Why We Should Build a Pedestrian Village for the Homeless

By Michael E. Arth

(Originally published in the Daytona News Journal on January 4, 2009)

I agree with a recent News Journal editorial "Punishing poverty a false solution for panhandlers” (12-23-08), regarding the futility of trying to outlaw panhandling, but I take umbrage at the editor's dismissal of my Tiger Bay Village proposal as having “more in common with concentrating and segregating an unwanted population than sheltering it in a ‘pedestrian village.’”

My plan has been called both a “gulag” and “a country club for the homeless,” but it is neither. While it is true that a village for the adult homeless would concentrate certain disadvantaged people, it would also concentrate the services and amenities available to them into a vibrant community that specifically addresses their needs. Tragically, Americans seem to think that the answer to many social problems is to throw people in jail, which is the most extreme form of concentrating and segregating that we know. This explains why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, seven times higher than the rate at which Europeans and Canadians jail their citizens. We haven't seen these levels since the Stalinist era gulags of the former Soviet Union. There should be an alternative between living on the street and being locked up in prison that addresses the specific needs of both the chronically and temporarily adult homeless. From my countless discussions with the homeless on the streets, in soup kitchens, and in their encampments, I believe that one central village with an open door policy for any peaceable adult, no matter what their addiction or problem, is what we need.

Instead we have 19 scattered agencies, plus churches and other good Samaritans catering to the needs of the homeless in Volusia and Flagler counties. Despite all their efforts, people live in the woods, in tents, in doorways, or under houses and bridges. We spend a fortune out of the public coffers to pay for emergency room visits, law enforcement issues, incarceration, littering, and the general degradation of our public sphere. Studies have shown that even the smallest appearance of neglect tends to precipitate a downward spiral in vandalism and crime. Panhandling, trashy encampments, littering, public intoxication and disturbing the peace, all contribute to a downward spiral. Our piecemeal approach, giving out meals and services here and there, taking people to the ER and/or jail when people are found passed out in public or causing trouble, is very expensive and non–productive.

Tiger Bay Village would not be a Hooverville, but a real community with a full range of amenities and services that would cost less than our current approach. The county–owned site, close to the population center of the county, three miles west of I–95, already has a variety of related services, including a bus stop, a county jail, a state prison, and various drug rehabilitation centers. A lakeside village, surrounded by a forested greenbelt, could have architecturally appealing housing ranging from multi–bed barracks to Katrina Cottages. Tiger Bay would be built in stages as needed, and no one would be required to live there. It would provide work opportunities in the form of village construction and maintenance. Little shops in the village center can process and rehabilitate donated clothes and furniture to be sold to the public. A clinic could provide preventative health care and services at a fraction of the cost of the emergency rooms, where even simple procedures cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. The residents could build and maintain the village themselves, and tend a community garden and orchard. There could be a labor placement service to provide certified and prescreened workers to local businesses, something I could have used when I was rebuilding a slum neighborhood in downtown DeLand. It was always a roll of the dice whenever I hired workers from the day labor agencies because I rarely had any solid information about their background and they usually had no verifiable address. Once I unknowingly hired a murderer and sex offender who stabbed to death the wife of one of my other workers over a plate of food.

The village could meet the needs of the temporarily homeless and also the needs of those who, for their own safety and the safety of others, should have some buffer from the wider world. For much less than we spend now treating the homeless like packs of stray dogs, we could instead enable them to have housing and amenities that would be a temporary stop for most, and a permanent solution for some. We pay dearly for the misery that unhappy and maladjusted people inflict upon themselves and others. When the basic physical and psychological needs of the homeless are not met, it becomes impossible to properly address their psychiatric needs. Everyone needs food, clothing, attractive shelter, meaningful work, a sense of purpose, love, hope, empowerment, community solidarity, and a connection with nature. Without these things, even the most privileged among us would have a hard time finding fulfillment in life. Funding cutbacks dating back to the 1970s have driven many of those suffering from mental disabilities into the street. These people, combined with other homeless people, find themselves scorned and resented as they shuttle among agencies and charities. Spreading the services around has only limited applications because it is inefficient, and it creates powerful resistance from those who, understandably, do not want homeless services and shelters in their neighborhood. This insures that the homeless are driven into ugly, crime–ridden areas where their psychological needs cannot be properly met, and increases the odds that they will end up in jail. Instead of building up our social institutions, we have built jails and prisons. Building pedestrian villages like Tiger Bay would attract those who would otherwise commit crimes to get out of the weather, and act as a halfway house for those leaving jail or prison. Instead of expanding the county jail, as is now the plan for the Tiger Bay site, we can build a village for a fraction of the cost. A village resident will have a chance to be a better person, instead of being surrounded by criminals in jail who will teach him to be a better criminal. I do not have all the answers, and some details will have to be worked out as we go along. Nevertheless, I believe that in building a village we will discover a compassionate, effective, and affordable model for solving the homeless crisis that can work anywhere. It's worth a try.

Above article - Copyright © 2009 by Michael E. Arth. All rights reserved.