It was interesting to witness the police sweep in our community going after the homeless populations primarily along the I-5 corridor and particularly within the city limits of Redding. Based on the blogs, posts made to our local newspaper, Facebook posts, statements by some elected City Council members and other locals, there was a collective cheer that “something finally got done!” We did hear from the Redding police that no additional costs were incurred because of a scheduled training that was postponed in order to facilitate this, although I am not so sure that the officers associated with the Highway Patrol, County Sheriff and the City of Anderson along with our District Attorney’s office came at little to no cost. We heard that over 31 people were arrested, over 60 people were cited and fined for “lifestyle violations,” and over 2,500 pounds of belongings and trash were gathered up. So after all of this, my question remains: “what really got done?” Dr. Douglas McMullin, who works with the homeless in concert with our HOPE medical team, recently presented at a City Council forum on the subject and essentially pointed out that making an impact on the issue of homelessness cannot be adequately addressed through the lens of law enforcement alone. He went on to say, that so much of our law enforcement resources already go to this issue and the problem remains. That said, I am sure that of the arrests some of these individuals needed to be incarcerated because they were a threat to themselves or others. The non-homeless community would be interested to know that some of these same individuals are even more a threat to the homeless than they are to others because who do the homeless go to for protection when threatened?
It was later reported that of the roughly 31 actual arrests, all but five stayed in jail overnight with only one still there a week later. Of the citations, 52 were for “violations of the Redding Municipal Code” around “lifestyle issues.” The DA stated that most of these charges were of very low level infractions that they will not likely be pursued by them because the DA has much more serious crimes to prosecute. There was a statement by the DA that this game of arrest and release was part of a “long-game” of changing behaviors. What is not said here is the cost to the District Attorney’s office in terms of time and resources sorting out all of this while they are still trying to put serious criminals behind bars. Moreover, for those without a previous criminal record, by landing in the “system” the chances of landing a job or even finding a place to live becomes that much more difficult. Of the fines given out, good luck collecting those fines from the homeless, most of whom do not have an address let alone much money. Of the belongings that were taken, including tents and sleeping bags, do the homeless just disappear or do they find new belongings so that they can live? Perhaps this show of force was intended to drive the homeless into the next community until that community drives them back again. The point in all of this was that while the raid on the homeless made some people feel good for the day, the problems of homelessness remains. The community continues to not embrace strategies that help to take people off the streets into housing, which then allows effective interventions to bring numbers down.
For those of us who work in the field of science and medicine we talk about “evidence based.” That is, what is the empirical evidence that an intervention does what it is intended to do? In the stubborn area of homelessness, there is a growing amount of evidence that “police sweeps and arrests” exclusive of effective alternative strategies around housing and case management, have little to no impact on the issue and may in fact make matters worse. Fortunately, there are starting to be some investments made in both housing and case management, an important element in making a dent in preventing and mitigating chronic homelessness. For example, Dr. McMullin and his small group of volunteers have raised a modest amount of money and have housed dozens of chronically homeless and for a good number of them, helped them to connect to resources that will keep them off the street and out of trouble. Most recently, Partnership Health Plan, our local Medi-Cal Managed Care Plan, has sent out a “Request for Proposals” tied to millions of dollars in part looking for projects that will have effective and long-term impact on the issues of housing and homelessness. Only time will tell if these strategies work but they will only have a chance of working if our elected officials fully embrace these strategies rather than wasting resources on police sweeps/DA prosecutions that will predictably do little. However, for one day we can all pretend that the raid was a great success. No doubt this attitude is fueled by real frustrations that the problems around homelessness are much more visible to the general public than ever before. That all said, police action is sometime warranted, but such action around the stubborn issue of homelessness needs to be measured with other interventions around housing and case management for the safety and well-being of our community.
Dean Germano is the chief executive officer of Shasta Community Health Center in Redding.