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Immaculate Conception at night by Vincent Embser

Letter to the Editor: In response to the proposed camping ban in the village of Wellsville

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Village resident suggests modeling our approach toward homelessness with Alaska’s effort

So called “Quality of Life Ordinances” such as the ban on camping in public places that the village is looking to enact are simply not the answer to addressing those experiencing homelessness in our community.  Criminalizing the behavior associated with a particular population is a practice rooted in racism and the continued oppression of marginalized communities.  The is evident not only in the way indigenous and people of color have been treated historically but also by many of our Irish ancestors who immigrated to this country.  Simply put, these ordinances aren’t a good look, and they don’t work!  Making it illegal to camp in a public place is not a magic pill to addressing this issue.

As a former member of the “Western New York Diaspora”, I lived for nearly a decade in Alaska.  Alaska is a place for all its beauty, it has its own set of unique issues and challenges when it comes to those experiencing homelessness.  Homelessness doesn’t materialize itself in a community by happenstance.  Oftentimes, it is a perfect storm of contributing factors, far more complex than being able to point to a singular issue as the culprit.  As complex as the problem is, the solution is tenfold. 

In Alaska, many communities have adopted a human rights and trauma informed approach to addressing homelessness.  A human rights approach seeks to emphasize the rights of the unhoused to exist in public spaces and to have their basic needs met.  The reality is that an unhoused person who is seeking shelter outdoors, albeit a public park or other area, has already been systematically failed by institutions and has a lack of familial support.  This understanding needs to inform how we address this population. 

Public intoxication amongst the unhoused was a huge issue on the streets of Juneau.  As to not clog the limited space and resources of the hospital, there was a “sleep off center”.  If someone was inebriated enough that they couldn’t make it there themselves, “the safety patrol” would pick them up, ensure they were not in need of medical intervention, and then take them to the sleep off center.  The center served where one could get/stay warm and be educated about what services where available to them and by what agencies.  It was a synergistic approach between community-based law enforcement, local churches, and other non-governmental agencies, that served the homeless population.  It was about relationship and trust building. 

I had a good friend who was an EMT who routinely had contact with same handful of people, the chronically inebriated.  I asked him once how he didn’t get burned out as it must seem like “Ground Hog Day”. He said, “For me, it’s about keeping that person alive, so they have the opportunity to make a different choice.  Everyone deserves that.”  Those words have stuck with me.  I also believe we could and should be adopting some of these approaches in Allegany County.  Afterall, the de-centralized and rural nature of the available resources to service vulnerable populations is not unlike Alaska.

The solution to the more recent uptick in homelessness in our community will not be an easy or quick one, that much is certain.  It will take patience.  To read and hear the recent sentiments regarding this issue from local publications and around town, is disheartening.  Comparing Wellsville to skid row in Los Angeles is nothing short of hyperbolic nonsense.  Policing and enforcement of bans like the ones being discussed by the village, will not take someone out of homelessness.  Compassion and innovative solutions that are inclusive and person focused can.                   

Thank you, Betsy Allen-Matthew

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