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Holiday Homelessness Hype

by Heather MacDonald Monday, Jan. 06, 2003 at 4:37 PM

Gotham’s mendacious homelessness industry is back in force. Mayor Bloomberg needs to set the advocates straight. 3 December 2002

It’s the holiday season—the time when New York’s press likes to scarf up the homelessness industry’s lies even more eagerly than usual. Thanksgiving week saw a cornucopia of made-for-the-media whoppers.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that an organization “founded by homeless people” was suing the New York Police Department for allegedly “singling out the homeless for arrest.” The real plaintiff in the case, the New York Civil Liberties Union, charges that the police enforce quality of life rules only against homeless people, while ignoring the many domiciled offenders. All we ask, purrs the NYCLU, is equal application of the laws.

Nonsense. What the homelessness industry really wants is total exemption from the law for street vagrants, so that they can remain publicly visible until the final throes of alcoholism and schizophrenia drive them to the hospital or the grave. It’s the enforcement of the laws—period—that infuriates the advocates, not their alleged “selective” enforcement.

The claim that the police are choosing whom to arrest based on their residency status is ludicrous. If, like one of the NYCLU’s clients, you decide to bed down under a Pennsylvania Station train platform and refuse to leave or go to a shelter, police will arrest you, regardless of whether you have a home to go to. If you have set up camp in an ATM vestibule and you refuse to move on or accept transportation to a shelter, police will arrest you, even if you have an apartment on Park Avenue. The police don’t check the city’s property-tax rolls before deciding whether to intervene against an intimidating panhandler or someone urinating and defecating in public. Needless to say, the NYCLU has provided no examples of criminal trespassers allowed to occupy private property simply because they had an address elsewhere.

The advocates claim that enforcing prohibitions against colonizing public and private space penalizes street vagrants merely for being homeless. More nonsense. Such laws look solely at conduct, not residency status. The implied corollary of the advocates’ complaint—that the homeless have no choice but to violate the law—is equally specious. New York, mandated by the advocates and liberal judges, must provide housing to anyone who asks. If you need shelter, you always have someplace to go. Drop-in centers abound. Outreach workers constantly beg street bums to accept their proffers of shelter and constantly find themselves rebuffed. Why? Because vagrants know they can live well fed on the streets while panhandling drug and booze money, almost always with impunity.

Trying hard to sound compassionate, NYCLU representatives have been claiming all over the airwaves that instead of arresting the homeless, we should “offer them services.” Offer them services? The city offers—and offers and offers—to the tune of billion a year. Would the advocates back off if police brought vagrant law-breakers to shelters instead of arresting them? Of course not. In December 2001, the Giuliani Administration tried to get the occupants of a noisome encampment around the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church into shelter and services. The church and the advocates sued to keep the homeless on the streets, and a liberal judge obligingly concurred.

The advocacy-media axis found a second cause célèbre a few days after the NYCLU suit, when a police officer refused, in the words of the New York Times, to “arrest a homeless man sleeping in a Lower Manhattan parking garage.” The department suspended the officer for 30 days. Was this another instance of the NYPD’s heartlessness—not just toward the homeless but toward men of conscience as well?

Hardly, as the facts show. The 14th Street Business Improvement District had given the police a signed affidavit of criminal trespass against Denis Wait, a.k.a. Stephen Neil, for repeatedly refusing to leave the private parking garage. The BID wanted Wait out of the garage not because he was “homeless,” but because he was trespassing. The police had offered to take Wait to a shelter. Only after their entreaty failed did they arrest him.

Now, according to the logic of the NYCLU’s suit, the police should not have arrested Wait, despite the BID’s trespass affidavit, because this would be “selectively enforcing the law against the homeless.” What will happen to New York if the advocates’ argument wins the day, and street bums can trespass at will? Right now, the city’s economic survival depends on attracting and retaining businesses. But according to the advocates, the city’s recruiting mantra should be: “Come to New York, where your company’s loading dock will be transformed into a dormitory!” New Jersey, brace yourself for boom times.

And what about tourists and residents? The biggest taboo in vagrancy debates is mentioning the public’s interest in parks and subways free from addicts and alcoholics sprawled over benches and seats. According to political correctness, complaining about such blockades is just so selfish! But the public is right to recoil from such intrusions. Street bums are potential threats. They assault each other regularly; a high proportion are mentally ill substance abusers—a prescription for violence, as the city has seen again and again when vagrants have pushed people under subway cars and bashed them on the streets.

But let’s say we ignore society’s claim on safety and property rights, and dedicate all our resources to “helping the homeless,” as the advocates would have us do. What sort of insane philosophy calls it “help” to let mentally ill addicts and alcoholics remain perpetually on sidewalks and back alleys, losing limbs to gangrene and frostbite, drinking and injecting themselves to death, under constant risk of attack from each other and from teen thugs? Give the “advocates” credit for this: they may not have done a thing for the “homeless,” but they have accomplished a conceptual tour de force—turning cruel neglect into self-righteous virtue.

Contrary to what the advocates would have you believe, arresting a street bum who violates the law will often be the best thing that could happen to him. First, it pays him the respect of holding him to the same rules and expectations that the rest of society lives by. Second and more important, it may prod him finally to get control of his life. Go to the city’s drug courts, and you will hear ex-addicts thanking their arresting officer for triggering their self-reclamation.

It is time for Mayor Bloomberg to take on the advocates publicly. Bringing sanity to the city’s homeless policy cannot be done behind the scenes through administrative tinkering and yet more housing construction. The only way to do it is to change the terms of the discussion. At present, the advocates control the debate; the mayor must seize back control. He must explain why compassion does not entail leaving people on the streets. He must explain that in a city mandated to provide shelter, there is neither a right nor a need for vagrants to occupy the streets and trespass on private property. He must make clear that for police to allow vagrants to refuse services and violate the law is not caring but destructive—to the individual and to the public. The winter is here and the city’s economy is reeling. There is not a moment to lose.

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