Monday, April 28, 2008

Hypothetical Kindness

The Chicago Tribune is calling it a backlash. After three unsolved murders, some in Madison have decided to pin the guilt collectively on the city's homeless community. Thus, after nearly a decade of failed social and economic policies have driven thousands of people formerly on the margins over the edge into homelessness, our overdue public dialogue about the homeless centers on how best to lynch them.

Fred Mohs' "Out of My Backyard" suggestion simply moves the problem to a different part of town. The Trib article points out that one possible reason for increased trouble in downtown student neighborhoods is recent efforts to move panhandlers off of State Street. The rants since the start of the latest "backlash" seem to fall into two camps (apart from David Blaska's macabre, victorian workhouse fantasy). First there's the "let's all throw away this namby-pamby, liberal compassion pretense and judge them!" response. John Roach, for instance, suggests we dedicate an official month to brainstorming ideas for combatting the homeless menace. This dovetails nicely into the "Throw them all in prison!" camp, which is really what these people are getting at. Fining people with no money doesn't work. Moving them around the city with petty restrictions doesn't work. We're talking about incarcerating a group a people we're afraid of. Imprisoning Madison's estimated 3400 homeless residents, at $30,000 per inmate, would cost right around $102 million a year. Are these people really willing to spend this much? If they are, I've got a better idea.

Let's return to reality for a moment. Let's come back to the world where (assuming it even was a homeless person) we're worked up about one guy in a community of thousands of people who've been completely neglected by society and whose only common offense is lacking a roof and four walls. How about we take just a fraction of that hundred-million-dollars a year (say a tenth) and invest it in transitional housing, humane mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, and even a few more level-headed beat cops like Officer Meredith York (featured in the Tribune article).

Will it mean an end to unsolved murders, aggressive panhandling and even homelessness? Of course not. There are too many issues here and too many individuals to fall under any blanket solution, especially with the poverty rate rising. What it will do is get more of these people off the streets and into programs focused on helping them, rather than prisons focused on punishing them.

Regardless of who's to "blame" for any one person's homelessness, there are people in this city in need of shelter. We can deal with them constructively or we can deal with them punitively. . . or we can try not to deal with them at all. No points for guessing which we'll choose.


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