Recently, I was with my C.O.R.E. (Community Outreach Resource and Enforcement) officers looking at “homeless” camps along Clear Creek path. These camps were filled with human waste, needles, and bio-hazards that cost tens of thousands to clean up. One of my officers said, “We are like a broom with no dust pan.” He was saddened by the fact that we were unable to make a real difference in the lives of these mentally ill / drug-addicted individuals who live in the bushes. He was right. We did nothing to solve this problem; we just moved these individuals to a different location.
Is there any real question as to why the “homeless” crisis has increased over the last decade? In Colorado, voters legalized marijuana in 2012. The Governor and Legislators decriminalized drugs (HB19-1263) in 2019. County employees distribute “safe drug kits” that enable drug use. Safe injection sites were built to allow individuals to continue their destructive behavior with no consequences.
What has been the result? My department went from over 2500 calls related to the “homeless” in 2019 to over 3800 calls in 2021. “Homelessness” is the biggest generator of complaints from citizens, and consumes an excessive amount of government resources. Yet, as we offer more resources, money, housing, and injection sites, the problem continues to grow.
“Homeless” individuals bear responsibility as well. However, with very few exceptions, no one from this community is seeking help. From their point of view, who can blame them? They are given handouts everywhere they go. From panhandling to food banks, their basic physiological needs of food and water are met which leaves them free to engage in their addictions. Their biggest risk is violence from other “homeless” and being moved along by the police. Being written a ticket provides no deterrence, because they know they will not be arrested. We have seen individuals with upwards of 23 warrants who could not be arrested.
A well intentioned system has too few resources and no teeth to make any meaningful impact. Colorado consistently ranks among the worst states regarding mental health treatment. Police officers can place an individual on mental health holds if that person is a danger to themselves, but hospitals rarely hold people for more than a couple of hours. In one case, a “homeless” man was placed on a third mental health hold in one month because he kept running through I-70 traffic. The hospital would not hold him and the end result was predictable: he was tragically run over and killed. Municipal courts try to make a difference but without the ability to incarcerate those convicted, they have little impact. County jails offer mental health, alcohol, and narcotics counseling, but the average stay for those in a jail is about one month which is not long enough to make a longstanding impact on anyone’s lives.
So what is the answer besides a much needed change of governance or repealing some very bad legislation? The answer combines both compassion and accountability. The mission of our C.O.R.E. officers is to provide outreach and resources to help people get back on their feet. It is the right thing to do and we need to be a compassionate society. The second part is accountability (i.e. enforcement). Accountability works when you are raising children or leading people and it works when you are helping people with addictions get back on their feet. Giving them opportunities to continue along their destructive path is not compassionate; it’s enabling.
The criminal justice system isn’t just for retribution. For the most heinous crimes, that may be appropriate, but the vast majority of those sentenced to jail will return to society. So the system must also be about rehabilitation and helping people return to society as productive healthy members who can control their addictions and successfully cope with their mental health problems. More state resources and funding for mental health and drug / alcohol treatment need to go into mental health facility bed space so when individuals are convicted, a judge can sentence them to treatment that will actually make a difference in their lives.
Our officers who work with the “homeless” are some of the most compassionate people I know. They want to help the “homeless” move to a better life. They would prefer the “homeless” willingly move down that path. However, most don’t. So, when they end up committing crimes, it is compassionate for society to hold them accountable and get them into court-ordered meaningful treatment that will help them out of their quiet lives of desperation. To do that, the state needs to prioritize funding for mental health, alcohol and drug counseling for those convicted of crimes.