When I served in public life, common knowledge was that the number of jail inmates swelled in winter. Desperate to come in from the cold, the indigent resorted to petty crimes and waited for the police to arrest them. Law enforcement officers became social workers. Their job was to escort the homeless to shelters, most of them sick, hungry and mentally ill. Sometimes, there was no room at the inn, so detainees spilled into temporary holding facilities. Thankfully, these men and women weren’t picky. All they wanted was food and a safe, warm place to sleep.
Recently, I read Japan is suffering a crime wave among the elderly, particularly females, as they live longer than men, on average. ”Almost 1 in 5 women in Japan’s prisons is a senior.” (Bloomberg, Businessweek, article by Shiho Fukada, March 19, 2018 pg. 55) Alone, their families in another city or no longer willing to care for them, these elderly use petty crime as a solution to their poverty. Prison guards find themselves serving as caregivers. Bathing and toileting the women are prime examples of tasks they now perform. The burden drives some officers away, so that staff turnover is high. “More than a third of female correctional officers quit their job within three years.” (Ibid pg. 56.)
In my state, Oregon, solving the problem of homelessness rests with local governments. Unfortunately, the tax base is limited. The in-coming revenue isn’t enough to manage all the social needs. To compound the problem, many who seek public office don’t understand the challenges of serving the homeless. This is a constituency least likely to vote. Their needs consistently fly under the radar until they become a public nuisance. Talking about libraries and schools are more comfortable topics, in any case. No one wants to hear about the elderly woman who steals a sausage in the hope of being arrested.
Indifference toward the homeless won’t make the problem go away, of course. Japan’s experience assures us of that.