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Herbert A. Opalek: Homeless conundrum

Herb Opalek

Homelessness continues to be a problem in these United States.

Here, in Merced County, we still have homeless men, women and children living in camps, in alleyways, under bridges and in shelters.

There is even a select committee comprised of county and city officials, the corrections department, the Rescue Mission and homeless advocates that meets regularly to come up with a workable solution to move the homeless out of the streets.

Solutions are difficult to come by; especially in times of economic distress when there is little or no money available to work with. There are, also, internal problems that affect the homeless situation.

Do we classify all homeless in the same general pool of homeless? What about those homeless who are convicted sex offenders? Where do they go to find a reasonable residence? What do we do with homeless families that refuse to be domiciled apart from each other?

What about the homeless who have pets? Very often these animals are truly "man's best friend" and are more like family than pet.

Then there are those homeless with mental disabilities. There are inadequate facilities in both county and state to deal with them.

Who will care for them?

There is also the question of violence against the homeless.

More than a year ago, Time magazine did an article on the murder of John McGraham, a homeless man who was set on fire and murdered on the streets of Los Angeles. There have been varied attacks against homeless throughout our country.

Six young men beat and robbed a homeless man in Sarasota, Fla. There were innocent homeless people hit in a drive-by shooting in Austin, Texas. In Ewing, N.J., a group of teenage boys shot a homeless man with a paintball gun. He lost an eye.

Even here, in Merced, there was an incident at the homeless encampment. What can we do to improve security for Merced's homeless population? Also, how do we protect our residents and residences from some of the homeless who are prone to cause problems?

There are innovative solutions to homelessness being developed. Not all of them are suitable to our situation in Merced County.

For example, the New York Times recently reported that New York City has paid 550 homeless families to leave the city. They have done this by buying one-way plane tickets to locations such as Paris ($6,332), Johannesburg ($2,550.70), Orlando ($858.40) and San Juan ($484.20).

This saves the city on the $36,000 per annum it takes them to house one homeless family. There is no way we could do this in Merced.

Pontiac, Mich., has seen a much smaller but equally innovative program for the homeless.

The Rhonda Hart House opened its doors to two homeless families consisting of single mothers with their children last February. The two mothers and their children each rent their own unit in the duplex home.

This effort is the product of a partnership between a local nonprofit and corporations that gave more in time and labor than in cash to join the fight in ending the ever growing amount of homelessness among women and children.

It is a fact that, nationwide, some 200 communities are putting together plans to end homelessness.

Merced is a community in the cusp of growth. UC Merced will continue to grow. Wal-Mart or other like minded businesses will continue to plant themselves here. It is time to establish a "Partnership on Homelessness" modeled on those of other cities and municipalities.

There can be no doubt that government officials, advocates, community benefit organizations and others attempting to end homelessness in Merced will have their work cut out for them.

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission.

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