There’s a new game in town called Homeless Whac-A-Mole. In the traditional model of the game, the term is used colloquially to denote a repetitious and futile task. The object of the game is to force the moles back into their holes by hitting them directly on the head. The more quickly this is done, the higher the final score will be.
Having worked for many years with people who are homeless and the people who help, I tend to believe that it’s not that most of the public wants people to suffer, it’s that they don’t know how bad they are suffering or that they don’t realize the resources “available” are full.
In reading the recent news article of a barricade being erected, for the second time this summer, on Nicollet Mall to prevent a homeless encampment, I vicariously felt the latest whack. The week before, the Metropolitan Council closed the Green Line light-rail trains overnight during the week, a plan in the works for months, but before shelters had been created for the unsheltered to have somewhere to go. Whack.
This spring, cities and the Minnesota Department of Transportation began placing “Notice to Vacate” signs next to tent dwellings. They state that “to protect your health and safety, you are required to leave this site and not return.” Some move 100 feet. Whack. Most of us are familiar with being told at bar closing time, “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” In this case, you can’t stay here but there’s no home to which to go. A decision in the Ninth U.S. Circuit in September 2018 found that people who had no alternative shelter accommodation couldn’t be forced to move from public land. Minnesota may be facing a similar challenge if the game continues.
Newly homeless families or individuals, people who still possess a vehicle, are being told they can’t park the cars they are sleeping in here — whack — after being told when calling an intake line for shelter, “I’m sorry. We’re full. You can’t come in here.” Whack.
I don’t support an encampment on Nicollet Mall, just as I don’t believe the light-rail trains provide adequate shelter. Encampments of tents without bathrooms and hand-washing stations aren’t adequate for anyone, nor is spending 12 hours sitting in a public library or building. Our game of whack-a-homeless-person isn’t funny and isn’t a game but seems to be more popular and confounding than a Rubik’s Cube.
The game is solved by sheltering people until they obtain housing. Some will solve their own housing situations, through employment and affordable rent. However, they won’t keep a job without sleep and basic hygiene, avoiding sickness. Some came to homelessness with mental illness, it’s true. But does the public realize that homelessness is creating mental illness? How does one avoid worry and depression when one doesn’t know when this trauma is going to end?
Our public and private sectors have a responsibility, in some cases equal to the personal responsibility of the homeless person but often a greater responsibility to someone who is sick, poor and desperate. That doesn’t mean they will always be sick, poor or desperate, but we can’t keep someone in a hole and expect that they will spring to productivity while surviving in the dark.
In 2011, the Minneapolis Downtown Council included ending street homelessness in its 10 goals of the Downtown 2025 plan. This plan included building a stadium, doubling the number of residents living downtown and improving transit. Some of the goals have been accomplished already, despite the six years left in the plan. In the case of ending street homelessness, the focus appears to be on preventing encampments or creating storage units to closet the belongings of the unsheltered after we’ve closeted their appearance in public. We are going to lose the game if we think repeatedly whacking someone over the head is going to make us a winner.
Monica Nilsson, of Minneapolis, is an advocate for those who are homeless. Readers can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @monicamnilsson.