Earlier this year I moved into a new home situated across the street from a beautiful park. The park boasts majestic oak trees and a little creek that in the summer is nearly dry (hence, I suppose, its name “Dry Creek”), but when winter storms are just right overflows its banks for weeks on end.
The park is also home to a pretty substantial number of my city’s homeless people.
When I moved in, Dry Creek – which runs maybe 30 yards from my front door – was above flood stage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency made me get flood insurance because one time in the last 30 years the creek came up onto the property itself. And even though the creek was over the road and lapping about 30 feet from the driveway, the seller’s many disclosure papers didn’t mention it.
What he did mention numerous times, however, was the homeless “problem.”
For the record, it hasn’t been a “problem” at all over these last five months of living here. I see them, sometimes hear them, but it’s no different from where I lived before – surrounded by neighbors with a half-dozen cars each, penchants for loud parties and a love of lighting off illegal fireworks in any season. There are hassles and noise and you just deal with it if you can’t afford 100 acres in the middle of nowhere.
The seller’s many notes about the homeless “problem” – and some time living here without seeing what this “problem” is exactly – got me thinking about how society views homelessness. It’s also opened my eyes to something I’d never noticed before: There are a lot of homeless people in my corner of California’s Central Valley.
In addition to those I see leaving the park in the early morning and returning as the sun sets every day, I see homeless people as I drive through downtown to get to the freeway. I see camps under overpasses and in the drainage culverts at the bottoms of offramps. I may have been partly blind to the issue before, but I also believe there are more homeless people here now than before.
Which is odd, given that by most accounts the United States has shaken off the Great Recession. The Dow is at an all-time high. Unemployment figures, nationally anyway, look pretty good. And a quick glance at the president’s Twitter account tells me the only thing we need to worry about is the fakery coming from the mainstream media, because he has Made America Great Again.
I don’t doubt that much of the nation has emerged from the economic collapse of 2008. In fact, much of California has: In June, the state recorded one of its lowest unemployment rates so far this century at 4.9 percent.
But counties up and down the Central Valley have jobless rates that are approaching or above twice the state’s – Kern, 9.5 percent; Tulare, 9.9 percent; Kings, 9.2 percent; Fresno, 8.4 percent; Madera, 8.1 percent; Merced, 9.4 percent; Stanislaus, 7.8 percent; and San Joaquin, 7.3 percent.
It becomes clear why people outside the Central Valley refer to our region as “the Appalachia of the West.”
This is not to say that unemployment is the sole reason for our region’s homelessness problem, though it certainly is a factor. Another reason may lie in my city’s underhanded nickname – “Methdesto.”
A casual glance at many of the faces coming in and out of the park by my house each day tells the story. As do cars parked along the park’s curb at odd times of the day and night, their occupants venturing into the park briefly before driving off – and returning the following day to do it all over again. I don’t have concrete proof, but my guess is they’re not using the park as a rendezvous point for Craigslist trades.
Our national opioid-addiction crisis has grabbed headlines lately, and for good reason. But the reasons for it are rarely explored, the solutions are nearly toothless (flush unused prescriptions, manufacture fewer opioids, prescribe less) and the impact on people largely unmentioned – save the occasional news feature about a star kid who “had it all” but died of an overdose.
The people who live in the park across the street because of addiction – or mental health problems, or both – go ignored, except to be mentioned as “problems” on a home seller’s disclosure list.
Add to these California’s battle with home affordability, where the median price of a single-family home topped $555,000 in June, and you have a decent picture of the why of homelessness in the Golden State.
I’m not smart enough to know what the answers are, or qualified to propose what should be done. And I suspect many long-lasting solutions will come at a cost far greater than taxpayers and politicians are willing to spend on an issue most tacitly wish to ignore.
But changing how we view people is free, and we can start with realizing that compassion and restoring human dignity don’t only belong in the realm of church and charity. They’re things we should all strive for, and essential to the goal of Making America Great Again. They’re the first steps in that quest, actually.
That, and putting a collective end to labeling human beings – regardless of their struggles – as “problems.”