By Phillip R. Crandall
While homelessness is an issue year round, the winter months always seem to bring the issue to the forefront of public debates and opinions. And regardless of where we stand as a society or as individuals on how best to "manage" it, the fact is that in the absence of a comprehensive national plan, homelessness is here and likely to stay with us for some time to come.
As the county’s director of the Department of Health and Human Services, I hear plenty of opinions about homelessness from all sides, often in the same day. One person will tell me the county is attracting the homeless to our area by providing too many services, and the next person says we’re not doing nearly enough to help those in need.
Every year around this time, I try to put out some facts and data to support those facts along with a request for collaboration from all of our community partners to get through another tough winter. A recent "My Word" by John Moore ("City faces choice on assistance to needy, homeless," Times-Standard, Nov. 21, page A4) correctly stated that slightly less than half of the homeless people who applied for General Relief, a program mandated by the state, were from out of the area. The author then states that these individuals moved to Eureka to collect assistance.
What the author neglected to report is that the numbers of people on GR in Humboldt County has dropped by two-thirds over the past decade - from more than 600 in 2001 to around 200 today. Those numbers do not support a "magnet theory" of social services. There is no evidence that a program available in every county in the state is attracting people to Humboldt.
Another story I hear is that GR pays the homeless large amounts of cash that they then spend on drugs and alcohol. That is false. GR pays those in the program only $30 a month in cash, with the balance going for state-mandated assistance with food, shelter and medical care. Our program provides the assistance required by the state without supporting or encouraging irresponsible behavior. And a third story I’d like to put to rest is that the county pays homeless people more money if they have dogs. That is also untrue.
The state SSI program, which the county does not administer, provides $50 to recipients for trained service dogs for the blind, deaf and disabled. Maybe this is the source of the rumor. DHHS provides no cash or other assistance for dogs or cats or hamsters or any other animal.
I do not believe for an instant that the data above will change anyone’s opinion about homelessness or talk them out of their "magic bullet" solutions to end it.
But after close to 30 years working with the poor and disabled in Humboldt County and more than a decade as DHHS director, I’ve developed a few opinions of my own about how to address the challenge of homelessness.
Long term, I believe we must invest in our nation and families through sustained efforts to reduce the impacts of poverty and instill a sense of value and connectedness in our children. What we are seeing now are the impacts of a generation lost, and it will take time and a thoughtful national approach to change that. The sad fact is that many have learned society did not care for them as children, and now they do not care about society. That is a dangerous reality our nation needs to confront.
Shorter term solutions come from all sides of the debate, and many of them have merit. Here are a few to consider: Design programs that meet state and federal mandates but in a manner that rewards efforts at recovery and self-sufficiency rather than continued reliance on public assistance.
Recognize that the homeless are a diverse group and design appropriate services for them. For example, what helps a homeless mentally ill person may not work for a homeless veteran. Our approaches need to be both inclusive and targeted if we are to help people out of homelessness.
Balance compassion with responsibility when considering services or supports for the homeless, and design programs that are sustainable and consistent with the overall values of each of our communities. This means decentralizing services to support those in need in the communities they reside in.
This county absolutely recognizes that homelessness cannot be solved by consolidating all the services in Eureka, which is why it has invested in mobile and sitebased services throughout the county.
The department is committed to working with people from across the political spectrum to help those without a place to call home through another winter, and to work toward a plan that protects our citizens, helps our businesses thrive, and partners with the whole community to offer a compassionate hand, a warm bed and a hot meal to those in need.
Phillip R. Crandall is Humboldt County’s director of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Opinions expressed in My Word pieces do not necessarily reflect the editorial viewpoint of the Redwood Times. There is no evidence that a program available in every county in the state is attracting people to Humboldt.