The vagrant problem
Let’s make a distinction between vagrants and the homeless in general.
The single men and women who nap in city parks and panhandle for loose change may not have homes, but it would be unfair to lump them into the same category as families who are living in cars or a friend’s garage because a breadwinner lost his or her job.
In many cases, the “homeless” you see are living a lifestyle. They may not have chosen it, but many of them have embraced it. The homeless you don’t see are often hidden from sight trying to find a way to get back on their feet.
Why make a distinction at all? Because it’s vagrants who shape debate about how the city should deal with homeless issues. Their behavior sparks ordinances to regulate begging or prompts city officials to devise schemes to reclaim city parks.
Vagrants are the face of homelessness in Grand Junction. One risks being labeled insensitive or callous to criticize them, but they deserve the same scrutiny as any other group that impacts the quality of life in the Grand Valley, be they real estate developers or environmental coalitions.
Most vagrants are ill-equipped to become productive members of society. Some are alcoholics and some suffer from mental illness. Many no longer possess the social skills to hold down a menial job. They have nowhere to go and little incentive to leave.
They are people deserving of compassion, and Grand Junction shows them compassion in the numerous nonprofit programs that serve this population. But in doing so, the community has created a monster — a sizable number of vagrants who congregate in public spaces such as Whitman Park, which makes it difficult for anyone else to enjoy those spaces.
“It’s not fair for a small group of people to monopolize a park for 65,000 people,” Councilor Bennett Boeschenstein said.
We agree, and that’s why we unapologetically support any plan to reintegrate the park for common use. One lesson that members of the vagrant population seem loathe to learn is that calling Grand Junction home imbues them with civic responsibilities, like sharing parks with the rest of the community.
They demand rights, and rightly so. They’re people, after all. But they seem oblivious to the needs of others.
That’s what happens when you sleep on a sidewalk. It robs you of empathy. How can you care about the single mother who wants to picnic in the park with her kids when you’re worried about where your next beer is coming from?
Solving the problem is complex. The city can’t simply roust vagrants and hand them a one-way ticket out of town. But city officials can take incremental steps to transform Whitman Park into a public space that no longer feels like the exlusive domain of vagrants. It could relocate large-scale free lunch giveaways that reinforce the message: “This is a homeless park.”
Whitman Park has a lot of potential. It’s worth employing tactics to alter public perceptions about how it’s used. If that seems crass, remember that vagrants have problems far bigger than where to escape the afternoon heat. To suggest otherwise is to put Band-Aids on bullet wounds.