Letter: Riverbed is environmental, humanitarian crisis that needs real solutions
To the editor,
There is a clever parable once quoted in a speech by feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Paraphrased, a group of people are frantically pulling drowning people out of a dangerous river. One man gets up and walks away. The others ask where he is going. He replies, “I am going upstream to find the hole in the bridge and fix it so people stop falling into the river.”
The Salinas River is one of the defining natural features of Paso Robles, originating in the mountains and ending at Monterey Bay. It is the only river in North America that flows from south to north. The picturesque Salinas River Walk is a major civic asset that provides recreational opportunities for biking, walking, running, or merely observing nature. As one of California’s premier wildlife resources, environmental monitoring and preservation of the Salinas River is imperative.
Unfortunately, the Salinas waterway holds the potential for two genuine but preventable crises and demands our immediate attention.
From an environmental perspective, unlawful camping and dumping are rampant in the river bed, producing toxic contaminants and human coliform through raw feces. This toxic mixture threatens the fragile ecosystem and is poised to flow into Monterey Bay during the next substantial rain event. On the other end of the spectrum is our looming drought condition. Hundreds of fires started by riverbed campers during the next fire season will pose a clear and present danger to businesses and residents.
Tragically, what we are experiencing right here in Paso Robles is being replicated all over California along waterways, on sidewalks, and in the beautiful public parks of our once glorious cities. The degrading of our environment is a tragic violation of the commons, threatens our waterways and fisheries, and defiles the natural beauty of our state.
More urgently, a genuine humanitarian crisis is underway. People who live in the riverbed are unsheltered because they suffer from a mental illness or the incurable disease of addiction, or both. These are frequently co-occurring illnesses, but most often, mental illness is caused or exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse. No doubt, every disabled individual has a unique story, however, what we do know is that attempts to move them into housing are met with social resistance and legal hurdles. To make matters worse, they themselves are often resistant to offers of housing or treatment, especially when sobriety is made a condition of those services. Acceptance of our fellow human beings living outdoors, unable to care for themselves is a shameful stain on our humanity. We don’t ignore or disparage people who develop pancreatic cancer or any other disease, and we shouldn’t look upon people with substance use disorder or mental illness as societal outcasts. No one chooses to become addicted to drugs. It almost always happens before the human brain is fully developed, and therefore a 12-18-year-old can’t always be expected to make a “good choice” when confronted with unrelenting peer pressure.
Early adolescent substance use prevention is the only reasonable path to solving homelessness in the medium to long term. Part of the problem is misunderstanding and mislabeling. Addiction is a disease, not a human failing, and mental illness, disability, and homelessness is most often merely a symptom of the disease of addiction.
The good news is addiction is treatable but requires long term residential treatment and aftercare. The best news is that substance use disorder and addiction is 100-percent preventable, provided we intervene in time, usually before age 18. According to the National Institute of Health, nine out of ten of the more than 24 million Americans suffering from addiction started using marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs before age 18.
Visit 501c-3 non-profit SafeLaunch.org if you are interested in “going upstream” to help keep our young people from quite literally falling into the river.
In the short term, we must demand that our elected officials give us the legal tools and the resources needed to preserve our precious riparian habitats, and insist on programs that mandate addicts living on public property into long term treatment programs that include robust aftercare.
For the long term solution, let’s take the steps necessary to rein in the addiction for-profit industries. Let’s protect our youth from what Dr. Robert DuPont of the Institute for Behavioral Health aptly calls “chemical slavery.”
Editor’s note: Letters to the editor are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paso Robles Daily News or its staff. We welcome letters from local residents regarding relevant local topics. To submit one, click here.