Hey, Police Chief!

Compassion Isn’t the Cause of Homelessness

Diane Nilan
5 min readSep 1, 2023

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Boone, NC store window Photo Diane Nilan

Now as a Watauga County, NC resident, I’m paying attention to issues important to me. Homelessness. When I read this article about a meeting with Boone, NC town council, the police chief and the local shelter, I couldn’t help but respond. I was surprised/pleased that the Watauga Democrat ran my entire missive, posted below:

The least of Boone’s problems with homelessness is compassion.

The recent Boone Town Council presentation on homelessness by the police department and representatives from Hospitality House reflects frustration in small cities and towns across the country. Police, public safety personnel and community leaders find themselves at odds with the growing population of homeless adults.

Well-intentioned law enforcement, beleaguered by the increase of their workload, do what they can to deal with people living in dysfunctional settings. According to the Watauga Democrat (8/17/23), Chief La Beau stated his officers are

‘overwhelmed with issues and unintended consequences of our town’s care and compassion for the homeless.’ He said 10 years ago, they didn’t deal with the homeless population a lot. Now, it’s daily.”

As someone who’s worked in the world of homelessness for the past 35 years, I would like to offer insights that might be helpful. First, I’m pleased the tone of the meeting wasn’t antagonistic. Frustrated, understandably, but lacking the rancor I’ve witnessed in other communities. Scapegoating won’t solve anything; in fact, it makes things worse.

Second, an observation. Most agree that Hospitality House does a good job, but few know that they offer 9 housing programs, going far beyond emergency shelter. Being the only shelter in a seven-county area isn’t their choice; it’s determined by federal decisions and funding. Therein lies part of the complex problem, not the fault of Hospitality House or Boone and Watauga County officials. Homelessness is a systemic issue worsened by a host of problems from humans and policies.

Those in need of shelter do what anyone would do — go where you might get help. I know this from my 15 years running shelters in Illinois. People desperate for a place to stay will, if they can, travel to where they might get help. It’s far from ideal, forcing people to turn to another community for assistance. It’s not the fault of the person who lost housing that the “system” makes this the only viable option.

When shelters are full, as they tend to be, it’s not the shelter’s fault. It’s a grueling thing to turn people away, but it’s the only option when you’ve reached capacity. Hospitality House will at least offer basic help — food, shelter, counseling, etc. And if someone is determined to be vulnerable, they will do their best to accommodate.

Yes, the public can help, but not just in winter. Photo Diane Nilan

“Camping” has become one of the nation’s answer to failed homelessness policies. Literally millions of adults and kids in the US today find themselves “camping” without resources, lacking the equipment that makes camping feasible, without permission (in some cases) to stay on the property they found, without means of dealing with trash or human body waste, with no way out.

Even in more moderate climates, this form of camping is tough. The recent storms in this area ravaged makeshift tents, tossed personal belongings far and wide, and made a mess. With no place to put the garbage, sure, it gets even messier. Those camping in winter months have obvious additional weather-related challenges. It’s ugly, and deadly.

So, cities initiate clean-ups. As reported in this story,

“Before they clean up these sites, officers will leave a laminated flier zip tied to a tent flap or other item that tells the person they are on private property and need to move from the location. The flier also has contact information for the Hospitality House.”

One question — where do people go when their campsite is tossed in the trash? The clean-up likely causes loss of identification, medications and other vital personal belongings, making life even more difficult. Some folks cannot, for a variety of reasons, stay at Hospitality House, which is why they are “camping.” The campground sweeps just move people to other sites, often causing more problems for everyone.

Since I’ve spent the better part of my life working with families experiencing homelessness, let me offer one more thought. If you have an honest, open conversation with homeless adults, you’ll find that many were homeless as kids (though they may not have realized that’s what their situation was). Our nation’s abject failure to address family and youth homelessness contributes mightily to adult homelessness.

Devastating trauma, traumatic brain injury, addictions and/or other physical/mental health issues are also common, major influences in a person’s struggles to be productive, self-sufficient adults, especially in our increasingly demanding, intolerant society. Rampant evictions, economic fallout from Covid, skyrocketing housing and utility costs, and scores of other adversities result in homelessness.

The presentation slides helped me comprehend the police department’s rudimentary understanding of homelessness. Over the past 19 years I’ve worked on homelessness on a national level. I’ve interacted with Hospitality House while in Watauga County. Now that I’m an area resident, I’m more than happy to bring my experience to the table.

A mural in Boone, NC Photo Diane Nilan

I’d hope that Chief La Beau would rethink his assessment of the problem. Care and compassion are not the cause of homelessness. Squelching a community’s humanity will create far greater negative results. It’s time for an enlightened, productive approach that other communities can and should replicate. Or the problem will get exceptionally worse.

Published: https://www.wataugademocrat.com/opinion/letters_to_editor/letter-to-the-editor-boone-s-homelessness/article_1a54f542-4371-11ee-afde-3b4730df7a91.html

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Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us