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Homelessness not always about housing

Historically, right, left share blame in where we are today

The La Plata County commissioners did the right thing Tuesday in deciding to get out of a contract to buy property along U.S. Highway 160 for a homeless camp. “When in doubt, don’t” is not a bad rule of thumb - especially if the question is whether to spend millions of taxpayer dollars.

Apparently, there were quite a few doubts about the proposed purchase. But before getting into the weeds on specific questions about acreage and design, perhaps the commissioners - and others, such as the City Council - should focus more on what they are trying to accomplish and why.

Start with straightforward questions. Why is it local taxpayers’ responsibility to provide these folks with a place to be? And what makes people think this is all about housing?

The term “homeless” was coined to replace older, harsher nouns. But it also gives the erroneous impression that the issue is having a roof over your head. That was demonstrated Tuesday when the sole speaker to address the commissioners cited high real estate prices as “one of the main causes of unhoused people.”

The problem, of course, is that is wrong. All the rest of us face the same real estate prices. Some make sacrifices in other areas to keep up or by working more. Some move to a neighboring town or leave this area altogether. At some point, most people also experience a job loss, a failed business, a divorce or any number of other setbacks.

Few of us end up at Purple Cliffs.

What we call homelessness is a complex problem. Its origins, however, can largely be traced to two ironically bipartisan factors. One is the right wing’s historic antipathy toward public funding of mental health programs. The other is the left’s insistence on personal liberty, even at the expense of public order.

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan emptied the state’s mental hospitals with the promise of community mental health clinics, which never materialized. Louisiana’s former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal later did essentially the same thing. As president, Reagan presided over the gutting of the Mental Health Systems Act.

Then, pushed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court struck down vagrancy laws. In Kolander v. Lawson, the court rightly targeted racist and arbitrary use of such laws, but at the same time effectively created a constitutional right to sleep on the street.

The irony here is thick. Reagan’s heirs are now touting mental health programs as an alternative to gun control. And the left forgets that vagrancy laws were first enacted in the South as an excuse to house and feed Confederate veterans.

What is clear is that there is no single problem and no simple fix. No one entity can offer a solution. And what can be done may not come locally.

More emphasis on mental health is critical. And there must be a constitutional way to recognize the community’s rights as well as those of the homeless.

Start by acknowledging that homelessness has precious little to do with housing.