UPDATE: Sonoma West Time’s & News asked me to submit this as an opinion piece, so I’m replacing my original post with the piece they’re going to run. Also, I began responding in the comments below to people who disagree with my assessment but rather than continue to do that, I’ll simply say that if you think I’m advocating that people on the trail don’t deserve help, or that meth is the only problem driving the crisis, I invite you to more carefully read my comments.
The homeless crisis on the Joe Rodota Trail has galvanized many in our community and compassionate individuals are taking various actions in an effort to help. As one who once lived in that world and who has worked professionally with drug addiction and homelessness over the past 30 years, I have concerns about this grassroots community response.
Though there are many causes of homelessness — mental health issues, addiction to alcohol and other drugs, the numerous fires since 2017, immigration inequities and more — meth is the driving force behind the crisis on the Joe Rodota Trail, and we need to respond accordingly. Meth is driving some of the most dangerous activity on the trail. It is contributing disproportionately to conflicts with neighbors and poses the greatest danger to those trying to help.
There are many homeless individuals and groups who live peacefully in Sonoma County, and who are accepted by their communities in a sometimes uneasy but generally, “Let’s co-exist peacefully,” kind of a way. That is not the story of the Joe Rodota Trail.
Compassionate individuals are doing laundry for those on the trail, giving them rides and even bringing them into their homes; this approach concerns me greatly. A problem like this requires a concerted and consistent multi-agency approach, and individuals who are wading in the middle of this situation are putting themselves at risk. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t help when we see a community need; I am simply advocating that we do it in a way that serves the people we’re trying to help, and doesn’t enable them to continue hurting themselves.
Many of the people on the trail would not be homeless if not for their addiction. And when you give an addict money, rides, pallets, etc, you may be enabling them to continue using, extending the length of time they will use. The absolute best thing that can happen for an addict is to hit bottom. If you’re dealing with an active addict, every piece of help you provide potentially delays that process.
Drug addiction is like a fever; you need to starve it, not feed it. Every penny given, every piece of clothing washed, every ride given, can unwittingly support drug addiction, theft and hopelessness, all of which increase the underlying problems that caring individuals are so earnestly trying to address.
Few of the addicts on the trail are self-supporting, which means many of them resort to illegal activities such as theft, etc. - to maintain their addiction. There is a large bicycle chop shop on the trail, with hundreds of stolen bike parts, an illegal operation taking place in broad daylight. There are also robust drug sales taking place on the trail daily. I’ve dealt with the end results of drug addiction of all kinds: methamphetamine is by far the worst and most dangerous drug I’ve ever encountered, and is the most resistant to treatment because of the changes to brain chemistry. When I worked with Child Protective Services, it was clear that some of the greatest damage done to children was perpetrated by meth addicts. It is a cruel, vicious drug that often causes permanent brain damage. So please be careful about what it is you’re supporting when you step in the middle of people’s lives with your good intentions.
Most of the people on the trail have had tough lives, and some of them began using drugs to survive those challenges. I deeply understand and relate to this in the most personal of ways. They, like me, are richly deserving of a better life, but a better life will never be available to them as long as they are addicted to drugs.
Please consider partnering with severely underfunded and understaffed community agencies that have resources, information and a familiarity with this population before you step into the middle of a powerful network of drug-addicted individuals. Drug addiction, alcoholism, barely funded mental health resources and homelessness are all serious problems in search of real solutions and require a serious community response. Doing laundry, providing rides and giving money may make the giver feel good, and it does provide some temporary relief for people who are living with so little, but it does little to solve the underlying problems.
It doesn’t work to give away a blanket but then say, “Not in my neighborhood” when a shelter is proposed. It doesn’t work to give an a homeless individual $10, then vote against a bill that would address the situation in a serious way, but which would slightly raise your taxes. There are real solutions, but they require some sacrifice on the part of the community, and until now, the community has responded to that need with a resounding, “Meh.”
There seems to be an attitude on the part of those helping that, “No one is doing anything, so we need to take action,” yet there are extraordinary groups that have been pounding away at this problem and its many underlying causes for years with little community support, a dearth of funding and few volunteers. They have been attempting to tackle the complex underlying issues of mental health and addiction with little support from the community, yet they continue to stagger along. If you want to help, please find a group like that and partner with them.
There are many good people living on that trail who are down on their luck, caught in traps not of their own making, and facing all kinds of life challenges. They’re not out to do anyone any harm. They’re also not the reason I’m asking people to be very cautious.
In the end, all those on the trail who need help deserve a serious and sustained community response that will address the underlying causes that have brought us to this desperate point. In the meantime, when your compassion compels you to do something, anything, and you jump in and begin taking action, unless you are intimately familiar with this population, you run the risk of harming those you are trying to help by enabling their addiction, and you potentially expose yourself and your family to great danger. Please just think twice.
Mary Carouba is the co-author of the critically acclaimed book, Women at Ground Zero, TED Talk presenter, award-winning Moth storyteller and a former investigative social worker for Sonoma County Child Protective Services.