Street People

How do you feel about street people? Calling those poor souls who live in filth, sleep on city streets, occupy our public libraries, and beg for money “homeless” has always been a stupid label in my opinion. I much prefer to refer to them simply as street people, because that’s what they are – people who exist on the streets.

“The Homeless” sounds as if they are normal everyday people just like you and me, except for the fact they have no home. It’s like if they only had a home they would be normal, productive people. Really? This couldn’t be further from the truth. Although there are some exceptions, most of these pitiful individuals are either alcoholics, drug addicts, mentally ill, or any combination thereof. They are not normal well-balanced people, not by a long shot. It’s pathetic and disgraceful of course.

I’ve written about this before, but it really hit home for me as I was driving to the supermarket around 10:00 in the morning recently. I glanced over and saw a guy walking in the street along the gutter wearing a big heavy bedspread draped over his shoulders, shaking his head and talking to himself. He looked like he hadn’t been in water since maybe the last time it rained, or maybe not even then. Disgusting doesn’t come close to describing his condition. And this was in a pretty nice residential neighborhood.

Later, after I shopped and was on my way back home, I saw another street person. This time it was a woman sitting against a low cinderblock wall; her belongings in a heap beside her. She had a sad dirty dog lying nearby. Just like the man I saw with the bedspread, she was talking to the air. Her toothless mouth going a mile a minute, her empty eyes staring at nothing, and her poor dog stretched out on the sidewalk looking forlorn.

Why are there so many of these people now? This may come as a shock to some folks under the age of forty, but America wasn’t always this way. When I grew up in the fifties and sixties the only time I saw street people was the rare times when we went into downtown L.A. and saw bums on skid row. In those days most people with severe mental illness or alcohol addiction were in hospitals or treatment centers, not on the streets.

What has come to be known as today’s “homelessness” started in the 1970s with what was called the “deinstitutionalization” of patients from state psychiatric hospitals. This was a major factor that laid the ground work of the homeless population, especially in urban areas such as New York City. Some say that Ronald Reagan’s signing of the Lanterman– Petris–Short Act greatly exacerbated homelessness among the mentally ill. This law lowered the standards for involuntary commitment in civil courtrooms and was followed by significant de-funding of 1,700 hospitals caring for mental patients. But the homeless problem really started at least a decade before that.

The Community Mental Health Act of 1963 really set the stage for homelessness in the United States. Long term psychiatric patients were released from state hospitals into SROs (single resident occupancy houses) and were supposed to be sent to community mental health centers for treatment and follow-up. At least that was the idea, but it didn’t work out that way. The community mental health centers mostly did not materialize, and suddenly these people largely were found living in the streets with no sustainable support system. The mentally ill joined the drug addicts and alcoholics sleeping in doorways, roaming the streets, and defecating in public.

Today it has turned into an industry, there’s even lobby groups associated with these street people. Politicians and lawyers along with the ACLU have gotten into the mix, turning these pathetic souls into a new civil rights minority group. The focus is not on getting these people off the streets and into the proper institutions, but rather to demand their “right” to live on the street or wherever. As we know, police don’t round up vagrants anymore or even chase them away. That would be a violation of their civil rights. The so-called homeless even have their own web sites now.

I’m not saying the “good old days” were perfect. But back in the day when the mentally ill were being treated by doctors in mental institutions, and the alcoholics were drying out at facilities where they were being monitored, and the drug addicts were in addiction treatment centers, seems to me to be a better solution for all concerned. What is REALLY SICK is having addicted, deranged people on the streets that are unable to care for themselves. We should be ashamed.

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