Commentary: A compromise to cut down on homeless encampments in Petaluma
Articles in the newspaper about homelessness usually focus on encampment sweeps, reasons a person becomes homeless, types of health challenges faced, or the need for more affordable housing. What’s not often covered are the impacts of encampments on the environment or the effects of climate change and pollution on the homeless. Basic human rights like clean water, sanitation, bathrooms, and a safe place to live - the things many of us take for granted - are also not covered. The convergence of all these challenges makes solving homelessness one of our biggest issues today.
The unsheltered live, eat, sleep, socialize, and take care of basic human functions all outdoors. Human waste contaminates the ground and water. There are large amounts of trash and contaminated needles. Fires also occur in camps and given the drought conditions of Northern California, could be devastating. Encampments cause significant damage to parks, habitat, riparian areas, and connected waterways.
But let’s be fair. The unsheltered may not understand proper camping protocols. And in my experience, it is not their intent to harm the environment. They would rather be somewhere safe and with access to services that can help them. And for many legitimate reasons, living in a congregate setting like a shelter does not work for everyone.
Climate change and pollution also directly impact the unsheltered. Some sleep near roads or under bridges exposing them to high levels of auto related emissions. As temperatures increase, more are susceptible to heat stress.
Many of us fight for social justice and equity. But what about environmental justice, where we try and balance the need to keep our environment safe and healthy while also providing a safe and dignified living environment for the unsheltered. How do we create a better situation for the unsheltered and the environment?
One answer is compromise. What if we utilized a large plot of land where the unsheltered can live temporarily without fear of being roused to move on? There would be space for tents, vehicles, even tiny homes. And what if services were provided to help address challenges like mental health, medical, substance abuse, and case management services to assist with life skills and to find housing?
The ultimate goal is to get people stabilized and then into a type of housing that works for them. Some may not want a traditional apartment or house to share with others. Maybe a tiny home structure to call their own is all they want. While the unsheltered may not have the freedom to do whatever they please, neither does anyone else. The win-win is that they are in a safe place with clean water, access to showers and laundry, hot meals, and services to assist them back to health. We also minimize harm to the environment while allowing others to enjoy the beauty and safety of parks and public areas.
As we continue to address the complexities of homelessness, let’s not forget one basic premise – we are all human beings and deserve respect. Respect means to accept someone for who they are even when they are different from you or you don’t agree with them, their living style, or their situation. It means not passing judgement just because someone is without a home.
Homelessness does not define a person. It only defines their situation. That is why we say a person experiences homelessness. We hope that it is a temporary living situation. We are all equal and all people are due respect for the simple fact that they are people, including those experiencing homelessness.
Chuck Fernandez is the CEO of the Committee On The Shelterless.