08.26.19 | No Way Home

Some years ago came across a crude sign tacked to a fence near a weedy overpass entrance which read, "If You Were Homeless You'd Be Home Now." Let that sink in.

We once tackled the issue of housing (Close To Home MM 10/9/17). That discussion was a top-down look at the push-pull dynamics underlying housing in the Bay area and like communities -- affordability, building regulations, gentrification, sustainability and, for that matter, growth itself. That subject was somewhat policy wonkish and theoretical.

Not so with the upcoming discussion. This will be the view from the ground. Joining us as our "lead participant" will be thirty-something "Steve": raised in Virginia; had some sort of learning disability; abandoned by his dad left when he was five and mom died when he was fifteen; left school, having failed three grades in a row; placed in a foster home through age eighteen; moved to North Carolina, living by himself in an apartment for fifteen years on a $700/mo disability check; left there when his rent was raised and came to Boulder. Steve has been living here on the streets for over a year now.

We are thus given the opportunity to approach the homelessness question where it's truly up close and personal. David Bright and I hosted Steve for a lunch last week. We both believe you'll find Steve to be eminently presentable -- clean cut, articulate (all things considered), forthcoming, and remarkably non-defensive given his past life circumstances.

There are the basic logistics, of course. You'll understand why he sees the shelters as last resort. Then there's the cat-and-mouse game with the police enforcing the camping ban. You'll hear how he manages to hide or otherwise secure his few essential possessions. Then there's the need to establish trusted friendships, not only for companionship and protection but also to help work the system. You'll learn about the particular danger zones for the homeless -- it can be life on the Serengeti, albeit the Boulder version.

Steve may not be your "typical" homeless case, if there is even such a thing. The term could apply to the entire spectrum of the homeless, from the high-end glamping van population on down. We had once taken a look at the Maslow underbelly in our book club discussion of T.C. Boyle's novel, The Tortilla Curtain, about Mexican illegal Candido Rincon and his wife's struggle for literal survival whose even best days in their hardscrabble lives would embarrass us for having ever complained about our very worst.

Yet there may be some common questions applicable to the whole range e.g. what is the optimal societal solution to this looming issue -- might the availability of public housing ultimately prove less expensive than all the collateral costs associated with people on the streets? What is the meaning of freedom when residents build literal walls around their homes and neighborhoods to protect "us" from "them?" Or what is the one thing that costs nothing but is probably the most meaningful gesture to those on the outside (spoiler alert: acknowledge their humanity)?

No question will be out of line so long as it's not patronizing and comes from the place of honest curiosity. This is an issue that is not going away. There's no place here for any sense of entitlement or, indeed, hubris -- the kind on display with those past monarchs, bewildered and unshaven, as they were led out into the palace courtyard to be shot, thinking to themselves, "Maybe the people do have a point."

Steve SmithComment