John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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We need to do something to help the homeless

Posted on June 18, 2019
Outside my office, near Eastern Market, a depressing ritual enfolds about 10 a.m. every day.

Just as the liquor store opens, a crowd of highly agitated and usually very loud people gathers around, some panhandling, others waiting to get their fix of booze for the next couple of hours.

Just blocks from the nation’s Capitol, this part of the Hill is ground zero for gentrification. The neighborhood is vibrant. There’s a Trader Joe’s across the street, expensive coffee shops down the block and Michelin-rated restaurants around the corner.

My office sits above a book shop and a game store, and nannies typically bring strollers filled with the bright shiny faces of the kids who aren’t quite ready to go to school yet.

They arrive roughly around the same time as the addicts, who have drifted over from the local methadone clinic, who have come to get their liquor fix.

As far as I can tell, the two groups rarely interact and the kids aren’t in any physical danger. And I suppose that if the kids were paying attention, they could learn a lesson about what not to do with your lives, like get addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Addiction is a disease that hits all races and all classes. It’s not clear to me if addiction causes mental illness or if people who are mentally ill become addicted to drugs to try to come to grips with their inner demons.

But I do know, just walking to my office in the morning, that we need a new, more holistic approach to dealing with the mentally ill and those who are addicted to drugs.

The war on drugs may have been a failure, but simply giving up and legalizing everything doesn’t seem like a wise approach either.

Policymakers are seriously considering legislation to not only legalize pot, but to commercialize it. The marijuana industry is the hottest thing to hit the markets since Fortnite. Big banks are trying to get permission to be the bankers to the dealers, something that is not currently legal because selling pot is still a federal crime.

I don’t know the connection between marijuana use and other more dangerous drug use. Some still believe that pot is a gateway drug. Others think it is basically harmless, certainly not worse than drinking beer or wine.

But I do know this. The folks outside my office, who are high on meth or crack or fentanyl or heroin or whatever they are smoking or injecting probably don’t need any more temptations in their lives.

Experts in homelessness believe that close to 40 percent of those who are homeless are addicted to alcohol and 26 percent are addicted to other drugs. About a third of the homeless suffer from some form of mental illness.

That comes as no surprise to me, just walking around my neighborhood.

In 1967, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which ended the practice of institutionalizing the mentally ill against their will for indefinite periods of time. As president, in 1982, he signed a budget law that pushed all responsibility for dealing with the mentally ill back to the states.

Because of those twin actions, Reagan is blamed by many of the left for the persistent problem of homelessness that is becoming worse by the day in big cities across the country.

But it’s not Reagan’s fault solely.

It’s a collective failure of our society to take care of our own, a failure of taking care of people who clearly cannot take care of themselves and this failure comes from laissez-faire attitudes toward drugs, addiction and mental illness.

I am agnostic about making pot more legally accessible. I have never smoked pot and I doubt I ever will.

But if we are going to down that road, we should take some of the expected tax revenue and earmark it to help those who can’t help themselves deal with mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction.

We aren’t doing enough to help these people.