Allowing beams of direct light into the room, she said, attracted dust. Despite the protests of family members, who didn’t want to creep around in dimly lit surroundings, she insisted that the curtains stay closed.
But the dust was there anyway; the sunlight just made it more visible. She could not make that connection.
The panhandling ordinance was designed along similar lines. The panhandlers are out on the Boise sidewalks for a variety of reasons. Some are there because they have an untreated or inadequately treated mental illness. Some are struggling with substance abuse. Some are out there because they live a nomadic existence while they’re looking for work. And some are probably people who can work, but aren’t.
The panhandlers have become more visible in recent years in Idaho’s largest city. They attract attention with their cardboard signs, their outstretched hands, their leashed dogs (and birds and cats), musical instruments, and babies and toddlers.
Panhandlers are a sometimes depressing reminder that however far we like to think we’ve come as a society, a large segment of people don’t or can’t fit in.
To downtown merchants, the panhandlers are a deterrent to customers who don’t want to be asked for money while they’re window shopping or sitting outside.
The city’s response to this problem is almost childish in its simplicity. The city ordinance that U.S. District Court Judge Edward Lodge nixed in part on Jan. 2 addressed the surface of the problem – the requests for money – but the City Council didn’t address the deeper problem behind the increasing homelessness and poverty in Idaho and elsewhere.
In doing so, the City Council acted as the dust mote lady did – blaming the sunshine for illuminating the problem and trying to close the curtains to make it less visible.
The City of Boise doesn’t have the resources on its own to find mental health care or substance abuse treatment for all of its most vulnerable residents. It’s up to the state and the city together to address this need in Idaho’s largest city. Expanding Medicaid would be one step in alleviating some of the misery caused by untreated mental illness. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Medicaid is the most important public health program for mental health treatment.
Expanding Medicaid, as allowed under the Affordable Care Act, would help provide access to care for people who now have nowhere to go and are medicating themselves.
Medicaid expansion will be decided on a state level, and it doesn’t appear that’s going to happen this year, at least. State officials are also considering the establishment of crisis centers in Boise, Idaho Falls and Coeur d’Alene that would provide short-term mental health and substance abuse treatment.
In the meantime, Boise could certainly do more than trying to ban the most outward manifestation of poverty and dysfunction in its downtown area. The city took a lot of the credit for starting Allumbaugh House, which provides limited behavioral health care. Now it’s time for more leadership along the same lines. The mayor and the City Council were elected to solve problems, not hide them behind the curtains.
Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.