As I’ve said before, whenever George, Monica and I get together, we have good discussions. Last night at dinner on the occasion of my birthday was no exception. We re-visited Arcata, California’s young homeless and vagabond issue I wrote about several posts ago. So, I’ll write about it again, for the last time. It’s not my problem; it’s Arcata’s problem.
But, I thought of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row when I visited Arcata; where those on Desolation Row look out at the hypocrisy surrounding them. Dylan writes:
“Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants”
When there, I couldn’t help but hear that many Arcata citizens looking in on Desolation Row say that those on the Row were there by choice, that they were “hippies” happy with the “freedom” of that life; i.e., freedom from work, from daily toil and routine, from family responsibility, etc.; a rebellion against society. There is a sign in the central Arcata Park that lists at least a dozen things you cannot do in the park, including sleeping, loitering, smoking, etc., no doubt put there by the city’s “commissioner.” The sign is ignored, obviously, by all, including the police apparently. Ironically the sign is part of Arcata’s solution, essentially saying "go someplace else" – the commissioner is indeed blind. But, all the extenuating circumstances and reasons aside, I can’t help but think that the central idea that these young people are in their situation by choice is the culprit that keeps them there. That idea is a cop-out. It allows a person to do nothing; to avoid the responsibility for the desolate. It is my opinion that if the idea that these poor and homeless landed in their situation by mere chance, a series of unfortunate life-changing accidents, is the central community thought, then something will and should be done to help them out of their situation. That “something” could be as little as voting for a proposition to fix it or as big as organizing the community to fix it.
Monica and George claim to disagree. Monica is extremely intelligent with a lifetime of experience in the Oakland, California School system as a Psychologist dealing with mentally challenged and less fortunate children. George is an intellectual and is more informed on social and economical subjects, and many more, than I could ever hope to be. In short, they are not dummies by any stretch of the imagination. Initially, I felt inclined to change my mind when hearing their arguments. Like I’ve said before, I’m not quick on the up-take. Now, it could be that I’ve completely misunderstood their arguments (there is a high probability of that), but after some thought, I think we agree on most everything we said, so I’m sticking with my original argument.
Because, no matter what reasons are given to explain why these people end up in Desolation Row, and there are hundreds, it seems to me that these people wouldn’t have chosen that outcome. Was it bad parenting? Or childhood environment? Or a chemical imbalance? Rotten education? A malfunctioning gene? A physical impairment? Or poor choices in the company they kept along the way? Or all of the above? If given the opportunity to correct the mistakes they made or the influence that affected them, they would take it. If we could all see our future, our choices along the way would be a whole lot different. If we knew how to fix those disappointments and regrets, we would do it. If we knew the true consequence of our actions, this would be an entirely different world without Desolation Row.
Of course, if Arcata does start something to help those young people leave the Row, they will likely screw that up too – probably with another sign. We humans make things more complicated than they need to be. I can’t help but think that if Arcata provided some very basic (and inexpensive) needs, that these young people will do the rest. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a good place to start. If once some of the psychological, safety, belonging and self-esteem needs are met by the community, the self-actualization would follow for most. We should be resigned, however, to the idea that a minority will require support all of their lives or may not accept help at all. Arcata should do it anyway.