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Need for Enlightenment

March 03, 1985

The plight of the homeless in this county--and in the nation--is one that is recognized by all but the most unconcerned public officials.

While there may be many approaches to dealing with the problem, and reasonable people can differ over government's proper role in trying to solve it, few would question that there is an alarming number of men, women and children living on the streets today through no choice of their own.

So it was disturbing to hear the reactions of Supervisors George Bailey and Brian Bilbray recently when the Board of Supervisors was asked to broaden public aid for the homeless. The specific proposal before the board was to change the rules to allow some of the homeless to qualify for general relief and become entitled to $120 a month. That may well be a bad idea, serving only to help impoverished people survive on the street a little better, but doing little to help them secure permanent work or shelter.

But the cavalier attitudes expressed by Bilbray and Bailey showed a profound misunderstanding of the problem, not to mention insensitivity to those who live it.

Bilbray said that "some people do choose what used to be called a vagabond life style" and scoff at those who work. He said he feared building "a catch-basin for all the homeless of the Southwest" by improving social services here.

Bailey said: "I'm not sure that giving every one of these people a home is the answer. Many of them do not want a home." He later suggested that the homeless represent "a problem created by the actions of the City of San Diego (in redeveloping downtown)."

We don't know how many of the intentionally homeless Bailey and Bilbray talked with in arriving at these opinions, but we suspect they haven't consulted any of the children who attend St. Vincent de Paul's stopgap school while their unemployed and homeless parents search for work.

We doubt that they have questioned the teen-age boy who lives in a car with his mother, aunt and two sisters, yet attends school and works nights at a fast-food restaurant. And we wonder if they have seen the growing number of once-middle-class families who have come here in search of work and now hunt desperately for shelter in North County because they are afraid of life on the streets downtown.

To say that downtown redevelopment is the cause of homelessness is to ignore the reality of a nationwide problem. To think that down-and-out people won't be attracted to our weather, whatever the level of social services, is to adopt the stance of the ostrich. To argue that government need not act because a few choose a nomadic life style is simply absurd.

It may be that Bailey and Bilbray, both new members of the board, have not yet had a chance to draw upon the available resources to learn about the problem. We hope they will take the time to do that soon.

In the coming months, other, more important issues concerning the homeless will come before the supervisors. When they do, we hope a more enlightened attitude will prevail.

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