The Knoxville 911 Blues
"911 calls to homeless shelter generate concern for residents." This headline about the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission illustrates the kinds of stories about homelessness that are frequently reported in the media. Let's dissect, shall we?
One, the headline implies that it is surprising that homeless residents of the mission would be concerned for their own safety. Secondly, by reporting about the calls for public intoxication and suicide attempts, it reinforces the stereotype that all homeless people are drunk and/or mentally ill.
If you click on the link in the story that takes you to the actual call list, you can see that many of the calls are for medical reasons or more prosaic issues and, in the era of cell phones, many are simply repetitive calls about the same issue.
But, looking at the list, there is no doubt that a number of the calls were for alcohol or drug-related issues. This brief story about a homeless shelter in Knoxville illustrates a larger political and cultural issue. As our nation's substance abuse and mental health treatment has been dismantled over the last few decades, homeless shelters and prisons have become the de facto treatment facilities for these illnesses.
Emergency services are extremely expensive but seem fairly recession proof. It is always harder to ask people to pay for prevention or treatment services than it is to ask them to pay for ambulances, police and fire trucks. Mind you, in some communities, all three show up for each emergency call.
We need emergency services, no doubt, and some communities are struggling with very, very difficult budget decisions. But paying for the most expensive emergency services for chronic illnesses is not sound fiscal or social policy. However, until public opinion embraces the research that shows the value and effectiveness of treatment for these illnesses, we will be left paying for the most expensive form of intervention possible, one that frequently culminates with the police officer or EMT saying, "Well, he's just a drunk," or "She's just crazy," and walking away with that sinking feeling of futility.
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