Bramson: Calling the question on criminalization 
Formerly unhoused resident Geneva Strickland walked down the trail near Coyote Creek to find homeless camps in the early morning hours of Feb. 23. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Sometimes, when things get bleak, we need to look back to move forward.

    In 1939, John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath.” Set during the Great Depression, the story follows the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers who were forced to leave their land due to economic hardships. A few years earlier and across the pond in Europe, George Orwell finished a semi-autobiographical work — “Down and Out in Paris and London” — that similarly recounted his own experiences with destitution and homelessness during the late 1920s.

    Both novels, though differing considerably in theme and tone, served as insightful explorations of poverty and inequality, highlighting both authors’ concern for the marginalized, accompanied by keen observations of the human condition. And the intense critique by these literary masterpieces of the absolute failure of the social safety net contributed directly to the adoption of new government policies and programs that helped to lift tens of thousands of people out of one of the most challenging periods in modern history.

    Despite the undeniably positive impact of these novels over a century ago, however, the popular narrative is starting to take a darker turn today. Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused to reconsider a prior ruling that barred an Oregon city from penalizing unhoused residents who sleep in public spaces. On its surface, this action reaffirmed previous court decisions, effectively closing the door on any actions that actively deny people the right to sleep as a violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause enshrined in the Eighth Amendment.

    But while the decision itself makes absolute sense, the continued pressure to litigate these quality of life concerns over and over again speaks to a changing tide. With the severity of the crisis we see outside everyday, people are simply fed up with the conditions on our streets. And while there is plenty of evidence that approaches like prevention and permanent supportive housing happening right now are the most effective ways to end homelessness, the lack of government resources at the federal and state levels to expand these interventions have made the general public begin to question if any of it is really working.

    So, as opposed to deeper investment, we’re seeing a regression. The criminalization of homelessness is on the rise again. Throughout the country, arguably unconstitutional bills are being proposed and passed that target the most vulnerable members of our community, offering only punitive actions with no long-term solutions considered. Even locally, we are contemplating and passing measures that will only move people along, without much consideration for the underlying reasons that brought them there in the first place.

    That’s why now is the time to reset our intention for the future. The next 18 months will be critical for the mission of ending homelessness in California. We already know there will be constitutional amendments proposed to lower the threshold for housing revenue measures, large state and regional housing bonds on the ballot, and legislative proposals that could combine to deliver billions of dollars for services and new affordable developments in the Bay Area. But to get over the goal line, we’re going to need the voters to step up in a major way. And part of me worries that the sentiment just isn’t there at the moment.

    So, it’s time to take stock of what matters most. The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t arrest our way out of what really is a housing crisis. The alternative, then, is to take what works and expand it considerably. It’s going to be up to all of us in the months ahead to make up our minds about what we want to see. But if the heart-wrenching suffering of the Joads or the brutal struggles of Orwell have taught us anything, we’re all going to have to give much more as a society if we truly want to avoid the horrible and bleak tragedy for so many that may be waiting on the road ahead.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter. 

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