2007/01/22

Homelessness and the Urban Frog

An interesting post over at Sam Gail got me involved in a discussion of homelessness. We've all probably read the story about the Manhattan antiques dealer who sued for damages and a restraining order on 3 homeless men that were camping out on his doorstep. Now it's hard to have sympathy the business owner who sues for $1M when all I think he really wants is a restraining order. He's obviously frustrated with NYC's lack of assistance in dealing with the problem...and it is a problem.

I used to be quite sympathetic to the homeless' plight. But as a new homeowner--a flat on a gentrified block next to a rundown area of San Francisco--I deal with the homeless every day and wonder where the middle ground lies. Certainly not hard-hearted conservativism, "Arrest them and let urban property owners enjoy a homeless-free existence." And not knee-jerk liberalism, "It's a societal failure. As long as one homeless person lack a better place to live, no one has the right to remove the homeless from our streets."

Here in Babylon by the Bay, we have a program that really works--gets the homeless off the streets and into housing they can call their own, but does that excuse the city from utterly failing to help me deal with the homeless that refuse assistance? San Francisco requires that I keep my sidewalks clear of trash and debris, even trash thrown down by the homeless who sleep on our stoop. I'm required to clean up urine and feces. I routinely have to chase loiterers away from the front of our building because the police will not respond to anything less serious than an assault. Their position is that the homeless are not trespassing. It's city property, even though I'm required to maintain it.

My position is this: If I approve expensive bond measures, funding programs that help the homeless get off the streets, the city should do me the courtesy of helping me make my block a nice place to live, and in that sense I sympathize with an antiques dealer who wants to run a business that people want to visit. Does that make me hard-hearted or practical?

Please forgive me for saying, but many arguments I hear about how we must show compassion for the homeless sound like they come from people who don't deal with the problem on a daily basis. The 'failure' isn't just society failing the homeless, it's society failing to assist those who try to deal with the problem, however compassionately.

24 Comments:

I agree with your ambivalence (if that makes any sense). I draw the line at allowing homeless people to sleep in parks, because it amounts to privatizing public space. When parks are rendered unusable, it isn't the rich who suffer--it's the poor and middle class.
i think that part of the problem lies with the different types of homeless. most folks think that the majority of homeless are down on their luck folks who can't afford housing and what not. while it is partially true- there are a bigger number of folks who are mentally ill and/or have substance abuse issues. those are the folks who most often refuse assistance. i sympathize because i think that there truly is two sides to the story. the societal issue is- we as a society have to learn to stike that balance between give, give, give and not giving at all.
The rise of abject, cruel homelessness that seemed to start under Reagan has been with us so long that it's easy to think it's always been this way. But while it's a huge problem, it's not so large as to be unsolvable, the potential benefits outweigh the costs, and as progresives (because while they may have the compassion the conservatives don't have the solutions) we need to keep trying:

http://tinyurl.com/38mb8s
I too have the greatest empathy for the homeless. When I went through my divorce if it wasn't for the fact I had a sister who was willing to give me a place too stay I too would have been on the street.

I see you point though and do understand where your coming from. Here where I'm at now I see many homeless people daily. Some of them panhandle, while others go to the daily job companies that offer day jobs. Those are the jobs where they show up for work, work the day and get paid at the end of the day.

I also see those who spend whatever money they have on booze or drugs and appear not to care what happens to them. Besides those who have mental problems I really don't see anyone trying to do anything to find a solution to this issue. Though there are some out there who do try to help.

The other issue I see is those who are or so I feel, too proud to ask for or accept help. Those include many who have had financial problems due to job loss or costly medical issues that have left them broken. They don't understand how in America they lost everything and are ashamed to even considering asking for or accepting help.

There are a lot of families and veterans who have been broken by the Iraq war or wounded to the point they can no longer support themselves or their families and more than likely wish they had died instead of coming home in the condition there in. These are also some of the worse tragidies that face our returning soldiers and we as a nation out to be ashamed of ourselves.

What the answer is I don't know, but as a country that is suppose to be the greatest in the free world its a disgrace. Perhaps like most policies we currently follow we should change them and put our citizens and country ahead of all else.

Just my thoughts. Sorry for the rant.

God Bless.
Tom... I find homeless in our parks to be particularly disturbing. Again I sympathize with someone just looking for a place to sleep, but it also really says a lot about a city's lack of commitment to dealing the issue.

Betmo...but isn't it ironic, San Francisco is really going all out to get the homeless off the streets and yet won't lift a finger to help homeowners directly who deal on a daily basis.
Mr_Blog... Started under Reagan yes, but a problem that's been greatly compounded by decades of civic neglect. It's just not a popular problem to tackle.

AnonP...not a rant at all. Don't apologize.

No solution will work with out a partnership between government and citizens--resources and compassion. Would our NY antiques dealer have sued if the police had been willing to help him clear his door and get the homeless into a shelter? I personally don't think so.
I agree with how you feel, mostly because I have never had to deal with it near my home. Growing up there were homeless in areas near us, but they were kind of hidden. I focus more on homeless vets and children because I think it should be a crime to allow either. Whether they want help or not.
There are definitely two sides to the homeless issue. Like any other group, homeless run the gamut: from hardworking people who had some terrible luck, to the type of person who won't do a damn thing for themselves, but would rather just be a leech. I had a homeless relative (now deceased) who fell into the latter category. He lived with us off and on for quite awhile, driving us crazy with his actions (or lack of) and his attitude. He was quite intelligent and capable, but thought it was easier and more fun to leech off of other people rather than work. The thoughts that used to run through my mind would make Archie Bunker look like a liberal.

I don't live in an area frequented by homeless people, but there sure are no simple solutions. You have my sympathy.
Me4Prez, I never encountered the homeless until I moved to Austin for my undergraduate work. Austin's mild climate and liberal attitudes made it social haven for the homeless. The other side though, was that Texas as a rule provided no support whatsoever and the Austin police were very harsh on the homeless population.

Tom, I supspect that many of the people we encounter here are not just homeless but have substance abuse problems as well. Does this make them more likely to want to remain on the street? Probably. I frankly don't see many people that just strike me as down on their luck. A few, but they're the minority.
The store owner who sued sounded heartless at face value, but I note he didn't ask for them to be thrown under the next bus: He asked that they be removed from his doorstep, and be taken care of. As a shopper, how much urine are you willing to walk thru to get to a business?:) The business owner also has rights, including the right to maintain a neat place of business for his customers.

Other than "force" (incarceration), I really don't see much of an answer. There will always be those who simply refuse to take even the slightest responsibility for themselves, even when it means going to free shelter. And if we start incarcerating every homeless every morning....we better start building now!! It's impractical, obviously. Society can only take so much strain of taking care of those who won't take care of themselves, then society itself starts to bend and break.
WE should envy the homeless, really. No posessions to weigh them down, no rents to pay and no soul sucking job to go to everyday, they are the embodiment of the American pioneer spirit.
Most people who live on the streets choose that life, there are lots of government and charitable organizations who will help someone out who really need it, these people have chosen the lifestyle.
But I also understand you have rights as well, the right to protect your investment from losing value because someone has decided to make your stoop their own personal rest stop. Not to mention the unsanitary conditions that creates. I don't think that makes you hard hearted, every citizen has a duty to respect that their rights end where yours begins.
In my opinion, if a homeless person refuses assistance then they must immediately be taken away for some kind of examination.

It might sound cold. But many people are happy that somebody wants to provide assitance to them. If they resist assistance, I feel it is probably for two reasons.

1. They are too proud.

2. They suffer from some form of mental disability.

They need to be taken to a hospital or some other facility to determine if they are mentally fit. It is unsafe and unfair to have someone on the streets because they have a disability.

However, if it turns out they are simply proud, then they must be required to enter some form of program. Once again, it may sound cold, but using up public and private resources when alternatives have been offered is simply unacceptable in my opinion.

Very though provoking. I will add this blog to my list!
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose...
TFWY, incarceration is really for when laws are broken. Not so sure for people who refuse help but who don't break the law.

Here in Sodom by the Sea even loitering isn't against the law (I don't think) but publically relieving onself, littering, public drunkeness, and aggressive panhandling...are, and I'd expect some help that I'm not getting from the police.

Lew, not so the 10 feet between my front doorstep and the street. That's city property, I'm just forced by ordinances to maintain it.
Octavian, thanks for stopping by.

Fred, one kind of freedom, huh? But not the kind that most of us would choose.
You know, if we spent half the money we dropped on Iraq on fixing up homes for the homeless and real, high quality treatment for those who can't kick the habit on their own, we might actually get somewhere on the issue.
Similar problem (although more serious) with Gypsies over here in Slovenia. Hard to appreciate the situation if you're not involved.
WS... I think San Francisco is dealing with the housing issue. 'Care not Cash' seems to be working despite my misgivings about the program at the beginning. Treatment, on the other hand, is still lagging.

Romunov, I not trying to be condescending, but am genuinely curious when I ask: How is the Gypsie problem more serious?
Gypsies can shrink you to doll size if they want, I saw it on Borat. I'd say it's way more serious.
I'll chime in on a couple of points. First of all, in the Czech Republic there wasn't any homlessness under communism. Well maybe like 50 people, tops. Now homelessness is growing by 800% per year. It still isn't near the problem that it is in the states, but we are working on it. Still, if they are mentally ill, they can be institutionalized free of charge.

The thing that strikes me about homeless people here is that they tend to be friendly. I've seen them sorting through the trash bins on the street freshly showered. Although one time I did see an S.F. type talking to herself while going through the trash. And often they beg on their knees with their forehead on the ground and hands together outstretched as in prayer. Beats the hell out of "I need gas money to get to .... ."

Gypsies usually have housing, but very poor housing. In general, they are not interested in working (90% of them) and they steal anything they can get their hands on. It is a problem with no easy solution. I hate to sound racist, but once you live in Europe for a while, you lose tolerance. They will steal the support beams out of your roof for firewood. Same for antique wood windows. They send their kids into the train station to pickpocket and when they get caught they will deny that they are the parents. Eventually the cops let them go. I've seen kids crying "Mami, Mami!" and see the Mom just ignoring them while the cops haul them away. They spit in my face when I saved a lady from getting her wallet stolen on the tram.

You get sick of it after a while.
Fred... But if we were all the size of dolls wouldn't we use a lot less resources? Cars could be smaller, houses, offices. Maybe this the the answer to the world's energy problems. Of course, Fido might want to eat you then. Hmmm...

Praguetwin, I've encountered the children, obviously, on visits to Italy and Spain, but haven't traveled in Eastern Europe. I'm surprised about your observations of the homeless there. Wouldn't "freshly showered" indicate that someone was not, in fact, homeless in the strictest sense? I sort of like the I need gas money/BART ticket schtick. I always have low-value BART (or other public transit) tickets with me, and I just give out when somebody asks to get somewhere. Of course, that's often not what they're really after.
They shower at the shelter, or at sex park (a place where you can look at prostitutes for a dollar, and get a shower). Also, they sleep on the night trams, but it looks like they are going to put a stop to that too: just in time for winter!

No, those guys are not looking for bart tickets. I appreciate the honesty. I've had dudes just ask me for money so they get hammered. I like that better than the shtick.
Wow, you DID generate quite a discussion which is always a good thing. I can appreciate the different opinions on this situation & only wish there were easier solutions.

Thanks for the heads up on this post, Kvatch.
I know what you're getting to, but the not in my backyard (or in your case front step) tone of it ruins the message.

If EVERYONE had to deal with what you see as YOUR PROBLEM (not the problem of the homeless), they you can damn well bet it would get fixed.

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