohio.

Along some Los Angeles streets, rows of makeshift tents, shelters, and shanties house the homeless.  You can see some of the pictures of the encampments and the homeless here.  And what’s even more astonishing is that the tent cities of the homeless have been there for years, and seem to be spreading and growing — and nothing is being done about it.  The homelessness problem is getting progressively worse.

How can 58,000 people be homeless and living on the streets?  As for the why, there doesn’t seem to be one particular answer:  some are mentally ill, some are addicted, some are simply destitute.  And for that reason, there’s no single answer to the problem, either.  Some of the people need treatment.  Some of the people need a job and a hand up.  But whatever the solution, the notion of tent cities of 58,000 people raises so many obvious problems — health problems, sanitation problems, crime problems, security problems — that it simply can’t be tolerated.  And yet, in Los Angeles, it is.

I don’t know what the answer to LA’s homelessness crisis is, but if I were a voter in that city I would demand that the city government start aggressively dealing with the problem and determining appropriate, humane ways to get those 58,000 people off the streets.  And I would also ask:  why is the state of California spending billions of dollars to build a high-speed rail system in the California desert when there are thousands of people living in tents on the streets of L.A.?

Addressing Homelessness, One Job At A Time

What should cities do to address the issues with their homeless populations?  It’s a persistent, nagging question that often seems impossible to solve.  For decades, cities and charities have offered support and services to help homeless people, and yet the homeless remain.  And advocates for the homeless remind us that giving money to people who are panhandling isn’t really helping them.  So what should be done?

545479804_1280x720In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the mayor decided to take a job-oriented approach to the homelessness issue.  From his conversations with members of the city’s homeless population, he learned that many of the homeless just wanted to work, but didn’t know how to go about getting a job.  So the mayor worked with a charity to give some of the homeless people jobs cleaning up city streets and helping with landscaping of city properties.  The homeless people who perform the jobs are paid $9 an hour for their work, receive lunch, and are offered shelter at night.  The program has been operating for a year and has helped 100 people move on to permanent employment.  And while there is a cost, the city benefits from the work performed by the participants.  The Albuquerque program is called “There a Better Way.”

Cities seem to take different approaches to the problem of homelessness.  As the article linked above notes, many cities have begun criminalizing panhandling.  Other cities seem to simply put up with homelessness and begging, or institutionalize it.  On our recent trip to New Orleans, we saw many homeless people sleeping on the streets, with only a bit of cardboard for shelter; New Orleans seems to tolerate its homeless people and expects visitors to do so, too.  In Columbus, on the other hand, some of the homeless people participate in a program in which they receive a license and sell newspapers about homelessness at designated locations.  It’s better than aggressive panhandling, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem to be moving people on to private-sector employment.  At the street corner near our firm, for example, the same pleasant and polite woman has been selling the papers for years; she even refers to what she’s doing as her “job.”

The Albuquerque approach clearly is preferable to ignoring the problem, and those of us who have always worked know the value of having a job and earning a paycheck, but the article doesn’t say what Albuquerque does with homeless people who don’t want to participate in the program.  Those are the people who present the real challenge.  No one wants to see people living on the streets, suffering from exposure to the elements and in harm’s way, but most cities also don’t want homeless people accosting pedestrians and begging for money on street corners, either.

Home

At what point do you suppose that you first grasped the idea of “home”?  I imagine it was one of the first concepts I ever understood, and probably one of the first words, too.  It was a specific, physical place, to be sure, but it was a lot more than that.  It was where the most important people in your life lived, and you developed happy feelings that you associated with the special combination of that place and those people and your things — the sense of where your life was centered, and of being where you belonged.

And as you grew up, and your family moved from one house to another, and went on vacations together, the concept of “home” became even stronger, because you realized that your home was not just one place, but could change from one city to another even as you left your friends and favorite places behind, and was more than just the temporary location of your Mom and Dad and brother and sisters.  And after such a move to new place, when the settling-in process finally ended, at some point you thought to yourself that your new house had become less strange and “finally felt like home.”

IMG_6833The home-shifting process continues, for many of us, as our lives proceed and we move through college and venture out on our own.  At some distinct point the concept of “home” morphs from the place where your parents are to the place where you and your spouse and your family have established their own lives.  The legal concept is called domicile — the location where you have established a permanent residence to which you intend to return, whatever your temporary movements might be.  Courts trying to determine domicile evaluate evidence like where you are registered to vote, where you pay your taxes, and where your kids go to school, that seek to capture, to the maximum extent that bloodless legal “factors” can, the emotional element of having found a welcome place where you have sunk down roots.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have grown up with a solid sense of “home,” with the warm, deep feelings of belonging and physical security and personal value and countless other attributes that come with it, can’t fully appreciate how having a home has shaped our lives and personalities.  And we can’t really imagine what it must be like to grow up without that essential emotional and physical center, or to someday lose it entirely and become “homeless” — a powerful and terrible word, when you think about it.

Yesterday, as Kish and I drove back from a vacation on the coastline of Maine, the pull of “home” became irresistible, and what was supposed to be a two-day drive became by mutual agreement a 17-hour, roll-in-and-unload-after-midnight rush to get back to our little center of the world.  And when we finally made it, and were greeted by a small, happily barking dog whose tail was sweeping the floor like a metronome set at maximum speed, we once again were reminded of what “home” is really all about.

Giving $21 To A Homeless Man

Washington, D.C. seems to have a disproportionately large number of homeless people, and they are a very visible part of the community.

When Kish and I lived here in the early ’80s, a “deinstitutionalization” program had just gone into effect, and many apparently disturbed people who had been let out of the local asylum were living rough on the streets. They tended to cluster in doorways or on the steam grates above the D.C. subway lines. Many of them were scary — tormented by inner demons, raving angrily to themselves, and occasionally lashing out at passersby. D.C. residents looked for them and gave them wide berth; tourist families often didn’t.

Last night I walked to dinner in downtown D.C., and the homeless people are still here, tucked into their preferred cubbyholes and campsites, carrying their pieces of cardboard and their threadbare blankets. On the way back one African-American man played the angry black man card to get our attention, saying something like “Hey, get out of my way.” When we stopped, startled, he laughed and apologized, then told his story in rapid-fire fashion.

Homeless people often talk very fast, because they know from experience that people typically won’t spend much time with them. This time, though, we listened, and his story went like this. “I’m not begging,” he said. “I recently got out of prison and I have no where to go. I spent what money I had to buy shoe shine materials. I need exactly $21 to pay for a room tonight, or I will have to sleep outside. Can I shine your shoes?”

The man was coherent and made eye contact, and I believed his story. It was too cold for an outdoor shoe shine, though — and, I realized, therefore also too cold for a fellow human being to sleep outside. So I gave him the $21 he wanted, and my friend made a contribution, too. The man took the money and said thank you, and we walked away.

Thinking about that brief encounter this morning, I don’t regret giving the man the $21. He may have been a masterful con artist, and I recognize that many homeless advocates say you should not give money to the homeless because they will just use it to feed alcohol or drug habits. In this case, though, my instincts said the man was genuine, and I felt that I could help him.

In the cold light of morning, I don’t regret giving this man $21, and I hope that he used it to get that warm room on a cold night.