Food was once a baseline litmus test of the street-smart Samaritan. “I’ll buy a panhandler a sandwich,” the logic goes, “but I don’t give money” so as not to enable those who might to buy drugs or alcohol. I get the concept, but have always been wary of the assumptions behind it. It has never occurred to me that the buck in my pocket could buy me moral authority over the next fellow. Nor have I ever made the leap that someone hitting me up for spare change is really asking me to solve his or her life. Some I give to, some I don’t. When I do it is out of one of the most basic of human compunctions: the need to be needed.
The rest, I leave up to God.
However, it seems this point has been rendered moot, since, according to recently tendered legislation in Fort Lauderdale serving food to street people in public is now in itself to be considered a form of enablement. “Feeding people on the street,” declares Chairman of the Dade County Homeless Trust, Ronald Book,” is sanctioning homelessness.”
With that abortion of logic at the forefront, Fort Lauderdale has now joined the ranks of the twenty other American towns, counties, cities and states that have rendered feeding people in public an illegal act. Defenders say it’s a form of tough love. But upon examination there certainly seems to be more tough than love going on, because the new laws specifically allow for the feeding of masses of street people in churches and soup kitchens—just not in public. So, unless feeding people is somehow less enabling when conducted behind closed doors, it becomes all too clear that the real issue here is visibility.
Visibility, I might add, and nationality.
In his book Breach of Faith Theodore White observed that, take away the myths of, say, France or Germany, you will still have Frenchmen and Germans. America, however, is the only nation on the face of the earth not forged out of common collective historic, ethnic, or religious experience. It was founded, rather, upon an idea. One that it remains a struggle to live up to, I might add. So there is not as yet really any such thing as an American, in that sense—just a vast heterogeneous population occupying the same terra firma—and it will likely take another thousands years of history before there is. Meanwhile, our myths are the only things defining us. We cling to them mightily, even in the face of any evidence to the contrary.
And nothing flies in the face of most of these myths more succinctly than the advent of persistent homelessness. America is after all supposed to be the place where anyone can make it. We are touted as a rich, powerful, charitable, and classless society; one in which all people are treated fairly, equitably and equally. It’s difficult enough to reconcile these qualities with the fact that every year for the last three decades over a million Americans find themselves homeless, with all the sloppiness it entails. And it’s outright unnerving to see it before our very eyes.
So, at its best, what’s really behind all the “anti-homeless” legislation, are populaces that have grown sick and tired of the picture of America not being what we hold in our heart for it to be. “Okay, so some people fall through the cracks,” they may admit, “but do they have to be right in face?” And despite that I spent over a decade on the streets of New York City; I cannot say I don’t sympathize with such frustrations. At the same time, my 65 years on earth have taught me that it is perilous and ultimately futile to attempt to legislate ourselves into the kind of country we want this to be.
People and life are fluid. Imagine a waterbed; push it flat in one spot, it swells up in another. Similarly, every piece of social legislation, even when it is clear in spirit and intent—which in no case could it be said that this is always true—gives rise to unforeseen consequences down the road.
Take, for instance, what led us into the explosion of homelessness in the first place; massive deconstruction of our social services welfare system. Yes, it was imperfect. Yes, as in everything else, some people took advantage, and yes, though it has since been largely disproven, the consensus at the time was that it was a major tax burden for citizens and erosive of the work ethic. But in attempting legislate our way out of the state-sponsored charity business, what was not mentioned, but plainly evident soon enough, was that aside from what benefit or detriment social welfare had for its target population, the rest of us were getting something for our money too. Welfare provided an amazingly effective buffer between the desperate and the average Joe. Once it underwent ‘reform’ thus excluding masses of people from eligibility, suddenly, there they all were, right in our faces.
And here we now are, trying to outlaw them back out of sight. In all, 75 municipalities across the nation have enacted new rules, ordinances, and sanctions, ostensibly applicable to all but specifically relating to actions and behaviors peculiar to people going through homelessness.
This is both understandable, and misguided.
Understandable because it’s easy to see how particular hot points within a town or city from disproportionate hordes of homeless people, drawn to a particular area containing certain services or characteristics that support their survival needs. The effect of this, frankly, can be overwhelming. Most of us can, when asked in passing from time to time, spare a quarter or two, perhaps; a little empathy, maybe, a willing ear, why not. Yet when it happens back to back to back, day after day after day, most of us—in our rush to here and there, making what we will of our lives—grow fatigued under the weight of a burden which, now divested from the state, falls upon the shoulders of us each.
Perfectly understandable. Yet misguided because in simply banning the offering of services and outlawing access in one area, you may edge hundreds or thousands of street people out of that community. But at the same time, you diminish the aggregate resources available to the overall population, increasing the likelihood that those you have displaced will end up overwhelming some other community and the more communities subsequently apply the same solution the worse the problem will get. It would make more sense, in fact, for any overwhelmed location to offer more services and access at a second or third location. If, for an extreme example, every household each offered a single free meal a day, not only would that be way more than enough, there’d be no crowds.
Of course this is not likely to happen. But it illustrates a point and it is this: we fail in our urge to protect ourselves, to the extent that we do not also seek to protect us all. And though it may seem so on the surface of things, this really isn’t about the homeless, per se. It isn’t really about turf or money either. At it’s very heart, this is about a ball tossed into the air decades ago and a crossroads we have now reached as to where to put it back down; a crossroads at which we each find ourselves struggling to form a new balance between what parts of the social contract we’ll abdicate to the collective to take care of, and what parts we’ll each take on as our own.
In the process we will begin to define what kind of America we will truly become.