Saturday, January 14, 2006

Are We As Mean As They Say We Are?

There was a report in the news the other day that listed Dallas as the sixth-"meanest" city in the nation in regard to how it treats homeless people--this according to a survey by several national homeless advocacy groups. Cities were ranked based on the number of "anti-homeless" laws, enforcement of such laws, the general political climate towards homelessness and how the city deals with the issue. The ranking comes despite recent passage of a $23.8 million bond issue to build a homeless center in the downtown area.

So let's pore through the report for a moment and see what kinds of restrictions are being put in place that these guys consider to be "mean":
  • No panhandling within (15-25 feet) of an ATM. I don't see a problem with this; I don't want anyone near me when I'm using an ATM in an urban area, except one of my friends who's "got my back" in this situation. In fact, I try to use the drive-through machines whenever possible.

  • No panhandling within (15-25 feet) of a sidewalk cafe. Nobody wants to be bothered during dinner (except by their server, of course, but even some of them overdo it); this one makes sense to me.

  • No panhandling within 15 feet of a public toilet. Umm, yeah. That just falls under the category of "personal space."

  • Church/charitable groups getting fined for feeding the homeless outside specially designated areas. On the surface, it seems like this is a little unnecessary, but, as downtown residents and merchants have pointed out, those paper plates and plastic cups can stray quite far away from their original areas, and suddenly there's trash everywhere. (I'm also a fence-sitter on the subject of requiring anyone who feeds the homeless to take a food-handlers class similar to the one taken by restaurant workers. On the one hand, that makes sense--just because they're homeless, they don't deserve to get sick from tainted or poorly-prepared food--but it also just seems like a big load of bureaucrap.)

  • Removing a shopping cart from its owner's property. Hmm, the last time I checked, this was called "stealing." And they have a problem with this being outlawed?

  • Urination/defecation in public. You've. Got. To. Be. Kidding.
Call me cold-hearted, but those laws don't sound all that bad to me. I've certainly been among the many people who have had a trip to downtown Dallas made unpleasant by constantly being accosted by homeless people begging for money, and those who have businesses there certainly have a right to conduct business without their patrons going through this on a daily basis.

There have been plenty of stories over the years about the public library in downtown Dallas scaring off "regular" patrons because of the large concentration of homeless people, and no doubt the advocacy groups would consider the library's recent odor ban to be an act of meanness as well. But the code also prohibits sleeping, eating, drinking and bathing at the library--by anyone, regardless of residential status. While library officials concede that it's doubtful anyone will be asked to leave because of an overwhelming odor of, say, Chanel No. 5, they also will not invoke the odor rule without first having heard specific complaints from other patrons.

The root of the homeless problem, as far as I see it, has nothing to do with the temporarily down-and-out--the people who are actually trying to find work and a place to live. These individuals tend to stay in shelters, take assistance when they can, and follow the rules, and they often return to the working (and sheltered) world after a time. The problem lies with what could be called the "chronically homeless"--the ones who are either suffering from mental illness or simply don't want to live anywhere besides the streets. (I recall the story years ago by the Dallas Morning News's Steve Blow, who interviewed a man with a "will work for food" sign set up right across the street from a McDonald's with a "help wanted" sign. Steve put two and two together and asked the guy why he didn't just go across to Mickey D's and apply for a job, and the guy said something to the effect of "too many rules, don't like to get up early, don't want to stop drinking" and so on.) Perhaps the solution ultimately lies in the construction of more mental hospitals to get the "worst of the worst" off the streets, but in the other cases, it's hard to help people who don't actually want to be helped. The advocacy groups say that Dallas is being "mean" by passing these laws, but I say that we're just regulating behavior that shouldn't happen to begin with...and these groups, instead of actually helping the homeless, are instead being "enablers" and perpetuating the problem.

Does that make me a "meanie?" So be it, I guess...

I'd like the Bandit Platter, please: Running for office in Arkansas? You'd better be prepared to eat some raccoon.

Hot for teacher's assignment: An Ohio high school's research project on Internet porn has been cancelled after complaints from parents.


Eric Grubbs said...

I totally agree with your statements on this issue. I'm one of those "mean" people that don't even acknowledge a panhandler's presence when he/she is out on a street corner.

One of the cheapest gas stations in my area is often frequented by beggers. It's incredibly annoying and I've done a few things to fend them off. I once told a man to "move along" while another time I got back into my car and slammed the door in the guy's face.

The sheer nature of begging makes me mad. I see it as an act of hopelessness.

James said...

I've never really been sure where I stand on the aspect of homelessness. My heart really goes out to them... but I do also see quite a few of your points as being relevant, Kev.

Giggle time: I've always laughed at your drive-thru ATMs - I don't know if that idea's even been pondered over here yet. And just the different nicknames for McDonalds I guess - it's very fondly known as "Maccas" over here :)

James said...

PS: I do believe it's your turn for a topic on AAF :)

Kev said...

Wow, James, you guys don't have drive-through ATM's? Maybe that should be the topic of the next AAF post: fancy machines and gadgets that make life easier.