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Begging rising with homeless rate

POSTED November 13, 2012 5:24 p.m.
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Many community members - police included - perceive an increase in panhandlers throughout cities in this county. The various panhandlers have different life situations; many are criminals who have been early-released from state prison, some are mentally ill and either unable or unwilling to receive treatment, some of them have ended up on the streets as a result of being unemployed, and yet others simply choose to be "urban outdoorsmen," living a stark existence free of the traditional stresses of having to work, pay taxes and to otherwise conform to the requirements and standards of mainstream society. Regardless of the reasons people end up homeless, as beggars or otherwise living on the streets, it appears to be a growing problem that has many people concerned.

Many try to live in public parks where there are bathrooms and running water. Others occupy abandoned or vacant houses some live in encampments located in fields or lots, and there are people who take to begging even though they are not homeless at all or live in places like group homes and other kinds of care facilities. Many of the homeless people have spent time in jail or state prison, and are unable to transition back into a more typical lifestyle. Drugs are widely used within this population, there are sanitation problems associated with people living in outdoor locations not intended for habitation, trespassing into vacant homes, and it is widely perceived that that people living on the streets are responsible for much of the metal thefts that have been occurring throughout this region.

Persons begging for handouts and money are among the most visible of the homeless population. Aggressive forms of begging (or panhandling) are already forbidden by ordinance. Similarly, panhandling is prohibited near intersections, ATMs and other places where such activity is particularly disruptive. One problem that exists is that areas that are not within the city limits are not covered by the same panhandling prohibitions. For example, the southbound off ramp from Highway 99 onto Hatch Road in the Ceres area is not within Ceres' city limits. Beggars at that location, therefore, can only be required to not disrupt traffic - the city ordinance does not apply.

Another issue that concerns many people is when "recyclers" rummage through residential garbage cans. That activity is now prohibited by ordinance, and appropriately so. Some people were throwing garbage on the street in search of recyclables. That activity was, in some cases, just an excuse for thieves to justify why they were spending time in neighborhoods, stealing personal information discarded in the trash, casing houses and vehicles to burglarize. Dumpster diving has long been prohibited by ordinance, so now with the recent ordinance update, all types of garbage receptacles are now protected by law.

Clearly, the homeless, regardless of how they ended up that way, play a significant role, particularly with lower level thefts, with the property crimes occurring in our communities. Yet, I would assert that the crime aspect is secondary to the bigger issue underlying it. Early-release prisoners have no place to go; most are not prepared for re-entering society, receiving little to no support once out of prison, they tend to socialize only with each other, and many (24% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners) have problems with mental illness, and/or drug abuse issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four adults will experience a mental health disorder in a given year. The aforementioned is true for most people living on the streets, as NAMI reported that 31% of adults using homeless services have co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders. In short, in my view, this is really a social/mental health care issue and I see this state as failing miserably at dealing with the problem. This leaves local law enforcement to deal with it, and that usually takes the form of jailing these people - which accomplishes nearly nothing. There are some halfway houses, places that provide food, but the system for dealing with this problem is woefully inadequate.

California's budget mess does not help at all. Spending priorities should include this massive mental health and homelessness problem, but the Legislature and governor are either out of touch or they have consciously chosen to neglect the problem. And in doing so, people on the streets suffer and at the same time, the taxpayers are saddled with concerns about suspicious neighborhood interlopers, our communities are exposed to more crime that would otherwise be preventable, and our cities are starting to have hints of looking like Third World countries.

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