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A Different Perspective on Homelessness

GELFAND’S WORLD - Call this Chapter One.  If you were going to write a book about the homelessness situation, the one thing you would ultimately conclude is that all sides are wrong.

There is no humane, fair, and logical solution to what is going on. Actually, there may be a solution, but I haven't heard it proposed so far -- and it's something for another chapter and a deeper dive into the facts. 

But right now, the public discourse is all wrong. 

We could start with the judges. Courts at both the state and federal level have determined that it is not acceptable to make homelessness a crime. That by itself makes sense. Not having a domicile is not necessarily something you do intentionally, or out of spite, or even necessarily out of negligence. Some people are just unlucky, or suffering from some mental disability, or have been raised badly. Federal prohibitions against prosecuting people for vagrancy have been in existence since the midpoint of the last century. 

But some judges have gone too far. One even said that the city must provide housing to its skid row population. I think I begin to understand where this and other judges are coming from, and also why they are wrong. 

So here is the fundamental principle I would suggest we might consider: 

Let's just call this Bob's Axiom Number 1: 

A municipality has the right to determine the use of its public spaces. 

I am using the word "axiom" because I think it would be useful to provide a solid anchor to what has otherwise turned into an argument that just goes around in circles, with different sides repeating themselves endlessly. 

If a city wants to preserve a lake and its surrounding parkland for public use, then it should have the right to prohibit camping there. If an oceanfront community wishes to prevent camping on its sidewalks, that also should be something that the law allows. 

Does this mean that there should not be any place for the hopelessly poor to camp out? I don't think so, but I would argue that any solution ought to be in keeping with axiom 1. 

What sort of camping rights ought there to be? I suspect that this is going to be a complicated question and ought to be determined by our usual democratic process. 

Right now, this axiom is not the law of the land or even the law in any city within our nation's boundaries. The reason is a bit subtle and, I would claim, even a bit weird. It's got to do with the entirely reasonable principle that cities are not allowed just to throw people in jail for living on the streets. 

But in more recent years, a few judges have begun to try to make rules that force the rest of society to protect and preserve the homeless from their own behavior. I know it sounds a bit awkward when put like this, but think about the following: Do we who are not homeless, who pay rent or mortgages and who pay taxes every day of the year -- why are we supposed to be responsible to pay (indirectly perhaps, but in a very real sense) for the rent that the homeless would otherwise have to earn themselves? There was a moment when a local judge said almost exactly that. The City of Los Angeles was supposed to provide some sort of housing for all of the people on the streets of skid row. 

What is the logic of that? Yes, I would be the first to agree that the conservative side has often gone too far in this country, but I would argue that there is a principle that is neither liberal nor conservative, but just sort of reasonable, and it goes like this: 

It is perfectly OK for a society to tax its citizens to provide aid to the homeless, just as we have provided aid to seriously oppressed minority populations and the permanently disabled. But the level of taxation and the level of services and aid we provide are to be the results of the democratic process. We elect representatives to our state legislatures and our county boards, and they are then tasked with determining the answers to these questions. At a different level, members of congress vote on what level the federal aid programs will be. 

But it does not make sense to have some local judge make himself into the taxing authority for the City of Los Angeles or the county. That is not what our system is supposed to be about. 

The humanitarian side of the argument 

There is no question that for a lot of homeless people, life has become a real drag. At one level, it's like going on a backpacking trip that has no end and no scenery, and you don't have the cash or the credit cards to go into REI or Big 5 and buy all the comforts of the good life. There's lots more to this point, but for the moment, consider just one other thing -- what do you do when you get sick, or when you develop some long-term condition such as AIDS or diabetes, or an itchy skin rash that does not go away? 

And to be even more blunt, what about the theft and rape and every other issue of living among people who include those with psychiatric disorders, drug addictions, or just mean personalities? The option of picking up and moving into the Holiday Inn for a few nights isn't available. 

The people of Los Angeles have taken these things into consideration and have voted substantial sums of money to assist the homeless population. Some of this money is undoubtedly being badly spent, as the cost of a single housing unit to be constructed under these measures would pay for ten homes in the midwest. OK, not in Chagrin Falls, but in plenty of places I have driven by. Some of them are pretty nice, although you would have to cover utility bills and taxes. But that last point is just exactly what the rest of us are doing whether we are living in Los Angeles or in Bloomington. 

I think that most of us are not comfortable with leaving people to die of disease, cold, starvation, or any of the many other risks that befall us. We want to do something for the unfortunate. We just don't want to give up civilization to do it. 

Civilization includes that part about giving the democratic process a chance, not only to determine speed limits and tax rates, but also to determine how the public lands and lakes that are supported by those taxes are themselves regulated.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])