Let’s build bridges, not fences, to deal with homelessness in our community

By Charlie Quimby

Around the time a City of Grand Junction committee began studying potential responses to the town’s so-called vagrancy problem, I started writing a novel that strayed into similar territory. This month, both works are going public.

It’s telling that it took three years to produce a 15-page report representing committee consensus and a 320-page novel portraying community conflict. Views of homelessness in the Grand Valley range widely — a mishmash of fact and fiction, personal opinion and first-hand experience, sober cost-accounting and deep empathy. It’s a complex drama simplified with stock scenes and stereotyped characters. (See America’s ongoing immigration debate.)

I was heartened to see the committee’s primary recommendation was to increase the availability of permanent supportive housing in the valley. Addressing housing first has been shown to be effective at addressing the other complications in the lives of homeless individuals. While the approach can save society money overall, it is also the mostly costly intervention. The suggestion of government involvement in what some perceive as a personal failing is also bound to invite critical fire.

Our Utah neighbors recently adopted a Housing First model that received national recognition for rapid decreases in chronic homelessness and its related social ills. Utahans are hardly free spenders. But presented with the evidence, the state moved quickly, propelled by the combined moral authority, business pragmatism and political leverage of the LDS Church.

Those forces in Mesa County are not so powerful and well aligned. How will we move forward to solutions? The community can’t spend three years in committee meetings learning together, but we can deepen our common understanding.

1. Avoid divisive language. Chronic homelessness is, in the words of the Sentinel, “a complex issue that taxes a variety of public resources and has created a blight on the city.” The committee report refers to other cities struggling to solve a “growing epidemic” of homelessness and contrasts “the needs of the chronically homeless” with “the rights of our other citizens to live, work, and recreate in a clean and safe environment.”

In our discussions, let’s avoid disease metaphors and exclusionary constructs that pit needy homeless against others with rights. Start from the assumption that we are all citizens who desire a clean and safe environment.

2. Resist generalizations. While categories and broad diagnoses may be useful in policy discussions, remember that people living in homelessness are unique individuals. The paths to their present living situation may be more complex and poignant than you imagine.

In drive-by mode, it’s tempting to classify a person on the street as a vagrant. But consider: 57 percent of homeless individuals in Mesa County have lived here for three years or more; another 19 percent have been here at least one year; 38 percent have received money from working in the prior month. That 42 percent had at least one disability and 36 percent had serious mental illness. Only 15 percent reported substance abuse problems.

3. Question favorite assumptions. Grand Junction is the only major city in the state that does not give financial support to shelters, yet there’s persistent conjecture that troublesome transients flock here from less generous communities. The report seems to echo this fear, expressing opposition to programs that could “become a beacon to others who might travel to Grand Junction solely to obtain those services.”

But do social services really make us a magnet for indolence? The city is the logical destination within a radius of more than 100 miles for anyone trying to find advanced medical care or more housing and employment choices. Our efforts to become a destination for tourists, retirees and entrepreneurs will naturally attract all kinds. As we work to reduce the negative impacts on our downtown, let’s continue to position our city as a beautiful, welcoming place where people come to improve their lives.

4. Acknowledge that progress takes time. The police department’s Community Resource Unit and Crisis Intervention Team represent positive alternatives to aggressive enforcement that criminalizes homelessness. The new Pathways Village family housing has freed up space at HomewardBound shelter, and transitional and permanent housing units built by Catholic Outreach in recent years have helped reduce the number of veterans and vulnerable adults on the street. Social agency efforts are more coordinated, and more than a thousand volunteers multiply the impact of community generosity.

Closer involvement with outreach efforts like these helps overcome divisive fear, distrust and misunderstanding. Rather than build a fence around Whitman Park, let’s continue building bridges.

Charlie Quimby has volunteered in a variety of homelessness programs in Colorado and Minnesota since 2009. On Sept. 28 at Grand Valley Books, he will discuss his novel, “Inhabited” with Officer Cindy Cohn, Crisis Intervention Team coordinator for the Grand Junction Police Department.


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