The Homeless Aren't One Thing

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Despite what you may have been told, there's no such thing as "The Homeless."

To be sure, thousands of people live on the streets and under the freeway overpasses of our cities and towns. But it's a fatal mistake to lump them all into a single, homogeneous group called "THE Homeless."

This simplistic definition is at the root of our failure to provide compassionate help to needy citizens, while at the same time solving the public health, nuisance and crime problems caused by the growing numbers of street dwellers.

Too many advocates, pundits, and elected officials lump all street dwellers into one simplistic category or another. At one extreme, some see only poor unfortunates who are simply down on their luck. Some others see only good-for-nothing bums who spend their days harassing passersby.

Battle lines are drawn. If you're sick of stepping in human feces on your doorstep, you're heartless. If you think taxpayer dollars should help folks facing bad luck and trouble, you're softhearted.


Both extremes ignore the reality that every street dweller is a unique individual. Individuals face individual challenges and make individual decisions. They need to be treated as individuals, on a spectrum that ranges from supportive compassion to firm justice. The down-on-their-luck need a safe space and a clean cot while they get their act together. The mentally ill need extended therapy before they hurt themselves or others. The addicted need effective treatment, not ineffective incarceration. The merely indolent need to be tolerated but not coddled - and if they break the law, they need to be unapologetically jailed.

Individual attention may be expensive, but it may be the only way to meet the complex needs of the people we call "The Homeless." We all deserve a clean, safe, and supportive city - whether we have a fixed address or not.

With a Perspective, I'm Rik Myslewski.

Rik Myslewski is a retired technology journalist living in San Francisco.