A Tale of Two Cities: Police, Crime, and the Homeless
I have a friend who recently got out of jail. He’s a disabled vet who’s dealing with some mental problems, and not getting the help he needs from the VA. He didn’t do anything serious. He just kept hanging out with the wrong crowd, and this eventually got him into an increasing amount of trouble. Now he’s homeless and living on a couch.
When he got out of jail, he was put into a “Community Sentencing” program, which is supposed to help him get on his feet. Instead of receiving help, he has to pay almost $500 a month for the privilege of having his time wasted by countless meetings that interfere with his work schedule. The VA has been supposedly trying to find him a place to live for the past two years. Even though he works a part time job, he can’t afford a place of his own because of the burdensome fees he must pay. He is doomed to continue to pass through the revolving door of a court system that is designed to extract money from the people who can least afford to pay it. Basically he’s completely screwed, and will never be able to pay off his legal fees. He will be perpetually homeless, given the current system.
“Fully funding the police” will not solve this, and neither will building “more affordable housing” for the poor. Both sides of the argument are just stupid talking points designed to motivate an uninformed voter base to vote for their team’s partisan candidate.
Crime and homelessness are two sides of the same coin… And I’ll show you why!
Fully Fund The Police:
New York City has the best funded police force in the world. There are roughly 36,000 police officers serving a population of about 8,000,000 people, living in an area of 302 square miles. That’s roughly 1 police officer for every 225 people, or 119 police officers per square mile.
Norman Oklahoma, is a small city with roughly 200 police officers serving a population of roughly 125,000 people, living in an area of 189 square miles. That’s roughly 1 police officer for every 625 people, or roughly 1 officer per square mile.
Some would say we simply need more cops and everything would be fine. While there are some benefits to having more police officers, there are nuanced, but important differences between New York City and Norman Oklahoma.
First off, New York City has a population twice the size of the entire State of Oklahoma, packed into a small area only 50% larger than the City of Norman. Walk around most parts of NYC and you will see multiple police on nearly every block. The building that I grew up in contained 2,500 people, which means that 12 police officers can be allocated to that single building! Even if Norman, OK had the same ratio of police officers to population, 12 police officers would have to patrol a substantially larger area in order to protect the same number of people. It’s not just a matter of police per person, but also police per square mile, and The City of Norman simply does not have the budget to provide the same level of police coverage as New York City.
More Affordable Housing:
Homeless people tend to fall in one of three categories, few of which will be helped by affordable housing. Additionally, homelessness is often a “choice” in so much that being homeless is the result of decisions that people are actively making. Most homeless situations could be quickly solved if people made different life choices… though in many cases, these life choices leave a person trapped by long term consequences of their bad decisions.
The first category are people who have just had bad luck in life. These are the people we most often described when we think about homeless, and the people we wish to help the most. We’ve all been there. Life is tough, and sometimes everything goes wrong, despite our best efforts. Sometimes things go very wrong, and we end up on our friend’s couch. This is especially common in a college town where life is particularly expensive due to the rising cost of education. These people, however, seldom end up on the street. They are usually good people who have friends and family they can rely on. These are also the people most likely to turn to private charity for help. I can’t count the number of times I’ve let a friend stay in my guest room for several months, or even several years, because they got a divorce or lost their job, or had some medical issue they couldn’t afford. I can’t think of a single time I’ve seen someone in this category on the street for an extended period of time. (Actually, there was this out-of-work musician in NYC who lived underneath an awning, with his grand piano, for a few weeks near Lincoln Center… but that’s something you would only see in NYC) This is because these people are hard working and willing to accept help from others.
The second category are people who suffer from mental illness or have drug addictions; often an overlapping category. Regardless of how they came into their current situation, these people are unable to cope with modern society and need some serious help. They find themselves continuously in trouble with the law, and are unable to break the cycle because the court system is not designed to help them with their problems. Most of these people need long-term, in-patient drug & psychiatric care. A homeless shelter will not address the source of their problems. Likewise, affordable housing will not be sustainable because these people are not able to keep out of trouble, let alone keep a job. They are doomed to fail without treatment in a proper mental hospital / halfway house facility. This lesson is obvious to anyone who watched the homeless crisis spin out of control when NYC shut down many of it’s mental hospitals, discharging patients onto the streets. While there are ethical concerns about forcing the insane and drug addicted into mental hospitals, the courts could easily sentence drug offenders to complete an in-patient program in a mental hospital / rehab center, rather than fill up the jail with non-violent offenders.
The final category are transient populations who live a nomadic life. Some of these people are crazy and should really fall into the second category with the drug addicts and mentally ill. Others just want to live life “their own way” and are mostly harmless. There are probably some who are criminals on the run, and hope to evade capture by staying away from society. I can think of many legitimate reasons why someone might want to spend the night in the park, or camp out in the woods. I know a few good spots in the wilderness that I like to go when I just want to be left alone. On the other hand, sometimes these people are up to no good. The reality is that transients will need to be dealt with on a case by case basis. We also need to differentiate between transients who are friendly towards our society and those who are not. This will be a complicated group to deal with because there are many reasons why someone might choose this lifestyle. Our leaders don’t like to hear this, because it makes for a poor campaign slogan. How many voters would believe a politician who said, “I will make good decisions on a case by case basis, given the current information at my disposal?”
Solutions For A Small City:
A small city like Norman, OK has some advantages and disadvantages, when compared to a metropolis like New York City. The biggest disadvantage is the small budget and large land area. It is simply impossible to hire enough police to patrol a large, sparsely populated area. A small city also doesn’t have the budget for massive homeless assistance programs like New York City, and frankly most of these programs are failures and full of corruption anyway. Criminals can easily perform non-violent crime, such as theft, and get away before the police arrive due to the average travel distances involved.
On the other hand, Norman’s small population means that people are more likely to know each other, and there is a stronger relationship between citizens and police compared to a metropolis like NYC where police don’t live in the same community that they patrol. While there are not as many police per person in a small city like Norman, the legally armed population provides a strong deterrent to violent crime, such as home invasion. The legally armed population deterrent is especially important in a sparsely populated area, where police cannot respond to crimes as quickly. Small cities, such as Norman, OK tend to have stronger bonds between citizens, and neighbors are more likely to help each other when there are problems since they know the city is less able to respond to a crisis.
Rather than debating “Fully Funding The Police” vs “Building More Affordable Housing”, we should be discussing the real problems… DRUGS AND LACK OF OPPORTUNITY! If you can solve the drug problem, and provide opportunity to people who have nothing better to do, you will eventually solve the problem. Conversely, any solution that does not address the drug problem and lack of opportunity will eventually fail. Courts need to, not only consider the real reason certain people keep getting arrested, but also allow for solutions that don’t condemn someone to a long term relationship with the court system. Likewise, if the City wants to build housing for the homeless, this housing must include mandatory drug and mental treatment, or it will not contribute towards a long term solution. Vocational education and job training can also be part of the solution, once the drug addiction and mental illness issues are addressed. Our city leaders must understand the harsh reality that most of the homeless population, and criminal population, are mentally ill drug addicts, and our current methods of dealing with these people are simply not working.
Solve the drugs and create opportunity, and solutions to the other problems will begin to fall into place.