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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Wednesday June 12th 2024

Peace House Community: June ’23

Which is Worse: A Viper, a Cobra, or an Adder?

By MARTI MALTBY

a photo of the author
Marti Maltby

Decades ago, I heard my supervisor speaking with a friend about their respective marital troubles. They had very different challenges in their marriages, but they understood each other’s struggles. Being young, single, and stupid, I made some naïve comment that was meant to be helpful. My supervisor laughed at my ignorance and commented, “When it comes to our wives, it’s a question of whether you want to face a viper, a cobra, or an adder.” (Sorry for the implied sexism of that story. If I had a female supervisor, I’m sure it would have been a choice between a jackass, a mule, or a donkey.)
My supervisor’s comment keeps coming back to me when I recognize a situation with no “good” options, just options that hopefully are less harmful than others. One such situation came up at the April City Council meeting when the City reported that it has spent between $5.5 and $7.5 million since 2020 to close the various homeless encampments that have sprung up, migrated, disappeared, reappeared, and generally confounded everyone.
Since there is no good answer to the encampments question (other than building enough homes to house everyone, which has its own built in problems), I won’t offer any solutions. Like most other people, I can say what I would do if I had the power to change the system, but my solution would fail, just as all the other proposed solutions would fail. If I choose to face an adder, I’ve avoided the dangers of the cobra and viper, but I’m still in danger. If I choose one way of dealing with the encampments, I avoid the weaknesses of other approaches, but I still have to deal with the weaknesses I have chosen.
The Council meeting and the report by City staff illustrated this dynamic. Do you close camps, forcing those who are already homeless to go through a period of even greater instability? Do you leave the camps there, and let the residents deal with the dealers, traffickers, and predators who prey on the camps? What do you say to neighbors who are affected by the camps, and how do you compare the inconvenience they experience from the camps with the inconvenience the camp residents experience from being homeless?
I’m sure many people have balked at the amount of money the City has spent on closing encampments rather than housing the people living in the camps. Unfortunately, $7 million isn’t enough to build enough housing to solve the problems that create the encampments. While $7 million is enough to pay the rent and provide support services for the campers for some time, this is a Band-Aid solution. As long as the number of people who need homes exceeds the number of homes available, we will have homeless people, and we will have encampments.
Whether we close the encampments, support them, police them, provide services to them, or ignore them, we still face the choice of the viper, the cobra, or the adder. No matter what we choose, we will not succeed, at least not in the short term. Until we somehow overhaul our entire system, we will only have less bad options, not good ones.

Marti Maltby is an avid cyclist, Director at Peace House Community, and an obnoxiously proud Canadian.

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