Thursday, April 27, 2017

Adressing Durango's Homeless Issue

I was in a coffee shop today waiting for a meeting scrolling thru Facebook when I came across an article addressing Durango's huge homeless issue.  It's been a discussion in town for years but has really become prominent as Durango and Colorado has given out more and more entitlements and legalized marijuana.

Homelessness in Durango seems a bit different than what is seen across most of America.  Living in this town will leave you jaded the the homeless issue across the rest of this nation.  Back when I lived in Kansas City, we'd go down to places where we knew there was a homeless population.  We'd try to help them out by buying them dinner.  We'd sit and hear their story.  These were guys who didn't want to be homeless but due to different circumstances in their life and sometimes poor choices they had made in their past, they had no other choice but to be homeless.

Homelessness in Durango is different.  Most are homeless due to entitlement and laziness.  They don't want to work and feel entitled to live in one of the wealthiest/expensive small towns in America.  When I've volunteered at the soup kitchen, I've come across people with teaching degrees, engineering degrees, etc.  They have stated that they were just tired of working and didn't feel like they needed to do it anymore.  But still they felt they had the right to live in Durango and have people take care of them.

In reality, being homeless in Durango is pretty easy.  There's a soup kitchen where you can get fed.  There's a shelter for when it gets cold outside. It doesn't get that cold even in the winter time.  An old army surplus sleeping bag will get you thru just fine.  Oh, and their is free healthcare in Colorado for poor people as well.  That's a nice perk.  Throw in some food stamps and life is pretty good.  It's so good that other towns now bus their homeless to Durango because they know once the homeless get here and get on the handout gravy train, they'll never come back to where they were bused in from.

Throw in that marijuana is now legal and that adds to the amount of homeless coming here because they can spend their money on that instead of things like food, shelter, and healthcare.  Those things are mostly taken care of.

Now, I have no problem with someone wants to be homeless by choice.  I get the appeal of living up in the forest and just feeling free.  I lived out of my old jeep for two years in this town when I was in college.  I prefer to look at it as long-term camping.  Never once did I beg, get government assistance, or visit the soup kitchen for a free meal.  I lived off of breakfast shakes, Pop-tarts, and Spaghetti-O's.  It wasn't much and probably not very healthy but it was what I could afford with what I was making at my job.  I spent about $1.25 on food a day.  I'd park in a forested area down by the river for the night to sleep.  That's right.  I lived in a jeep down by the river.  Shout out to Chris Farley, God rest his soul.

But seriously, being homeless for those two years was great.  It was a great learning experience for me.  It really matured me and grew my faith.  I truly think everyone should be homeless for six months of their lives.  It can make you realize what is really important in life.

So if someone wants to be homeless up in the forest, be my guest...as long as you're doing it legally, not trashing the place, and not harassing people expecting them to take care of you.  And there in lies one of the problems with homelessness in Durango.  It's not that we have a lot of homeless people.  We do but that's not the real problem.  It's that many are sleeping in places illegally and trashing the places they stay for the night.  It's easy to know when you've come upon a homeless camp because they tend to leave trash everywhere.  Living green and environmentally-friendly has rarely ever been high on the priority list for the poor people of the world.

During my two years of long-term camping, I tried to be different though.  Littering has always been one of the biggest things that makes my blood boil.  When I was living out of my jeep, I'd leave no trace that I was there.  I'd sleep there at night and be gone during the day.  After I left for the day, no one would ever had known I'd been their the night before.  To this day, you'd never know I had been there.

The other homelessness issue that is now getting a lot of chatter is the panhandling that has flooded the sidewalks and parking lots of our tourist and grocery store areas.  I seriously feel at times as if I'm in a third-world country when I walk down Main St. or go to the grocery store there are so many people begging.  It's not just begging but being aggressive and harassing people if they don't feed their laziness, entitlement, and/or love of drugs or alcohol.  Quite frankly, there is no reason to beg or harass people with all the handouts this town has.  So you have to ask where that extra money would be going?

I've personally been harassed at all hours of the day and night.  Nothing like having a homeless guy harass you at night in an empty and dark parking lot.  It gets to the point where people stop going to those places.  It kills business.  These are businesses of people who are actually willing to work and their customers are being scared away by people who think the world owes them something.

Clearly, there is a big issue here.  It's one that needs to be fixed.  I've listened to a lot of people's opinions on this.  Some people say build them housing but that seems to make it that much easier for them to stay on the path they are on.  Some say, write them fines or take them to jail.  In talking to some of the cops around town, they don't believe that works.  Jail just gives them a bunch of free meals and a roof over their head.  Fines never get paid.  My wife has mentioned only giving helping those who were born in Durango.  Neither my wife or I were born here so that would exclude us from getting help.

So what's the answer?  I think one, we need to stop giving to the beggers.  If we dry up their cash flow for alcohol and drugs, they will be more likely to move on or find a job that will provide cash flow for their wants if it is important enough to them.  I always try to direct them to the soup kitchen when approached.  Last I checked, the soup kitchen has recently installed a system where when you work or help the soup kitchen, you can earn extra food or showers.  It's helping people work for the help they get and hopefully, that might create a good habit.

The next thing I'd do is to make people who are going to beg in certain areas like business areas get a permit to beg.  Make it maybe $500.  It's pricey but that's the point.  If you don't have the permit, you can't beg outside of places of business.

If you think that's harsh, then you'll really think this is harsh.  Anyone who breaks that law gets a month in jail.  Ouch, I know.  It sounds bad but hear me out.  During that month in jail, the first thing they would get is court-ordered counseling.  Not everyone is homeless because they are entitled and lazy.  This would allow those with mental illness or addictions to get real help for an extended time.

Those arrested will also be forced to do manual labor.  I'm thinking chain-gang style.  We have plenty of jobs around town they could do.  Make them shovel snow in the winter time.  Having them clearing mountain bike and hiking trails of debris during the spring, summer, and fall.  The big thing here is the manual labor.  It's forcing them to do the thing they were completely trying to avoid.  Make that known publicly and I'm sure it would be a huge deterrent.  You break the law, we'll make you work.  It might take some time to catch on but after awhile, I'm sure we'd have almost no problems with aggressive begging.  These people will be forced to change and be productive citizens of society or will simply move on to other places more friendly to their entitled and lazy lifestyle.

Lastly, maybe build on my wife's suggestion.  Now, I wouldn't exclude everyone except Durango natives from help from the local government or shelter and soup kitchen.  But maybe legislate that you have to be a resident of Durango for a certain time period before you can apply for help.  In a college town like this, anywhere from three to six years of residency makes sense to me.  Hopefully, that would encourage people to move back to their hometowns (which are probably much cheaper places to live anyway) when they hit hard times.  Of course, their would be special exceptions for situations like the battered wife escaping an abusive husband or the family whose house just burned down.

I'm sure a lot of people would tell me I have no compassion.  They'd tell me that I'm a terrible Christian.  "Jesus told us to take care of the poor, you hypocrite!"  Of course He did but is feeding someone's addiction to drugs and/or their mental illness of entitlement really helping them?  I see it helping much more if instead of giving a man a fish, we teach a man to fish.  It's much more helpful to their life if we give stern encouragements to provide for themselves instead of relying on others to provide for them.

We have to remember that the poor back in the time of Jesus for the most part were not lazy people but orphans, widows, and those physically disabled.  The Bible states that if you don't work, you don't eat.  That leaves lazy people not eating.  It's amazing what a motivator hunger is.  Once you get hungry enough, you'll be more than encouraged to work for food.  Even when the Israelites were commanded to leave a bit of food in the fields for the poor traveler or outsider passing thru, that outsider still had to work to harvest that food.  It wasn't a free handout.

Homelessness in Durango is certainly complex issue because you're dealing with human beings.  We want to love them and have compassion and we still can while solving this problem.  We might just have to be willing to take the hard and sometimes what seems like harsh steps on the surface to make it happen.  Sometimes, the hard things are the most loving and compassionate things you can do.  I'm not saying I have all the answers or that this is the kindest way to handle the situation but I do see these ideas as possible solutions.  And now, Durango is at a point in time where we desperately need some real solutions.