Bramson: The words that leave people out in the cold 
Homeless resident George Villanueva is pictured at Columbus Park. File photo.

A friend recently recommended I check out a popular podcast where a person was being interviewed about a book he wrote on homelessness in California. The author was a controversial climate change writer who had wandered out of that arena after some particularly harsh public criticism and then decided to start delving into the lives of the unhoused. You can imagine how well that went.

The conclusion of his “research” is basically a new polished version of the same dangerous, hateful rhetoric we’ve been hearing for too long now: homelessness has nothing to do with poverty, all people living on the streets are drug addicts, and what we really need to do is significantly ramp up enforcement. He even goes on to suggest that the best solution is to create a massive government agency at the state level to oversee all of homelessness in California, and start by building facilities and locking up the vast majority of people outside. It doesn’t take an expert to understand why such a plan would be a very bad idea for many different reasons.

The problem is this sort of fear-mongering dogma is too often being peddled as fact. And people are buying into this stigmatizing rubbish because it plays into some of their very understandable anxiety and concerns, fits all of the worst stereotypes and makes it easier to turn a blind eye to a much more complicated problem. Even worse, the angry folks who want to oppose any real solutions to homelessness are now using these arguments to confuse, scare and intimidate large swaths of very reasonable residents, business owners and community members who would otherwise be willing to listen and learn.

Take the recent public outcry regarding Project Homekey for example. While it’s fair to say that the short timeline required by the state to submit applications has resulted in less than optimal community outreach, the bottom line is that, if funded, these nine projects would create more than 800 new deeply affordable and interim homes in our community in the next nine months. That’s almost 10% of the entire homeless population in Santa Clara County. There is no question whatsoever that such an intervention would have immediate and considerable impact for everyone involved. Housing ends homelessness, plain and simple, but it also makes our entire community a safer, healthier, and more just place to be.

Still, as always, there are plenty of people out there who say this isn’t the right time or place for such projects. But why? It’s largely because a few selfish individuals who know how to push the right buttons are stoking the fires of intolerance and opposition to make rational discussion almost impossible. If someone in a position of relative power or responsibility comes and tells you that your property values will drop, your business will fail or your kids won’t be safe, it’s easy to understand how anyone might get scared. The problem is what’s being brought to the table isn’t grounded in even a small amount of fact. And it’s hurting our chances at making a real positive change that benefits the quality of life for all, regardless of housing status.

In exchange, we’re getting a barrage of subterfuge that makes it hard to figure out what the hell is going on. For instance, imagine the lunacy of publicly proposing a surcharge on all available funding for homeless services to clean the sidewalks and then actively opposing options that will actually get people off of the streets and into homes. This is happening right now in our own community. The truth is often stranger than fiction.

Fortunately, our elected officials have been carrying the water here and recognizing the absurdity of what’s being sold. From cities such as Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose to the county of Santa Clara, our representatives are unanimously stepping up to make the right decisions to move forward with housing that will lift up our community as a whole. We’ll keep needing them now more than ever to help push forward this important and critical work. With all of this vicious propaganda in the air, we should all be thankful there are still brave leaders working hard for the greater good.

And, we need more information and communication out there to help everyone understand the facts of this issue. In contrast to the sensationalized tripe mentioned above, pieces like John Oliver’s recent segment on homelessness use facts, data, real stories of change, and some great humor to clearly make the case that what we are doing here locally is necessary and right.

More importantly, we all need to ignore the outlandish, destructive hyperbole and keep talking and engaging to learn about real solutions. If we can take the time to do that, we can all succeed together by getting the job done for those who need help now.

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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