Our full potential lies beyond the bias — and ignorance

I only thought these people existed on television, in certain areas of the country, and, in the spirit of full disclosure, in parts of my family. Certainly, not in liberal-loving, alternative-transportation-worshipping, scarf-wearing Portland.

My ears perked up as a group near me in a downtown coffee shop started discussing how government leaders were asking churches to do more for the homeless. They were frustrated, and not because they felt like they were already doing enough, but because they believed that the government leaders probably didn’t even belong to a church. How dare they ask the church to help? And, they said, ultimately, isn’t it really the city’s job to take care of this anyway?

That wasn’t great, but that’s not so bad.  I know I fall in the trap of feeling like others should do more all the time. I tried to withhold judgment — rise above things, as it were.

Then I hear, “So, where do we stand on 66 and 67?” Grumbles all around. “Well, they just did that to show they are doing something without really doing anything.”  And, “I can’t believe they want to raise taxes at a time like this.”  And then this.  “Our church can’t afford to pay more; we’re losing people as it is.” That’s right. A non-profit church is somehow being forced to pay more because of 66 and 67. Who knew?

This is not good. Government should take care of the homeless problem but shouldn’t ask taxpayers to pay for the human services folks need to end and avoid homelessness to begin with. But, again, trying to stay above it all, if we are about embracing diversity, then embracing different points of view are part of that. Right?

Then, the group’s topic turned to the earthquake in Haiti. And, I didn’t know this, but apparently a sudden lateral or vertical movement of rock along a ruptured surface does not cause an earthquake. God does. God also caused Hurricane Katrina. (I had heard rumor of this before). And, you know what the proof is? Look at Mount St. Helens. All we got was a dusting up here.

Wow. My tolerance of this group just went down the toilet, and I began to think of the danger of this kind of thinking. Now, I know enough to know that most people don’t feel this way. But the truth is, many people do, and a lot more people hold biases that will continue to keep people from realizing their full potential. Let’s look at people who are involved with the criminal justice system.

It’s an issue for many people who are experiencing, and who have experienced, homelessness. From the person who has multiple violations due to the sheer risks associated with being on the streets to the person with untreated illnesses who gets caught up in the public safety and correctional systems because of criminal activity driven by addiction or unusual behavior that few understand and fewer know how to treat.

Every year, more than 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons, and more than 7 million people exit local jails in the United States.

Many inmates experience chronic health and/or mental health problems that increase their likelihood of being homeless upon release from prison or jail. The 2005 Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council documents that:

•            More than one in three inmates reports a physical or mental disability;

•            The incidence of serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, is two to four times higher among prisoners than among the general population; and

•            Three out of four inmates have a chemical dependency problem.

A 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately
42 percent of inmates in state prisons and nearly half of all inmates in local jails have both a mental health problem and a substance abuse disorder.

There are real solutions. Permanent housing linked to supportive services increase the likelihood of an ex-offender’s successful reintegration into the community. Supportive housing reduces criminal justice involvement for homeless people with severe mental illnesses, reducing jail incarceration rates up to 30 percent and reducing prison incarceration rates as much as 57 percent.

It’s really a no-brainer — housing and services help people who are ill and homeless avoid incarceration. It’s not easy work, but it doesn’t require an act of God. It’s more humane for people and it’s a much better use of precious public resources.

Prison and jail are among the most expensive settings in which to serve people who are homeless. One study of nine cities calculated the median daily costs for prison and jail at $59.43 and $70, respectively, compared with $30.48 per day for supportive housing.

To get to the solutions, we have to get beyond our preconceived notions of what someone who has criminal justice involvement is about, especially when they have the added pressures of mental illness and addictions. We have to understand that everyone deserves another chance to realize his or her potential. We have to open doors, provide care and allow people to grow beyond their pasts and transform to become accountable, responsible and participatory citizens in our community.

Oh, and vote yes on 66 and 67. Churches won’t pay more. I promise.

By Heather Lyons

Author’s disclaimer: The views represented in this column belong to me, Heather. They do not represent the views of any of my current or previous employers. Though, of course, they are greatly influenced by my experiences over the years, as should all opinions.

One response to “Our full potential lies beyond the bias — and ignorance

  1. Hi Heather,

    Oh I could do some quoting now (but I am NOT good at it) but um… washing the feet and being grateful and caring for one another…that is MY Christian Walk. Who ARE these people?

    I praise you for your TOLERANCE! I would have had a difficult time, with that conversation in my midst.

    Thank you for a very well written and researched article.
    Barb G

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