Some aspects of building an effective, resilient community are more attractive than others. Working toward greater food and energy security and a healthier environment are exciting and engaging goals. This is because the solutions are mostly known and the means to realize them are within our command. The kind of community work I want to talk about now is not so attractive nor are the solutions so readily apparent. I’m talking about our response to mental illness, homelessness, drug abuse, and crime. These four tend to be related; a person exhibiting one behavior is likely to exhibit one or more of the others as well.
What makes it really hard for us to feel compassionate about behavioral pathologies is that we tend to blame the behavior on the victim. Although there are exceptions, few people choose these conditions or behaviors. Mental illness is the least likely to be blamed on the individual, but even there, we are understandably really uncomfortable around people whose behavior is threatening and/or irrational. We like to use logic and common sense to deal with others, but when that doesn’t work, we, the untrained, have no choice but to avoid those people or restrain them, neither of which is particularly constructive. The easiest first step is usually detention. Some form of treatment is usually used although it is often ineffective if the causes of the behavior are unchanged.
We have these problems here. Because the causes need to be addressed at the cultural level, we mostly try to mitigate the symptoms, that is, to constrain those behaviors. Numerous groups on the Island are doing just that. We try to shelter and feed the poor and the homeless, but poverty and homelessness are systemic problems built into our economy. We can criminalize risky drug use (some drugs, anyway), assault, and burglary, but the causes of those behaviors are deeply rooted in personal history and the social and ethical underpinnings of our culture. We respond to these problems out of our sense of humanity and community, but also out of a need for personal security
The Vashon Maury Community Council will address one small part of this conundrum at their general meeting on Jan 27. There have been a rash of casual burglaries, and it is believed that these are mostly committed in order to buy needed drugs. The drug most often implicated is Methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that can be manufactured from over the counter drugs. I understand that it takes months to withdraw from meth. There are known locations from which it is being sold. These “drug houses” are a source of anxiety for those living nearby. The need to pay for drugs tends to outweigh the taboo against taking other people’s property. The burglaries seem to cluster around these houses.
The most immediate problem that Vashonites are concerned about is theft. Because of a very few people, we all have to keep everything locked up, Our first reaction is to ask the sheriff’s department to apprehend these lawbreakers and remove them from our community, although there’s ample evidence that this procedure does nothing to solve the long-term problem. In any case, it just happens that we don’t have that option. The Sheriff came out last year and told us that, although they can sometimes apprehend burglars and recover stolen property, they don’t have the money to make a case to prosecute small time drug sellers or users on Vashon.
As much as we would like to pay someone else to take care of this, it is our problem to deal with. How do we discourage burglaries in the most effective, efficient, and least violent manner? The most obvious solution is some form of neighborhood watch. We keep an eye on our neighbors’ homes when vacant and report anything suspicious. We form teams to drive through neighborhoods to establish the fact that drug houses and potential thieves are being watched. If there is a more positive approach to the problem, we need you to come to the meeting and propose it.
I know that a lot of us value our anonymity, but, in this situation, anonymity, both of the burglar and between us and our neighbors, is a problem. We need to take responsibility for ourselves. It will require that you participate or cooperate in some way to make it work. We need your ideas, so please come out to the council meeting on Jan 27, 7:30 pm at McMurray Junior High. Major Wills from the Southwest precinct of the King County Sheriff’s Department will be there to present strategies that have worked in other places.
Ultimately, we need to do more to stem the causes, but all in due time.