Why warehousing people is a bad idea.

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The recent Ninth Circuit court decision (Martin v. City of Boise) that prohibits any municipality from enforcing laws prohibiting camping on public property if there are no available shelter beds, is a very bad idea. It damages everyone including city governments, citizens, non-profit organizations that specialize in helping people who are experiencing homelessness, and most importantly, homeless individuals themselves.

What the court has done is create a government mandated “mercy ministry” to be administered by the cities. It will eventually force cities to either surrender to semi-permanent encampments on public property and incur the expenses of policing and rampant public health issues, or it will force the cities to construct, staff and maintain city-owned structures that will come to resemble un-regulated jailhouses with open gates. It is entirely predictable that a “warehoused” population will self- select to become an aggressive hierarchy with no rules except those mandated and enforced by the strong and aggressive. Those who are peaceful, will simply refuse to stay there. It is a recipe for disaster.  Both scenarios are budgetary black holes which are not sustainable.  Faith-based organization who provide services, would be excluded from the total count of available beds, precisely because they are faith based. In the decision, requirements for chapel, religious symbolism displayed on walls or documents were disqualifying in nature because they purportedly offended the cultural sensitivities of some of the plaintiffs. (It is also interesting to note that many of the plaintiffs were not actually homeless and seemed to possess enough resources to travel from city to city for the purpose of visiting relatives in town!)

The dark irony of the appeal decision is that it helps no one and damages everyone.  Most people who are experiencing homelessness have run out of options for food and shelter not because they have no resources, but rather have burned up and discarded all their relationships. Merely supplying tangible resources does not solve the problem. There are various reasons for this self-destructive behavior, including, mental illness, childhood trauma and other factors, but only about 20% of the homeless population have simply “fallen on hard times.” Those individuals are usually “back on their feet” in about 60-90 days with the help of various organizations. The other 80% need specialized attention which city governments are not equipped to supply. This is the role Visalia Rescue Mission fills. 

Micah 6:8 (ESV) says there are three things God requires from us. First, “perform justice.” This isn’t arbitrary or merely popular justice. It is the design and enforcement of sensible laws, that are rooted in God’s laws. Laws provide the boundaries for what is good and healthy and protects us from what is destructive and damaging. Second Micah says, “Love mercy.” Mercy is designed to help those who are in need and give a “hand up.”  A good society “loves mercy” Mandating mercy, kills mercy. Those who love mercy are free to be generous with it. It provides a path to repair the fractured relationships that give life.  Mercy cannot be mandated, or else is ceases to be mercy and is transmogrified into a new and alien set of perverse rights. Mercy is a necessary component of civil life that balances our society against a mere harsh justice. Finally, Micah says “walk humbly with your God.” Faith in a righteous and good God supplies the moral the “north star” for validating civil law. Justice, mercy and divine morality must exist as an operating triad, or civil society falls apart. Our culture is rapidly losing the ability to discern between what is good and what is not good. This culturally nihilistic decision is a harbinger of difficult days to come.