New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced he is instituting involuntary hospitalization for homeless people deemed to be mentally ill and in crisis. It’s déjà vu all over again. Emptying the mental hospitals is arguably what created the homeless problem in the first place. The thinking at the time was that civil liberties are paramount – homeless people aren’t criminals and you can’t keep them locked up in psych wards. The counter-argument is that people who are not in their right mind can’t fend for themselves and create social problems when left to their own devices on the streets. Involuntary hospitalization is more humane than what is occurring now. The mentally ill now make up about a third of the homeless population in the United States.
I’ve seen all kinds of solutions to homelessness tried over the last 40 years, but nobody has solved the riddle. The ideas have ranged from the intriguing to the truly insane. Washington, D.C. opened city homeless shelters with a capped number of beds back in the 1980s. I asked a D.C. government official at the time if this was rationing and he dissembled. Fast forward to today and you find big homeless encampments in D.C. downtown parks and across from Union Station, so the homeless shelter approach clearly didn’t solve the problem. As for encampments elsewhere, some areas allow camping anywhere as a point of pride, while others confine encampments to designated areas. The worst idea of this lot is to allow the homeless to camp in your front yard with impunity, as in Illinois after the first of the year, but homeowners fled Portland after it was allowed there.
Democrat-controlled San Francisco passed a new tax in 2018 to end homelessness for all time. Spending on the homeless is up 400 percent but there are more homeless than ever in San Francisco and the conditions in which they live are deteriorating. Rat-infested hotels – that’s the solution the Democrats came up with. The police no longer respond to calls about stolen packages, break-ins, and other problems caused by the homeless.
Another idea is to provide free permanent housing for the homeless, but the result in Los Angeles was one-bedroom apartments costing $700,000 apiece and corruption. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people on the street is up 41 percent. The idea also doesn’t seem to be working in Washington, D.C. where the city is placing homeless people in upscale apartment buildings. It only takes one homeless person to create chaos and ruin an entire building, I heard one landlord say.
Another idea is to connect the homeless to lots of social services, like drug treatment and job training. But the most intriguing idea I’ve heard comes from philanthropists who created an entire village, I forget where, in which the homeless can find their dignity by having a role to play in a real community.
But none of these ideas address mental illness, which is one-third of the problem. Critics are already pounding away at New York City’s new involuntary hospitalization policy, but the city defends it, saying it will connect mentally ill homeless people with the psychiatric treatment they need. Some critics say the city doesn’t have enough crisis centers or other capacity to deliver the mental health services required. But involuntary hospitalization is only one new policy taking effect. The city is also going the permanent housing route by cracking down on landlords who refuse to take homeless people with government housing vouchers.
So there doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet that will solve the problem in all cases. I haven’t heard the idea expressed yet that all the approaches have some merit, that triage should occur and a custom solution built for each homeless individual. I also haven’t heard anything about family and friends being brought into the process. Government isn’t the answer to everything.
©Christopher Wright. All rights reserved.