Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier had it right Oct. 15 when he wrote in The Bee about Fresno’s homeless and vagrancy problem. He will probably take a lot of flak for it. There is an old Air Force saying, “You know you’re over the target when you start taking flak.”
Olivier accurately points out the difference between the truly needy homeless who want something better out of life and vagrant addicts who are unwilling to change. A distinction needs to be made between the two in the way aid and help are given. The challenge is to provide help for the legitimately homeless while discouraging vagrants from draining valuable city resources that might be used elsewhere.
Every day at the Fresno Rescue Mission, there are those homeless who have found themselves in critical need of help because of a loss of a job, the loss of housing because of an abusive family situation, poverty, mental illness or a health need. Our hearts go out to those who are “down and out” – genuinely homeless. They must overcome many obstacles to get back on their feet. Using the many services available from local government and other organizations, secular and Christian, the homeless are pulling themselves up out of their lifestyle of poverty. All homeless organizations can point to many individuals, formerly homeless, who are now reunited with their families and once again have become productive members of society.
Most homeless really want to change their lives. Our job as concerned and caring citizens is to motivate and encourage those who want to change. Since 1949, the Rescue Mission has provided guidance and insight on how to do that. Many of the homeless are willing to admit their mistakes and become responsible for their conduct. Many are making a serious effort to turn their lives around. They may need a “hand up” to get back on their feet, but get up they do!
On the other hand, there are vagrants who are habitually homeless and are not taking the opportunity to become accountable and productive. They are the ones who have invaded our communities by living in alleys and vacant lots that eventually become drug-infested camps.
Vagrants trash, break into local businesses and burglarize homes. Public benches and bus stops have become bed for the inebriated. Bushes and flowerbeds have become their latrines. In many areas of the city, Fresno’s citizens must run a gantlet of indigent panhandlers. Vagrants are not willing to change their lifestyles or to productively work. Their life is one of crime and addiction. They often savagely prey on the truly homeless.
Vagrants, in the name of charity, scam well-intentioned and gullible people who have sympathetic hearts but lack discernment as to who is truly needy. Many well-meaning individuals perpetuate the problem by handing out money on street corners that almost always goes to feeding an addiction.
As a society, we cannot continue to tolerate the contrarian, law-breaking ways of vagrants. Tolerance of criminal actions and unconditional charity without accountability is not the answer. An uncomfortable truth is that most vagrants do not want our help because that would mean following rules. As Olivier says, “City Hall is entirely too friendly – to vagrants.”
City leaders say they want to ensure the public safety and provide a quality life for all citizens of Fresno while helping the homeless. That is a commendable goal! We should help the homeless! Vagrants would steal that from all of us.
The government way is to throw money at a problem, but it almost never works. Remember President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty? A lasting solution must involve a person’s willingness to change. Any solution must be preceded by first determining who sincerely wants help in turning their lives around. Nobody said it would be easy, but it is doable, and we must all strive to better the world around us.
The Rev. Larry Arce is chief executive officer of the Fresno Rescue Mission.