The Devastating Results of Misguided Compassion

By John Ashmen

Faith Radio Network talk show host Carmen LaBerge recently invited me to be a guest on her program, Mornings with Carmen. She read a story about a woman named Laurie Steves who set off from Seattle to find her daughter Jessica in San Francisco and try to save her from dying of a drug overdose on the streets of the Tenderloin District. Carmen wanted me to talk about Fentanyl, now the number-one killer of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25. She asked me to explain to her listeners in ten states the relationship between drugs and homelessness, and why—after politicians have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the problem—it has only gotten worse.

I explained that the lives of far too many people are being destroyed by policymakers with something I call “misguided compassion.” Not wanting to appear calloused regarding those who have fallen through society’s safety nets, many cities—particularly on the West Coast—have removed any ordinance that gives the appearance that homeless people are being punished, even if many do have a carefree and feckless lifestyle. After all, a lot of homeless people have some form of mental illness. But policymakers have gone overboard. They essentially are telling them that because you are in a desperate place, we will give you extra rights (e.g., congregate/camp anywhere, take over apartments with minimal accountability), over and above what housed and working people have, and we’ll not punish you for breaking some of our laws (e.g., petty theft, resisting arrest, selling/using hard drugs, solicitation for sex, public urination/defecation). What’s been the upshot? We have an exacerbated problem that is killing people and destroying the landscape of our cities.

Jessica, the girl from the story, living in San Francisco, puts it in plain English: “The city is way too easy for people with nothing to get by. That’s why I’m still here nine years later. You get by with doing drugs and suffer no consequences. I like it here.”

Carmen asked what solution I might suggest. I told her that many of her listeners—those who consider themselves compassionate but are idealistic and naïve—were not going to like my answer, but it’s this: Society must get back to making street life significantly more inconvenient and uncomfortable for those who choose to be homeless and want to live in a way that threatens the wellbeing and livelihoods of those who are housed, employed, and following social norms. We must elect politicians who will stand against the outcries of the unenlightened and show that this misguided compassion is actually harming homeless people, not helping them.

We also must consider institutional care for those with severe mental illness who are dying on our streets every day—not in the way depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but with watchful care that includes regular balanced meals, medicine, and other treatment. And we must depend less on the government and more on faith-based organizations, the ones with their sleeves rolled up working face-to-face with marginalized people every day. We must not be intimidated—in our increasingly secular society—to describe the difference that can happen in someone’s life when they encounter Jesus and start to live according to His gospel as a redeemed individual.

What does inconvenient and uncomfortable look like? The California Peace Coalition (of which Union Rescue Mission CEO Andy Bales is a member) points this out: “Many addicts require the threat of jail or other forms of coercion to stop breaking the law and get their lives together. This is not the same as long prison sentences. In fact, research shows that ‘swift and certain’ consequences for law-breaking are more effective than slow, uncertain, and longer sentences.”

Hear this: There are a lot of people on the street as a result of someone else’s bad decisions or unfortunate circumstances—a woman on the run from her pimp, a young person who has aged out of foster care, a woman with children who can’t pay her escalating rent. They are desperate to find direction and a better life. Unfortunately, the government is actually providing inducements to remain adrift, and they too are getting sucked into this vortex that is multiplying their problems.

I was at Gospel Rescue Mission in Tucson, Arizona, last week, talking to CEO Lisa Chastain. We were discussing a Fox News treatise on this very problem. The commentator, while making some heavy-hitting, logical points, failed to season his remarks with compassion, probably out of anger and frustration. As Citygate Network members, we have the compassion. What would happen, Lisa and I wondered, if we took this message of needless death and devastation in our cities because of misguided compassion and addressed it—loudly and regularly—from a what-would-Jesus-do perspective? Are you thinking, like us, that we can no longer take a passive approach? We’re located in almost every major city. We are seen as the experts in the faith-based world on homelessness and addiction. We have communication skills and tools. Do you want to talk about this and maybe be part of a tough but tender, well-balanced, positive Citygate Network dialogue with society? This is not a left versus right matter, it’s about wrong versus right. Let’s all reread Proverbs 31:8-9 and then make some noise.