Like it or not, Aberdeen Chief of Police Henry Trabert makes a valid point when he says it's not a crime to be homeless. What is criminal is that in this, or in any other country, people can't be promised (unless, perhaps, they're in prison) that they will have a roof over their head and three square meals a day.
The police chief was answering an Aberdeen resident, who has been a critic of the homeless encampment near the old Moose Lodge on Rogers Street. The people who live there litter, walk the streets, smoke, drink and, as a recent police report notes, get into fights sometimes with weapons. Too often, they die, as happened not so long ago at another encampment on Aberdeen's east side. Lock them up, the man said.
In recent years, there has been a memorial service for people who died homeless in Harford County. Oft times there are underlying causes, such as substance abuse, malnutrition, chronic health issues, all made worse by constant exposure to the elements.
The number of homeless people counted in Harford County each year – a somewhat unscientific process involving volunteers going out on the streets and into shelters one night each January to see who is out there – has fluctuated between 175 and 240 the past five years, but it's not a hard number. In addition, these counts typically clarify that the majority of those counted are in some sort of "sheltered" situation, but that's usually not a permanent thing. Then, there are those who are perpetually out on the streets, some because they choose to be, others because they can't abide by simple rules set down by shelter operators, such as no drugs, no alcohol.
Short of giving each person roaming the streets a bus ticket to some faraway location (which they probably wouldn't use), there's the jail option, which Trabert says doesn't work. We agree with him. Or, there's the community outreach option, which has helped many homeless people in this and other counties, though not well enough to satisfy many people, Trabert and us included.
"I want you to know that the priority is to reduce the homeless population not by putting them in jail," Trabert told the Aberdeen Mayor and City Council on Nov. 21. "It's to help them find ways to become productive citizens in Harford County, and to do that we're going to need several partners."
He said the county government, whose Department of Community Services has been a tireless advocate for the homeless, has already pledged to work closer with the municipal governments to provide aid to their entrenched homeless residents. Other social service agencies, non-profits and churches, businesses, too, need to be part of the outreach effort, the chief said.
Historically, these efforts, no matter how well they coalesce, won't eradicate homelessness in Harford or anywhere else. There are a handful of people who prefer to tough it out on the street, by hook or by crook, so to speak. There are others who probably belong in the kind of institutions we no longer have, which is how they ended up homeless in the first place.
As bleak as it all sounds, we still agree with Chief Trabert. Like a lot of other problems in our society, the homeless one won't be solved by locking people up and throwing away the key. We simply can't jail all our problems away. It doesn't work and, more importantly, it solves nothing.
Being homeless is not a crime, and treating it as a crime won't eliminate it. Finding ways to help these people truly help themselves is the best beginning to curing this societal ailment.