The state of Arizona and Maricopa County now have the dubious distinction of having the fastest growing homeless population in the nation. What should we do, from a public policy standpoint, in response to this problem?
To a large degree, we are fundamentally misdiagnosing the problem itself and reacting in ways that actually exacerbate it. We have only to look to our great urban centers on the West Coast to understand how not to react to this problem. These cities, from Seattle to Los Angeles, have largely created an environment that caters to and attracts ‘prolific offenders’; places where street camping, drug abuse and petty crime have been legalized or radically decriminalized.
The very word homelessness itself exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Homelessness is largely a “human” problem not a “housing” problem. Some 80% of people living on the street suffer from substance abuse/addiction or mental illness, or both. They have decided to live in areas where they are made most “comfortable” in their chosen lifestyle. They habitually commit crimes against property, which render enough cash to enable their next drug purchase and, so, on-and-on the cycle goes. They can be found at shopping centers or busy intersections aggressively panhandling for enough cash to feed their chosen lifestyle.
In 1993, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) labeled it “defining deviancy down” where we, as a society, redefine deviancy — constantly lowering the bar for what we consider to be normal behavior. That is exactly what most urban centers are doing in response to the homeless problem.
We here in Arizona had better take a radically different approach or, I fear, we shall doom ourselves to an ever-worsening problem that will dramatically lessen quality of life for us all without making an appreciable, positive impact on our homeless population.
Here in Youngtown, we recognized the growing homelessness problem early on and began going into the camps offering help to those willing to accept it while enforcing no-trespass statutes and ordinances. We are now in process of rolling out a three-pronged plan of action to lessen crime, homelessness, malicious loitering and the drug problem.
1) We have already deployed some three dozen license plate reader cameras at virtually every point of ingress/egress in town. These cameras are synchronized with the National Crime Information Center database. They capture, and save, an image of virtually every vehicle entering/leaving town. Law enforcement officers are notified instantly when a stolen vehicle/license plate or Amber Alert vehicle is detected.
2) We will soon begin “flooding the zone” with additional law enforcement and security resources to help aggressively push back against public drug abuse, street camping, malicious loitering and petty crime while simultaneously continuing to offer legitimate help to those who will accept it.
3) Town officials are working with residents and business owners, throughout the community, to establish neighborhood watch cells and citizen patrols. We will provide resources, including signage, T-shirts and organizational assistance as we “rise-up” as a community to push back against these unsavory elements.
The time to act is now! I urge all local jurisdictions and the state of Arizona and Maricopa County to take immediate, aggressive and appropriate action to push back on these problems. Let’s not make the same mistakes other cities have made in politicizing the problem. We can, and should, adopt honest and common sense-based public policies and deploy resources in ways that will have a positive impact on an ever growing problem.
Editor’s Note: Michael LeVault is Youngtown mayor.