Thursday, November 20, 2008
A Perspective on the Homeless
The poor you will always have among you." Jesus to his disciples
Living in Los Angeles, we see homeless men and women (but mostly men) every day. We see them downtown, on the bus, on the streets, in our community, at the park, at the beach, in front of the supermarket, panhandling at stop lights, going through the dumpsters at our condo complex, camped out on sidewalks, around our church. And by the way, we live in what everyone considers a “good part of town.”
What’s our response?
Really, to do nothing isn’t an option for someone who considers himself or herself a follower of Jesus Christ.
I’ve wanted this blog to be “photos and commentary about life in Los Angeles from a Christian world-view.” It’s been fun to post my own photos, sort of the “I get to live in a city where people from around the world want to visit.” I’ve also taken the liberty to use photos from other sites to tell a story.
It’s easy talking about the beach, the mountains, the weather, the attractions, the diversity, various neighborhoods, weird stuff like the Los Angeles River or Venice Beach … the fun stuff, the reason why people choose to visit or live in Los Angeles. Issues like traffic, graffiti, smog, trash – easy, too. Who is in favor of trash?
It’s a lot harder talking about crime, gangs, racism, immigration, poverty, loss of manufacturing jobs, “elephants in the room” like the fact that Los Angeles is the center of the porn film industry, or homelessness. Who wants to read a blog about the loss of manufacturing jobs in L.A.? Maybe someone. Who wants to write it? Not me.
Going back to the homeless. Whatever we’ve been doing for the past 30 years hasn’t been working. I’d really love a discussion on biblically based social policy to really tackle homelessness in our city. Our outgoing President tried some things, but “compassionate conservative” was mocked on both the left and right. Perhaps our next President can tackle this (giving new meaning to the expression “only Nixon can go to China”) but he has his hands full with other issues – the economy and a war or two.
Christian non-profits (the Salvation Army, the various skid row ministries, the hundreds of small urban churches) are awesome. Life in Los Angeles – really any city – would be hell without them. But what would it take to reduce the number of homeless in Los Angeles from 70,000 (current estimates) to 7,000?
There’s so many directions I could go, but I’d like to focus on an issue that Christians (I speak for myself) have been guilty of ignoring: the mentally ill. Over a third, possibly half of the homeless in Los Angeles are mentally ill. That’s 25,000-35,000 men and women walking around who should be in mental hospitals.
Remember “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Won Best Picture in 1975 and stared Jack Nicholson. Danny DiVito and Christopher Lloyd have small parts. My wife and I recently watched it. It’s not a family film, but it is worth viewing.
The film helped influence public opinion = mental hospitals bad. According to advocate E. Fuller Torrey, here in California while Ronald Reagan was Governor, a very odd coalition of politically left-leaning civil libertarians, who believed that nobody should ever be involuntarily hospitalized, and politically right-leaning fiscal conservatives who saw closing the hospitals as a way to reduce state expenditures and thus reduce taxes implemented the Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act in 1969 which made it exceptionally difficult to involuntarily hospitalize psychiatric patients.
The Camarillo State Mental Hospital doesn’t exist anymore. It was closed in the 1990’s and is today of California State University campus (nice looking campus, by the way). So where are the mentally ill who use to be in hospitals like Camarillo? For the most part, on the street. Going back to homeless, I try to ask “why are they homeless”?
Is it a choice? Believe it or not, some people (mostly men) enjoy a “carefree” life without responsibility. Kind of like being permanently on a bad vacation.
Are they an alcoholic or an addict?
Are they fleeing an abusive relationship?
Are they mentally ill?
I don’t advocate ever giving money to panhandlers. I become an "enabler" as the vast majority of the time the money goes to drugs or alcohol. The LAPD told us some homeless “who are good” and know how the work the system make $200 - $800 a day (and I don’t think these guys are filling out W-2s).
I want to continue to support the incredible work of places like the Union Rescue Mission and others. http://www.urm.org/
But as I Christian living in L.A., I also want to re-think our society’s moral obligation to the mentally ill. Amazing how a Hollywood film critical of an institution makes we wish we still had it.
“It's been over a hundred years since this society was so cruel as not to try to take care of the true victims, people who are incapacitated by mental illness and really can't take care of themselves.” Myron Magnet, New York City – author & editor of the conservative “City Journal” www.city-journal.org