Elevating the dialogue on homelessness

The community needs to have a constructive, compassionate conversation

The author, a longtime contributor to the CN&R, teaches at Butte College.

The recent debate (brouhaha, at times) concerning issues associated with the homeless in downtown Chico has been simmering like a pot of Mulligan stew into which a bit of everything has been thrown.

Our community has heard and seen appreciable words of compassion and respect for the homeless. We’ve also heard and seen words that exude harsh judgment, oversimplification and overgeneralization; for example, some have said homeless people contribute nothing, or they’re all lazy and unmotivated. I’ve had homeless students in my classes who have lived out of their cars or couch-surfed, yet have eagerly sought education. They’ve been anything but unmotivated.

Oversimplification and overgeneralization offer nothing of value to a conversation that will go nowhere if it’s not constructive. People without homes have widely different stories; it’s unfair to make blanket statements about homeless people or relegate them to stigmatizing stereotypes and labels weighted down with negative connotations (such as “transients”). In the same vein, embracing but a single definition of homelessness also presents problems. Definitions can limit our thinking—if we let them.

Perhaps the most disturbing phenomenon that has emerged is the “us versus them” mentality, tinged with self-righteousness, heard in public comments as well as appearing in articles and opinion pieces in local media. Dichotomizing our community does not contribute to workable solutions. It’s counterproductive to say, “We need to take our home back”—to whom does that “our” refer? Chico does not belong solely to the “homed” people—Chico’s the home of the homeless, too.

Solutions for the present problems must arise from a spirit of compassion and a belief in redemption. Who are we if we have no caring for the less fortunate? Not much. For this debate, we must set a high standard of behavior that’s based on our humanity, and it has to lead to the creation of policies and programs that show respect for all. We need to use reasonable language, raise the level of the dialogue, and embrace an intelligent and responsible narrative.

Homelessness in Chico is a complex, multifaceted problem, the resolution of which demands intelligent, civilized discourse. Some of the bits that have been thrown into the Mulligan stew lately have been doing a disservice to the process of thoughtful, results-producing discussion.

We need to check our fears and our egos at the door, and promote remedies that reflect fundamental human decency.