A sad and poignant piece of journalism appeared in today's Washington Post. See that here It is indeed tragic that Alfred Postell's life spiraled out of control after he became seriously mentally ill and ended up living on the streets of Washington, DC. While the Post deserves credit for calling attention to the plight of the homeless/mentally ill, this in my opinion is not the story that needs to be told.
As anyone who knows me or follows my photo project "The Invisible Ones" can attest, I spend a fair amount of time interacting with the homeless living on the streets of Washington, DC. One of the dominant themes running through my conversations with these folks is why do you sleep outdoors when you can go to a shelter? Over and over again the answer is the same, "the shelters are dangerous places where you will be hurt and your things will be stolen. At least I am safe outdoors." The reporter for the Post did not ask Mr. Postell why he chooses to sleep in front of a building. I'd bet big money that I know the reason. Most certainly the police know the reason as well, yet they will arrest Mr. Postell and others like him for the crime of needing a safe place to sleep - sorry, they call that trespassing in DC. I have repeatedly heard the argument that being in jail is at least a safe place, where one is fed and sheltered. As a factual matter, there is no worse environment for a mentally ill person then a jail cell. I know because I worked for eighteen years in a maximum security county jail where our in house mental health program was tasked with managing the mentally ill who were arrested in Fairfax County, VA. The Courts in DC know this as well, yet insist they can't do anything about it. Criminalizing the homeless/mentally ill is a pervasive problem throughout the United States.
Cities are finding more and more creative ways to drive the homeless out of town. One such tactic employed by 33 cities at last count is making it a crime to feed the homeless. To say this is shortsighted doesn't even begin to capture the stupidity of these ordinances and serves to further dehumanize the homeless, likening them to rodents that need to be deprived of food so they will look elsewhere.
Here in DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser has $145 million dollars allocated to deal with the problem of chronic homelessness. There has yet to be a plan announced to divert the homeless/mentally ill from the city jail and into supportive treatment and permanent housing. Ironically there are plans underway to close shelters and put more people at risk as we approach the coming cold weather in just a few months. Surely we as one of the wealthiest countries on the planet can do better than this.