Have you ever given money to a homeless person? Handed food to an obviously down-and-out soul standing on a park bench or street corner?
Yeah, me too.
We were wrong to do so.
So said nationally renowned homelessness expert Dr. Robert Marbut during a recent meeting to discuss a growing problem in Lake County.
Actually, we have two problems. The first is homelessness. And it’s a biggie.
According to Dr. Marbut, there are at least 15 homeless encampments, and that’s just in Leesburg.
“I would suggest the number is significantly higher,” he said. “You have a big problem for a small community.”
The second issue is that we, as a community, encourage homelessness.
Dr. Marbut says we enable it.
We think we’re helping when we give a five-spot, blanket or a meal, but we’re actually helping the unfortunate person remain homeless. Or worse.
“Ninety-three percent of panhandled money goes to drugs, alcohol and prostitution,” Marbut said. “So stop giving money out the window, give it to a program that works.”
Marbut has spent three decades developing and perfecting such programs. And there’s abundance evidence his “engaging and caring smart love” methods work.
Instead of feeding and clothing the homeless, Marbut advocates directing them to programs where they’ll get help for mental health issues and dependency on drugs and alcohol.
“Ninety percent of the homeless have mental health or substance abuse problems, or both,” Marbut told a gathering of concerned Lake County leaders at the Leesburg Public Library.
Homeless people need the proverbial hand up, not handouts. Charity treats the symptoms. Professional help addresses the root causes.
“It is not a hunger problem and it’s not a housing problem. It’s an income stream problem due to drugs and mental health issues,” Marbut contends.
Of course, there is no simple solution to the problem of homelessness. There’s certainly no quick fix.
“Homelessness is not complicated, but it is complex,” Marbut said.
Fortunately, there is a cure. And Dr. Marbut’s willing to share it.
He’ll show us how to collate services that “deal with core triggers,” how to integrate homeless people back into the system, ways to reward positive behavior and implement consequences for negative actions.
In short, he’ll show us how he helped San Antonio reduce homelessness by 85 percent, Clearwater by 91 percent and St. Petersburg by 93 percent.
Here’s hoping Leesburg, the county and and every city in Lake ponies up funds so Dr. Marbut can work his magic. This is one of those all-in propositions. If Leesburg cracks down, and say, Eustis doesn’t, the problem won’t be solved, it will just move.
Fixing our homeless problem will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps more than a million if we build a 24/7 homeless shelter—something Marbut says we desperately need.
It surely will be money well spent. Communities that turn a blind eye to homeless pay dearly in increased police calls, emergency room visits, break-ins, mugging and lost tourism dollars. People will stop visiting our revitalized downtowns if they’re bugged by panhandlers every two blocks.
Most importantly, getting our less-fortunate neighbors off the streets, out of the woods and into programs is the right thing to do.