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It's simple: Homeless entitled to life's necessities

Published March 19, 2006

When Seinfeld co-creator Larry David was on 60 Minutes a couple of years back, he reminisced about being broke in New York City, trying to survive on the pittance he was making as a stand-up comic.

As he traversed the streets of Manhattan, he would scope out the best doorways and alcoves for sleeping, convinced that he would eventually join the ranks of the homeless. "I was planning on my future as a homeless person. I had a really good spot picked out," David brightly told correspondent Bob Simon.

I wonder if you treat the homeless better if you think that one day that heap of rags and newspapers sleeping atop a subway grate could be you?

Every year an average of 3.5-million Americans experience homelessness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. That's more people than the populations of North and South Dakota, Montana and Delaware combined.

When I lived in Manhattan in the 1980s, homeless men and "shopping-bag ladies" were as ubiquitous as pigeons and Gap stores. Maybe they are still. They would walk the streets wearing five or six layers of clothes, looking like an overstuffed couch, their raggedy possessions piled into purloined shopping carts. Some would sit silently on the sidewalk like a mannequin of need, with a clean coffee cup by their feet and a sign asking for help. Others would approach more directly with their hand out. If you chose the wrong subway car, the ride would include a mezzo forte performance by a man begging for change who had a story of woe to tell. We all heard, even if no one looked up.

All this is to say, I get it. The homeless are not attractive people. It is hard to be around them. They typically smell bad, look ominous and want something from you. Their very being makes us uncomfortable, fearful and a bit guilt-ridden. Why don't they all just disappear, we say to ourselves. Why don't they all just go away?

But go where? That is the pickle cities have been grappling with for decades. Sadly, the answer too often has been the local jail. There seems to be something written into the DNA of public officials that makes them look to punitive solutions to this difficult social welfare problem. Rather than build enough emergency shelter capacity, numerous cities, large and small, have instead made it a crime to sleep in public, beg for money or provide the homeless with food, all in an attempt to drive the homeless either away or to jail.

Here is what I know: It is breathtakingly cruel to make someone's very existence a crime.

Human beings need to eat, sleep and relieve themselves. When someone has no home or shelter, those essential life functions must be performed outdoors and in public. Of course no one wants to witness that behavior or live near it. But unless we provide the homeless with shelter, we are subjecting them to arrest simply for sustaining life. This is fundamentally wrong, constitutionally as well as morally.

The National Coalition for the Homeless has named Sarasota the meanest city in the country in 2006 for its persistent attempts to make it a crime to sleep outdoors anywhere within its borders. City commissioners had tried twice before to pass a "no lodging law," but those attempts were set aside by a court. In their third effort, the law was written to make someone subject to arrest if that person was awakened while sleeping on city property and said they have no other place to live.

If you have a home, there's no foul. It's only those poor souls with no other options who face arrest for the audacity of using a public place to rest.

Sarasota is a rich town of million-dollar homes and condos. The people there support a thriving cultural community, including a fine arts museum, a clutch of performing arts theaters, an opera season, ballet company and symphony. But the city's charity apparently extends to starving artists only, and even the artists had better have a roof. The Salvation Army in town says it doesn't have nearly enough beds to meet the need.

In St. Petersburg, there is an effort to do something similar. Old ordinances that close all public parks at night and prevent "camping" at all times are being dusted off to roust the homeless from areas of downtown redevelopment. The plan has some carrots, including putting a person on contract to do outreach to the homeless and adding 37 shelter beds to what private charities offer. But that won't come close to making sufficient provisions. Hundreds more beds are needed, according to local experts.

City Attorney John Wolfe said St. Petersburg's ordinances don't go as far as Sarasota's, because there are still public spaces where the homeless can go to sleep at night. Where, though, he wouldn't say. "I don't want to redirect these people to those areas," Wolfe said.

Beth Eschenfelder, St. Petersburg's manager of social services planning, said the public places where it is still legal to sleep at night include the "public right of way outside (a private) house." She couldn't point to another place.

So police will kick out, cite or arrest a homeless person who is sleeping in a public park but won't bother the homeless man who is sleeping on the "public right of way" on a resident's lawn? I don't think so.

I understand that city officials are under a lot of pressure from constituents and developers to do something about the homeless. And they should. But criminalizing sleeping in public or closing the public parks to people with nowhere else to go should not be on the table. Do something else, something more in line with a recognition that the homeless are people - Americans, in fact - and they shouldn't be facing the inside of a jail cell and a criminal record just because they are desperately poor.

Because there is something terribly wrong with that.

[Last modified March 17, 2006, 17:55:02]

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