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Homelessness on the Westside

Dear Ms Shields and Ms Justus,

Unfortunately, I am teaching on Tuesday evenings from 6-9 p.m. and so will miss you tonight. I appreciate Barb Bailey’s effort in redefining the present and persistent issue of homelessness in our neighborhood as a mental health problem. But I hope you will indulge me the use of the term “homeless” for a moment.

If I could be at this meeting, I would tell you and my neighbors that while these people we call homeless may seem out of the ordinary, they are very much a part of our society and our neighborhood. The American way of life manufactures homelessness and doesn’t care for the mentally ill. (Why else would the United States among the industrialized and developed nations of the world have a homeless problem that our compatriots—Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Norway, etc.—do not?) Too often, those fortunate enough to own things (even meager things), have warm homes, and decent cars think that individuals choose to be homeless, or that their choices have forced them into homelessness. While individual choices can’t be discounted, many of these people would rather be left alone to live outside a society that doesn’t want them and their behaviors to begin with.

In dealing with homelessness, we rarely consider the way society pushes people who don’t quite fit to the margins. That is, that we force some of us to the margins. I don’t relieve myself from the guilt of participating in a society that creates the conditions of homelessness and mental illness. The homeless in our neighborhood are just the same as those in other places. We can push them around but until we deal with the root causes of the issue—an economic system that rewards rapacious competition, a mental health system that can’t even be called a system, and a distribution of wealth that favors those already rewarded—we will not solve the homeless problem. These people are very much a part of the fabric of the neighborhood and I welcome their presence.

I’m sorry that people bring their preconceived notions about homelessness to the discussion, that somehow the homeless are inherently criminal, pedophile, and predator. I have been to the camp we are now moving often and have found that most people just want to be left alone. We have suffered no vandalism or theft at our house (1717 Jarboe). I haven’t heard of problems in this end of the neighborhood. My family and I see the homeless coming and going all the time.

We did encounter some problems a few years ago. The camp that stood for a while on the bluff underneath the billboard at 17th and Holly was problematic and often needed police to settle their disputes. But that camp was routed out long ago. The present camp and the people who live under Beardsley pose no problem. I am upset that some neighbors got together in an isolated group and decided that the homeless camp was too much for them to handle—without ever contacting or talking to the people of the camp. I feel sorry for these neighbors, in fact. That they need to have things around them so tidy leads me to believe they are deficient in outlook and compassion.

That said, I believe Barb Bailey is right. Mental illness is rife in the camp. As a person whose family members have suffered from mental illness, I understand how one can easily and quickly become alienated from the world around them. Had things been different, and not by much, my family members—and probably I—too would be homeless.

I would prefer we leave the camp where it is with this caveat: That mental health experts, caseworkers, and social workers go into the camp on a regular basis. These professionals can help the inhabitants make better choices, get them services and IDs, and start casework that would move the campers from homelessness to some semblance of life in society. That way, we don’t scatter the homeless as we will with this all-at-once approach. Even if we give a grace period or fair warning and send in experts, we are still stamping out a camp that could be an outpost from which to help people who want to overcome their situations and join society again.

As an alcoholic who has not had a drink in 27 years, I also know the value of giving people in trouble an ultimatum. Some people won’t budge until they are truly at the edge of the cliff. If I had choices at the end of my drinking, I would have kept drinking. Faced with a ruinous future, I faced a decision: drink or die. I have applied this method in dealing with other alcoholics and found that most people respond when they are up against their addiction.

Regardless of the efficacy of this method of dealing with individual addicts and drunks, I don’t think that it is a good way to deal with a community such as our camp as a whole, particularly because that community is built not just of drunks and addicts. Many of the campers have various gradations of mental illness. They are people who have been forced out into the street by the choice between a doctor bill and a utility bill. There are those who choose to live outside the confines of society. In the end, we all come in out of the cold. As caring Westsiders and Kansas Citians, we ought to provide a means of letting the campers make that choice—instead of making ourselves feel better by pushing these people farther away or patting ourselves on the back because we made people make choices.

I hope you understand and would look forward to sitting down with you for a further discussion. I am willing to be shown my ignorance and ways that I can be more helpful.

In the end, we get rid of this camp and there will be another. It’s happened before. Unless we solve the problem at its roots, we will have another camp, and then another, and then another.

Dr. Patrick Dobson

1717 Jarboe St.

Kansas City, MO 64108

16-896-4746

patrickdobson@kc.rr.com

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