Back in my college days, I remember a visit to our campus by activist and anti-war leader Jerry Rubin. I remember little of what he said, which I attribute to current aging synapses rather than youthful indiscretions of that time. But I do remember one exchange during a Q&A at the end of his anti-establishment rant.
If the political system we have is so bad, the questioner asked, what would you replace it with?
“Chocolate ice cream,” Rubin replied.
That story came to mind when I read about the Medford City Council’s reaction to a variety of proposals for providing transitional housing or weather-related shelters for the homeless. By the time last week’s council session was over, concerns or opposition had been raised about allowing more tiny house villages, allowing any sort of shelter anywhere near neighborhoods — even in churches — and allowing more shelters without accompanying rehabilitation services.
The alternative? Chocolate ice cream.
In their defense, the councilors, along with local government officials across the country, are faced with a difficult situation not of their making. Spurred by economic dislocation, soaring housing costs, addictions and a societal failure to adequately deal with mental illness, homelessness has been a growth sector.
That growth comes with costs, many of which have been dumped on the doorsteps of city governments — which, of course, already have an accumulation of issues and associated costs piled up on those same doorsteps. No one is suggesting there’s an easy fix and we should, of course, all thank our councilors for their efforts.
OK, with that niceness out of the way, let’s get back to chocolate ice cream. While the council “agreed to continue studying the issue,” according to the story that ran on April 28, there was a general sense of foot-dragging reluctance to really take it on.
Which left me thinking, so what do they think is the alternative? It’s obviously not good: people camping out under bridges, in downtown doorways, along the Greenway or anywhere else they can find or create some shelter. That can create uncomfortable, and at times unpleasant, interactions between the homeless and the rest of the community, including downtown businesses that routinely deal with unwanted guests.
I agree with a Tuesday editorial that said the solution of asking other cities to do more is a cop-out. Ashland is certainly dealing with homelessness on many fronts and smaller cities have smaller versions of the same problem. But, along with Ashland, Medford is going to continue to be a primary destination, whether we like it or not.
There is evidence that the Hope Village tiny house community is working, but it’s providing help to only a small fraction of the homeless population. Police say the Kelly Shelter in the basement of the Methodist Church on West Main Street definitely helped reduce problems during the cold winter months. And, oh yeah, it helped keep people safe and warm.
So there’s a glimmer of evidence that providing shelter, even temporary shelter, helps not only the homeless, but the community at large. Given that this is a problem that’s not going to magically go away, it seems that maybe we should follow the light from that glimmer and see where it leads. Maybe we can come up with something that’s innovative and proactive instead of the predictably reactive responses of so many communities.
Or we could just hold out for chocolate ice cream.
Bob Hunter is associate editor of the Mail Tribune.