While writing about homelessness a few years ago, I decided to try living homeless, for accuracy's sake. I chose a city 100 miles away and left everything behind except my trusty old Honda, a half tank of gas, and the clothes on my back. My days were spent panhandling - a deeply humiliating exercise - and visiting underfunded social service agencies, churches and charities. Sleeping in the backseat of my car was so cold and cramped, I caught very few winks.

Sleep deprivation and the lack of a home base severely disoriented me. I felt confused, forgetful, frightened and utterly low. I hadn't realized it was possible to feel so discombobulated. After a hellish week that seemed like a year, I gave up and drove back home to avoid further mental disintegration.

Most of us don't realize how much a fixed abode contributes to our sanity until we don't have one. In other words, maybe some people aren't homeless because they're crazy, maybe being homeless makes them crazy.

An estimated half-million homeless live in the U.S. Experts say about 25 percent suffer from severe mental illness. I suspect many got that way - or got worse - simply from being homeless.

More than a few fall into homelessness via alcoholism and/or drug addiction. About 10 percent are veterans. Some are criminals on the lam or undocumented immigrants evading deportation.

But many are ordinary families who lost jobs and homes due to unexpected misfortunes. Nearly 25 percent are children.

Once someone falls into homelessness, it's hard to climb out. Without a permanent address, it's almost impossible to acquire financial aid or land a job. Without aid or income, it's impossible to rent a place to live or keep up a spiffy-enough appearance to hold a job.

Meanwhile, how can so many of us who have jobs, homes and plenty to eat pretend the homeless are not our problem? Ignoring them is worse than incarcerating them. At least in prison they'd be fed, clothed, housed and kept warm and dry.

Many of the inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison are learning trades that will enable them to support themselves once they're released. Maybe we need to make homelessness a felony and imprison the homeless. Locking them up and making the state responsible for their maintenance would provide them with housing, food, clothing and medical attention while they learned marketable skills.

What does it say about us as a society that we take better care of our most violent criminals than of our most needy unfortunates? It's inhumane to continue to do nothing.

Mike Justice, the executive director of Our Daily Bread Ministries, has been trying for years to raise enough capital to establish a permanent shelter, yet only one of the 30-plus churches in our area supports his efforts.

If Mike isn't everyone's cup of tea, why don't the churches get together and start their own shelter? Wasn't it a priority of churches in ages past to help the poor and "the least of these?"

The Bible quotes God as saying, "...share your food with the hungry and provide shelter to the poor wanderer..." (Isaiah 58:7) How can Del Norte County's many, many Christians ignore the words of their maker and boss? How can anyone?

Evelyn Cook is a retired journalist and author living in Crescent City.