Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Jails are Just Today's Asylums

The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has compiled a list of the top twenty "meanest" cities for homelessness in the US.

Four of the cities are in Texas, two are in California and two are in Arizona. All are locations that a report accompanying the list finds reflect a growing willingness over the past 25 years “to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces.”

Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the homeless coalition, put it more bluntly: “There's open war on the homeless population.”

No, it is not a "war" against the homeless. It is poor forethought and planning for the homeless when good Samaritans opened the mental institutions and turned the mentally ill out onto the streets--a large portion of the homeless are mentally ill-in some studies up to 50%. In addition, the gentrification of downtowns by urban yuppies and city planners caused a rush of condeming, closing or knocking down Single Room Occupancy Housing (SRO) which was devastating to the poor who lived in cheap housing. For example, in New York City in 1960, there were 640,000 people living in SRO's and rooming houses and by 1990, there were only 137,000. No wonder there are so many homeless there.

Here in Knoxville, we had a cheap motel downtown where one hundred people lived called the 5th Avenue Motel--the hotel was condemned and the residents forced to leave. Many went to live with friends and family, some were lucky enough to be provided with other housing but some, I bet, are back on the streets. There were a number of news interviews here with the residents saying that the 5th Avenue motel was their home. It would seem that living there would beat living in a shelter or the streets. I have even had homeless clients who commit crimes so they can get in jail, get three hots and a cot and maybe some mental health treatment. So the next time the National Coalition for the Homeless wants to blame states for being big meanies who wage war on the homeless, they should ask themselves why these people are homeless in the first place.

Update: Assistant Village Idiot talks about the complexities of social problems and why throwing housing and money at the homeless does not necessarily work.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Your post doesn't approach a substantive argument against the NCH. Are cities correct to criminalize homelessness? Does that help the problem?"

Yes, because only if successfully criminalized can the mentally-ill contigent be taken off the streets.

A steel cage match between the NCH and the NMHA might prove more constructive, but would be more difficult to bring about.

6:05 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger woods said...

It's so sad. Just another part of the deconstruction of the true social justice network by the Left. Any time a neighbor organizes an effort to benefit the least able among us, the Left finds a way to discredit the effort as a violation of individual rights or other law. They substitute the bogeyman of intrusive government, violating privacy, for community outreach and snear knowingly as they condemn to hardship an entire class of people who were otherwise in the care of their community (okay, some for better, some for worse - but look at it now!). Any Social Justice which doesn't come with the impramatur of the ACLU is not supportable. But, as in that piece at The Pink Flamingo Bar & Grill points out ( there's a greater purpose than saving lives to these people.

6:33 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interesting that you brought this up just as I posted about it on my site.

This is what I do for a living. Mentally ill people are often homeless and part of my job is to put a roof over their heads. When people make policy, they usually neglect the history that brought some people to homelessness. If you beat up people in your building, you get kicked out. If you try to set the next place on fire, you get kicked out. If you use drugs and the cops come to the next place, you get kicked out again. Eventually, where do we put you? What people often disdain as "criminalizing homelessness" is sometimes just the playing out of the cards as dealt.

A similar pattern plays out with criminals. It sounds so shoddy for a city to arrest people for the "mere" crime of being homeless, but sometimes, it makes complete sense.

6:38 PM, January 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think she is pointing out the irony that the people complaining about locking up the homeless are the same ones who sue cities to block forced hospitalization. Or who condemn single unit housing, or who institute rent control which eventually squeezes out low-income housing.

Other than leave them on the streets, which is cruel, there really isn't much choice but to put them in jail.

7:20 PM, January 15, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


Thanks--that is exactly what I am saying.

7:29 PM, January 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And when the weather gets too cold in Ann Arbor and other cold areas, a lot more homeless folks come south, to Arizona.

We used to frequent a restaurant near downtown and parked as near the entrance as possible. That shortened the exposure to the professional malingerers who wanted (1) cash, when we were going in, and (2) our leftovers, when we left. An alarming number were young, able-bodied (unless you count the effects of drugs and too much booze) and lazy. We heard a young woman, new in town, telling a young guy that she was going to have to find a job, soon; he was appalled: If you have a job, "they" expect you to be there, and to work! It's better on the streets!

And it is no coincidence that Arizona leftists fought for "kinder" treatment for the mentally ill. I heard it way back in the late-60's/early-70's, when I worked in a local community mental health facility. They got their way, and we have CMI's on the streets, in parks, arroyos, and just wandering the streets.

12:02 AM, January 16, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


I am not against gentrification--I think it is a good thing--what I am against is hypocrisy. The same liberal advocates for the homeless now who are going around grading states on their "meaness" to the homeless should look at how they caused some of these problems themselves. We have a group of yuppie liberal types that all live downtown--they are for the environment, the homeless, etc. but they and the city planners are slowly turning the downtown into a place where SRO's are being closed down or turned into condos. That is fine but they should realize their contribution to the problem. Perhaps city planners should take some consideration into where the homeless should go.


We threw the baby out with the bath water when we closed the state mental hospitals. Many people needed these facilities. Our state hospital here has been slowly closing its doors and many people are now homeless and living in the shelters downtown or in the streets. Honestly, can that be any better? Without any help, many of the homeless end up in jail or getting hurt. I think that rather than building all the shelters and giving grants for the homeless--some of this money might be funneled into keeping the doors of the local state hospital open.

7:07 AM, January 16, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


I have seen those videos and they are really awful--I remember Dateline or some show having an expose on them. I think a videographer is a pathetic excuse if he or she is getting off on watching bums fight--the legalities of it are another matter.

I do think many of the homeless are mentally ill but that said, it does not mean that they are not dangerous. Advocates for the homeless would like people to believe that the homeless are harmless but that is not my experience in working with many from the shelter here in town. If you click through the link in this post for how many SRO's are in NYC--there is a report from Knoxville on the homeless. It is quite interesting and there are tables asking the homeless about habits etc. I believe over half had a problem with alcohol and 38% with drugs. Many had been incarcerated, not for victimless crimes as the National Coalition for the homeless wants us to believe from the article I cited but rather, for crimes such as theft, assault and 11% said murder. That does not really sound like a safe group to me.

12:42 PM, January 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does the NCH "want us to believe" that the homeless are solely being locked up for victimless crimes or are they pointing to specific laws that do just that? It's easy to argue with a straw man and I'm sure the NCH has plenty of overheated statements to attack, but I'm not sure their highlighting of SPECIFIC laws that criminalize homelessness is one of these moments. I'm no libertarian, but I have a hard time believing that anyone can agree with laws that criminalize the mere act of homelessness. Sure, plenty of homeless people commit criminal acts. Arrest them for that! Don't point out the murder rates of homeless people and deduce that homelessness should be outlawed.

1:48 PM, January 16, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


I did not deduce that homelessness should be outlawed, I said that some homeless can be potentially dangerous. I think part of the problem is one of frustration. There are no mental institutions to keep some of the ill off the streets and they have no more cheap motels etc. in which to live. This leaves the homeless to wander the streets and cause difficulites for various cities, downtowns etc. The cities often have no way to deal with the homeless and are making laws which affect them such as no sitting on benches etc. I agree with you that this is not right. But my argument is that some of the very people who say that the states are mean are the ones who pushed to release people from hospitals and gentrify the downtowns. Then they tell you that the homeless are harmless and not a problem.

2:42 PM, January 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I guess that's the problem. I don't know enough about the NCH to know they've "pushed to release people from hospitals and gentrify downtowns". I guess it just bothers me on a meta note to see arguments constructed from specific organizations that balloon to include generic "liberals". You can argue with one or the other, but to conflate the two is next to meaningless. If indeed the NCH is inconsistent, damn the torpedoes. If it's some amorphous left-movement that is inconsistent. . . well, inconsistency isn't a hard thing to ferret out when you force specific advocates to be responsible for half of America's opinions.

2:49 PM, January 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this admission - the richest nation of the world can only take their inconvenient citizens away from the public sight. No other freaking way to handle the people who do not fit the society. Stalin would love to have you guys as his hounds...

4:43 PM, January 16, 2006  
Blogger Jeff with one 'f' said...

Oh, please, if Stalin was running things here the homeless would either be breaking rocks in Alska or rotting in a shallow grave on Staten Island.

The same goes (double!) for any "Homeless Advocates". Probably moreso, because the advocates would be a threat to his power.

8:28 PM, January 16, 2006  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I also liked Anon's intentional underplay of people as merely "inconvenient." Allow me to introduce you to some of the "inconvenient" people in New Hampshire who are murderers and child molesters.

That's not just an educated guess on my part. I could list their names off the top of my head if it were allowed.

You can't get away with the fantasy of repressive MH providers. I have friends among the homeless, stop and talk with them as I would any other acquaintance, and have even taken some in when it's not a confilct of interest. I'm not unique in that.

10:29 PM, January 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

exactly my point, jeff - homeless would be shoved away, their advocates intimidated, and you folks would be Stalin's reliable servants. Not for being especially mean or vile - just because you value oh so much the so called interests of society, i.e. conformity and control.

6:25 AM, January 17, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymous 6:25,

What's your address? I have a number of these people who you say we are submitting to control and and conformity to send you to care for.

7:01 AM, January 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You misread me, Helen. *You* are submitting willingly to conformity; and I am not too fond of your ilk's tendency to control where the people you don't like should be shipped to. However if anybody of them asks for you advice, tell them to come to Manhattan, Morningside Heights. I welcome newcomers.

7:34 AM, January 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a sad story in the news today about seven dogs who were found abandoned in Missouri. It is easy to feel compassion for those animals and anger at the cruel person who left them there. I think it is safe to assume that the dogs did nothing to bring about their predicament and no rational person would expect the dogs to save themselves. If it were homeless people living on a couch near a railroad track I would still feel compassion but my anger would be directed at THEM because they are human beings who are (or should be) capable of taking care of themselves. I'm sure there is a very small percentage of truly demented people on the street who are as helpless as those dogs but the vast majority can do SOMETHING to help themselves and society has every right to expect that they do so. There is plenty of help available if one means business but I'd bet that you'd be hard pressed to convince even one in ten street people to do something as simple as attend an AA meeting and actually stay sober or get a job - ANY job - and show up every day. Personally I would welcome the return of vagrancy laws and jailhouse work details as in "find something useful to do or we'll find something for you."

4:16 PM, January 17, 2006  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

anonymous said, have you pointedly ignored my post or merely avoided it?

I defy you to offer actual evidence that the MH system desires conformity. From what I see, we are entirely too willing to exalt eccentricity.

We have neither room nor inclination to lock up the "inconvenient" or "non-conforming." You've been watching too many movies from the 70's.

7:14 PM, January 17, 2006  
Blogger jeff said...

Something else that doesn't help the homeless are people like those profiled here:

You'll want to look at the previous blog entry as well as the newspaper articles.

7:45 PM, January 17, 2006  
Blogger jeff said...

Hmm. Let me try that again:

7:46 PM, January 17, 2006  
Blogger Kathy said...

We have friends whose adult son is schizophrenic. He is a nice man, as far as that goes, when he's on his medication. He was in our Sunday School class at church over a period of time. This couple is elderly and have health problems, and they cannot care for him. He usually lives in group homes, but the problem is, when you put a bunch of "crazy people" (to put it bluntly) together in one place there is bound to be friction, and when one or more of them goes off the medication there's even more friction. And so, for good reasons, he keeps getting kicked out of the homes. There are only so many places he can go. Once he's kicked out of one place, he can't go back to that one. He does get admitted to the mental hospital at times, but they can only keep him until his medication stabilizes him because as long as he's on the medication he's not a danger to himself or others. He really likes the mental hospital and does well there, but instead he must try to function in a group home. He has lived on the street at times when a placement could not be found for him.

I like him, but I would not have him in my home. He is a danger to himself and others, because he can't be counted on to take his medication and because the nature of his mental illness makes him inherently more unpredictable in behavior than the average person. Even his parents can't have him in their home. What do we do with him?

9:01 PM, January 17, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Sometimes, the best way to evaluate the issue is to take a different perspective as shown in the following tale:

During a visit to the mental asylum, a visitor asked the director, "What is the criterion that defines a patient to be institutionalized?"

"Well..." said the director, "we fill up a bathtub, and we offer a teaspoon, a teacup, and a bucket to the patient and ask him to empty the bathtub."

"Oh, I understand," said the visitor. "A normal person would choose the bucket as it is larger than the spoon or the teacup."

"Noooooooo!" answered the director. "A normal person would pull the plug."

5:47 AM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

What can we do.

Well, my long-term solutions would involve recognizing that most poverty in America is transient, except for the mentally ill and a few other small groups. The other impovershed groups, immigrants, single mothers, and graduate students, for example, tend not to be impovershed five years later. Sometimes ten. If we didn't put so much of our anti-poverty resources into people who are going to solve their own problems themselves, we would have not only more money, but more focus and understanding what housing and health care problems actually need to be solved. As opposed to those that bring in votes and interviews.

Note: Not to be construed as a proposal to cut off all funding to the temporary poor.

12:42 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger M. Simon said...

Some times today's asylums are jails.

Look up the Gary Kaeding case Rockford, Illinois.

You can't bail out of a mental hospital. Even if it is just for observation you have to serve your time.

2:57 AM, January 22, 2006  
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