Home > Cultural Movement, Parks and Recreation > Moving beyond calling people “bums”, “drunks”, and “dope heads”

Moving beyond calling people “bums”, “drunks”, and “dope heads”

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Alternatives to demonizing and criminalizing the homeless

Last week (MW), Traverse City City Commission raised eyebrows when they created an alcohol ban in the Jay Smith Walkway in response to a handful of people who were publicly intoxicated and causing visitors to the area to be uncomfortable. As said before, for this pocket park, the ban is probably not a bad idea. The true test will be how the City reacts to the request for further “solutions”.

This morning, NPR is reporting of cities across the country (NPR) reacting in a number of ways to increasing numbers of people un-housed in their communities. Many cities are passing obscure ordinances opaquely directed at people without homes. Examples like strict no loitering rules, no napping in parks, no lying on the ground, panhandling restrictions, and bans on handing out food to poor people are just a few. The latter possibly infringing on people’s 1st Amendment Rights (Epoch Times).

Let’s trust the City of Traverse City can respond with the due care our community expects. In order to do so, they may find the study, “Searching out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness” (USICH) by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness to be helpful. The three strategies described in the report are:

  • The creation of comprehensive and seamless systems of care.
  • Collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral health and social service providers.
  • Alternative justice system strategies.

Not necessarily areas of expertise for elected officials or the city manager, but as leaders they can seek out the people working on the ground directly with un-housed people in the community who do have the experience. Indeed, if they don’t, those professionals will seek them out and probably already have.

In addition, as citizens of the community, all of us would benefit from learning a bit more about the issue in the context of the region. Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse County (SH), with Goodwill Inn (GI), have provided the following homelessness fact sheet that helps define the issue, explain the causes, and basic ways to work with the homeless.

Thank you to Peter S. for the discussion and forwarding of resources. Ding! Ding!a


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  1. Jim Carruthers
    October 8, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Good points Gary and this is a very difficult issue for many communities currently, due to may factors. Homelessness is a major issue that needs support and study. Drug and alcohol abuse blends in, with frustrating outcomes. Safe Harbor and Goodwill are excellent programs but turn away individuals who are under the influence. These folks only opportunity is to take up roost in city parks or vacant locations, which has become challenging for those that live, work and vacation in our desirable tourist town. I’ve asked that we look into the concept of “safe houses” as one option to move forward with this issue. These are facilities that allow “users” a safe respite while using and in recovery. But this is something that out side agencies need to support and locating them will be difficult. It might be a step in the right direction but one small step.

    Getting more funding for all the support programs is greatly needed and as I have had to deal with our city budget for some time know, I’m not sure what the success will be getting the city to pony up funds for these programs. We can support zoning changes and tax abatement’s and work further with our Housing Commission but we have limited staff, resources and focus, so we can only scratch the surface of the needs. All the good that comes with the massive PR campaign that has highlighted TC as such a great destination has also opened the door to all that is not good with growth. The bad follows the good and we are seeing the unintended consequences of our success. Not easy for our small town to handle but with time I’m sure we can make things better.

  2. Nancy Griesinger
    October 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you Gary for posting this information, and to you Jim for a good response. As a former volunteer (at the old Goodwill Inn) I appreciate the fact that we all learn to eliminate rude language from our vocabulary. There but for the Grace of God go I, is the old phrase that I try to keep in mind, and I am still haunted by the sweet faces of some of the children I met at Goodwill Inn. We do have a problem with intoxicated people behaving poorly, but to shame them is not the way to help them. And…those problem people are not all homeless, as you both know. Not being allowed to give food to hungry people sounds simply awful. Like not being able to feed a parking meeter for a stranger…tsk…tsk…tsk…

  3. Shauna Treter
    October 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Great piece Gary – you hit lots of important points. And I love that you included an educational fact sheet. We all need to educate ourselves on the underlying issues surrounding homelessness. Understanding the problem helps people address it with compassion, and that is especially important when you are dealing with mentally ill people, often the case with the homeless population. As Jim said, safe houses could be a big help. And whether it’s that or something else, we need to be proactive and try some new ideas to help us figure out what is the right fit for our community.

  4. October 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Well said, Gary.

  5. October 9, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    I want to point out that Goodwill and Safe Harbor do not turn people away that are under the influence. The Goodwill Inn does have a zero tolerance policy, but gives chances to people that have relapsed through “safe rooms”. Safe Habor policy does allow people to stay that are under the influence. People are only turned away or exited from Safe Harbor for violent behavior (and we do an excellent to de-escalate). Goodwill’s Street Outreach program provides a staff member each night at Safe Harbor to deal with this and other safety issues. Goodwill’s Street Outreach also works to engage with people experiencing homelessnes on the streets and woods in our area on a daily basis.

  6. Jim Carruthers
    October 16, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for your reply Ryan. A number of people in the addiction treatment community have told me Goodwill and Safe Harbor do turn people away. Not saying that is a bad thing, it’s just that we need alternatives to consider. Maybe these programs would be interested in furthering the option of “wet houses” as an additional facility. We have many people that fall through the cracks and these programs can not accomodate everyone and all the needs people have. Would enjoy sitting down with you some time to talk about this. Jim

  7. Anonymous
    October 20, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    I don’t claim to understand very well how this system works, but I was recently in the psychiatric hospital here where I met some people who are homeless substance abusers. I learned from them and from the hospital staff that when their problem is seen as primarily substance abuse, they are turned away from (state-assisted??) treatment even when they ask for it. They are turned away even when the compulsion to use is so strong that their lives literally fall apart around them. I learned that the only way for them to get help is to show some sign of a mental illness that’s not exempted – that usually takes an overt suicide attempt.

    It’s ironic because I have had my life fall apart around me in the past due to bouts of serious mental illness but with no substance abuse problems and with that I get the state bending over backward to get me into treatment, even to the point of forcing it on me when I didn’t want it .. yet others with a mental problem that causes their life to fall apart get the door shut in their face. How sad and screwed up is a system like that?

    I hope I’m misunderstanding this somehow because it seems so wrong, but in case I’m not, I want people to know about this and keep it in mind when talking about people. Have some compassion, these are some serious issues they are struggling with and getting access to help is difficult.

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