As a 35-year resident of Costa Mesa and the former chairman of the Costa Mesa Homeless Task Force, I am compelled to offer a few thoughts on attempts to close Mary’s Kitchen in Orange.
My appointment to the Task Force was by unanimous vote of the city council. Politically, I am registered as “No Party Preference” (aka Independent), a change I made over 20 years ago.
During my time on the Task Force, I met with officials from several cities in Southern California and spoke to others by phone. I conducted extensive online research – all at my own expense – and came to the following conclusions, which can help guide any city in their homeless management process:
First, homeless population management in America is now part of the status quo. It is a fixed department in the bureaucracies of most cities and is run by people who have little or no interest in effectively reducing the homeless population: Solve the problem and these folks are out of jobs. OBTW, sticking people in shelters does not reduce homelessness, it merely gets the homeless off the street and out of the sight of voters.
Second, the homeless population is incorrectly perceived as a significant and persistent criminal element in each city. This is false. The official Orange account regarding the closure stated that crime in the area had increased. The statement, however, failed to include any context, that is, it did not state how much it had risen and whether overall crime in the city has also risen. This is critical to making any decision regarding homeless management.
Any crime increase notwithstanding, it is well documented that nearly all homeless crime is homeless-upon-homeless and rarely involves the general population. That does not make the crime any more palatable, but it does provide important context for those who support the closure.
Third, homeless management expectations across America are mismanaged, leaving many taxpayers to believe that all homeless people are just lazy. They believe that the homeless are able-bodied citizens who could easily hold down a job, get their own living quarters, and otherwise become a contributing member of society if they chose. This is a fallacy, perpetuated by the same bureaucrats who run the homeless management departments in those cities.
Fourth, trying to end homelessness is a fool’s errand. Homelessness cannot be ended, but it can be significantly reduced. To do that, however, requires long-term planning and commitment, which no politician in the country seems to want to undertake as there is no short-term reward. The key to effectively reducing homelessness is to move upstream and stop it before it starts. This is not, as a friend would say, “rocket surgery,” as we know the top reasons why people become homeless.
What is lacking in the struggle to reduce homelessness is true leadership. What we have in the county in the place of true leadership are photo-op, sound bite-craving politicians who spend more time campaigning and fundraising than governing.
Fifth, the county program to which Orange wishes to turn for homeless management, the so-called “Continuum of Care,” contains no continuum and substandard care. It is simply another bureaucracy that exists with no long-term plan, and no regular oversight and review. This is not speculation, it is an informed opinion.
I don’t expect this column to inspire any of the Orange politicians to change their minds and stop wasting precious taxpayer dollars in support of closing Mary’s Kitchen. Closing Mary’s Kitchen is low-hanging fruit, that is, it’s good only for headlines and video clips but does nothing to support the goal of reducing homelessness. In the end, it is just kicking the problem down the street.
I simply want the Orange City Council to know that there is at least one person in the county who realizes that if it were their personal money being used to spend in the Mary’s Kitchen fight, there would be no fight, and who understands that is always the people who do not need a particular public service who argue the loudest for its demise.
Steve Smith is a 35-year county resident, a former columnist for the Daily Pilot newspaper (15 years), and a contributor to several regional and national publications.
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