During this recession, when local governments are having to lay off employees and close libraries and cut programs enjoyed by many, should local elected officials feel compelled to use tax dollars to provide some comfort/sustenance/shelter to people who are homeless?
Or should they say, essentially, "The homeless got themselves into that mess, let them get themselves out. We aren't the United Way."
The Clearwater City Council had an emotional debate about that issue at its Dec. 18 meeting. One council member, George Cretekos, even said, "We aren't the United Way," in arguing that the city should not cover a budget shortfall of $119,470 at the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project (CHIP) to keep its day center for homeless individuals in operation one more year.
During that long discussion, officials touched on many of the questions, issues and myths that make decisions about whether to use tax dollars to address homelessness so difficult. For example, will spending the money "fix" homelessness? Will helping the homeless make more homeless people come to the community? Will cancelling programs for the homeless make new and worse problems surface? Shouldn't somebody other than city government take on this job? Can't we move the homeless people somewhere else? Are homeless people who live in Clearwater city residents, or are they in some other category that isn't entitled to the representation and resources of the city government?
And coloring all that debate was each council member's deeply personal attitude about homeless people.
Two members, John Doran and Carlen Petersen, have been involved with groups trying to assist the homeless and hungry, and they are comfortable with the people and the issue. In council meetings, they sometimes play the role of mythbusters. If someone implies that "the homeless" are just vagrant men, Doran and Petersen will point out that many of the homeless are families with children. When someone says the homeless are lazy and won't work, the two will say that many of the homeless do work but can't earn enough to pay rent. If people who live on the street are said to be "drunks," Doran and Petersen are quick to explain that many of the chronic homeless have physical handicaps or untreated mental illnesses, are abuse victims or suffer from post traumatic stress disorder brought on by military service.
On the other end of the spectrum are council members George Cretekos and Paul Gibson. Relatively new to elected office, both consider themselves successful and realistic. Gibson, particularly, positions himself as a hard-nosed businessman. Cretekos says the city government can't afford to be a social service agency, while Gibson wonders if the homeless can just be moved somewhere else.
Perched between these two camps on the council dais is Mayor Frank Hibbard, a deeply religious man who has a practical side and whose overriding concern is the city's declining revenues.
The CHIP center on the east end of downtown Clearwater operates a day center for single homeless individuals; a long-term shelter for men and women who have jobs and commit to certain rules; and transitional apartments. Some people say the CHIP center attracted homeless people to Clearwater. They forget that CHIP was created in 1998 because so many homeless people were already in Clearwater, sleeping in doorways, bathing in fountains and defecating in the bushes. Property owners would call police, and the police would spend hours searching for a shelter for them or would take them to jail, where cells were in short supply and there was no counseling.
The city, at the urging of police Chief Sid Klein, founded CHIP to assist the homeless and the police. The city funded CHIP, even after it later became a private nonprofit at the city's urging so it could also solicit outside funds. But now, private donations are drying up at nonprofits.
After its long debate Dec. 18, the council voted 4-1, with Cretekos voting against, to provide the funding for CHIP's day center just this year. Hibbard says it is time for CHIP to consider merging with one of the two other private homeless services in Clearwater, but they need funds, too.
The CHIP day center served 895 new homeless individuals during the 2007-2008 fiscal year — 3,500 client visits in all. Those individuals went there to shower, use the bathrooms and speak with counselors. If the day center closes, the homeless will still be in the area, but they will be taking care of their personal needs in public again. Again, the police will be called, and, "Where are we gonna take them?" Klein asked council members.
It's a very good question.
"The last thing this city needs is to lose any of its homeless services right now," said council member Petersen, "because the numbers of homeless are growing in this economy."
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.