Author’s note: The following story is based in part on my recent experience helping a close friend attempt to navigate her way through suddenly finding herself homeless in the midst of a severe mental-health crisis. The names of key individuals described and quoted in the story have been changed to protect their privacy. The events related here happened during late April and early May.
For those who’ve been following along since this all began in the spring and need closure right now, Bea is home and safe. But not for long. She’s moving on again, hopefully to better things. We’ll see.
Or maybe we won’t.
Those avoiding the system – a system that wants to both help and punish – is ingrained. Those facing its tender mercies often disappear. It seems safer.
Underlying everything in any story of an acute homelessness crisis, confusion reigns, nothing is certain and simply living becomes dangerous. Yet hopes remain, alongside pains so deep, so fundamental insanity is the only rational response.
“Why do they god-damned do it?”
That was my friend, the nurse who spends his days bringing those in the grips of drug-induced psychosis back under control, or as close to it as they’re ever able. It’s a process he repeats here in Visalia multiple times a night.
“You can see what the shit does every time you walk into 7-Eleven!”
He’s shouting now. This is compassion exhaustion. A man who’s dedicated his life to fixing the unfixable is venting his rage just so he can keep working.
Some, however, have just had enough. The problem of homelessness is a personal one, they claim, and decent people should not be burdened with helping. They’ve turned out in strength in responses to this series so far.
“The one word that is entirely missing from these comments is responsibility!” says someone who calls themselves Angry Taxpayer. “If you will not at least expend some effort providing for yourselves, then yes, those of us who make efforts to feed and house ourselves will lose patience! If all you do is to beg on the streets and ruin our public spaces with your drug habits then those of us who pay the bills will exert our rights too! One of your group recently set fire to three businesses in Visalia. You get no sympathy from me!”
The Poor in Spirit
The Angry Taxpayer is right. Addressing homelessness is expensive, but the expense is even greater when nothing is done. Each chronically homeless person, according to a 2016 study by the National Alliance to End Homlessness, costs taxpayers $35,000 annually in police and fire response, ER medical treatments and trips through the court system. On any given night in the US, 110,000 people are sleeping on the streets with no plan or pathway to a new home.
Last year, the federal government spent more than $51 billion to alleviate homelessness, yet the problem persists.
The good news is the spending by taxpayers both national and local, as well as those who give to charity can change lives.
“That was a wonderful story and I think more people need to hear about it,” said John, another commenter, one who knows the system can work. “Also I was homeless and used one of the shelters and went to a drug rehab program and now I’m not homeless, and it was a great help.”
Help Is Available
Those living on the streets – and those who want to help them – are often unaware there are services available immediately. The start can be a phone call to 211, the United Way’s one-stop resource center for both addressing homelessness and preventing it. 211 operators are able assess a situation, even one in crisis, and make immediate suggestions and referrals. They also act to perform crisis intervention and function as advocates for those struggling in the system.
The United Way’s 211 program is active in both Tulare and Kings counties. The websites are 211kingscounty.org and 211tularecounty.org. Help is available at any time in a variety of formats, including text, live chat and an app.
The range of services accessible through 211 is not limited to those experiencing homelessness or teetering on its brink. They also offer services for families and veterans, and a variety of self-help programs of interest to anyone hoping to improve their quality of life.
There’s also the Kings/Tulare Homeless Alliance’s Local Initiative Navigation Center (LINC), a traveling resource center that makes experts on aid programs available for one-on-one help. From 1 to 3 p.m. each Monday, LINC operates at the Visalia Rescue Mission, 741 North Santa Fe Street. LINC is in Porterville from 9:30 to noon every other Wednesday at the Porterville Welcome Center at 140 South C Street.
The KTHA phone number is (559) 738-8733, and their website is kthomelessalliance.org.
The kind of pain methamphetamine addiction and abuse cause to almost everyone unfortunate enough to witness it in someone they care for is horrible. Worse is the pain of the person using.
In his anger, my friend the nurse stated the enigma succinctly.
“What in the hell are they thinking? They know what it does.”
What it does is kill pain, not physical pain, but psychological pain. Yes, those who use meth know what it does, and many of them convince themselves they will be immune to its effects, but the risk is worth the reward. The pain it obscures is far worse than the seemingly remote threat of future loss. Death, as in Bea’s case, would have been a welcome relief.
Unfortunately, unless a person is in a severe crisis, a threat to themselves and others, there is little in the way of help. At local clinics, behavioral health visits are short and far between, with waits for initial therapy meetings lasting months. The resources available to police are limited, and their focus on crime – paired with the distrust of those they wish to help – naturally leads to confrontation and escalation.
Often, a non-emergency call only leads to a promise of future intervention, usually too little provided too late. Those suffering from a drug-related breakdown are usually kept just long enough to stabilize them, to sober them up, then they’re sent on their way, referrals in hand for appointments they’ll almost never keep.
Taking Personal Responsibility
Not everyone on the streets is there because of mental illness or chronic drug use. Some find themselves dispossessed due to circumstances beyond their control. Illness, the loss of a job, eviction, all of these reasons and more can put someone out of their home.
For these people, victims of mere bad luck who still have their mental faculties intact for now, there are programs that can put them back in housing, or help them find a job or other source of reliable income. There are also resources those at risk of losing their homes can turn to before they end up wandering the streets or living, like Bea, in their car.
The Workforce Investment Board of Tulare County is one of those centers for resources few seem aware of. Besides job leads and placements, the WIB also provides training, internships and work experience opportunities, pre-employment assessments to facilitate hirings and job fairs. Their website is tularewib.org.
Similar nongovernmental organizations include CSET – cset.org – which provides aid for job placement and training, as well as a variety of other services, many of which are aimed at families and youth.
The Best Intentions
The Visalia Police – the people who put Bea under lock and key after allegedly saying they wouldn’t in what appears to be a case of internal miscommunication – tout their Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team as a special response to the problems created by those without homes.
Those with issues regarding homelessness and the law are encouraged to contact the HOPE Team at (559) 713-4673. Leave a message, the city’s webpage says, and a team member will get back to you.
At least one person who’s been on the streets and dealt with the HOPE Team doesn’t find much hope in this program. Lenee, a homeless individual, has both a problem with HOPE and with the actions of the city.
“This hope team does nothing but harass and ticket people no matter where we go,” he wrote. “There is no legal place to be homeless in the city of Visalia.”
The city’s efforts so far, he believes, have been targeted at isolating the homeless and keeping them out of view. It represents an expensive and ineffective lip service, he says.
“Do taxpayers ever look at how much money is spent on the HOPE Team? Then court time, jail time? Or what about taking benches and gazebos out of parks?” Lenee asked. “We all bleed red. I can’t have a four-wheel wagon in a park … no homeless person can. And the only shelter in town says you have to pee in a cup and pray to their God or you can’t get in.”
The homeless, Lenee says, were abandoned when COVID struck and “left on streets like zombies. What resources are available are not enough, he said, and failing to provide adequate help harms everyone indirectly
“Homeless people are here, so why deny us bathrooms and showers?” he said. “I’ve done this for three years, and all the services out there have done nothing.”
Lenee blames a government that doesn’t care beyond the abstract.
“We’re not the problem; the governor is,” he said. “Please, someone tell me where it’s legal for me to lay down whether it’s day or night without me breaking a law. Nowhere.”