How should cities cope with the homeless?

Tom Ammiano, San Francisco’s reliably far-Left supervisor, was in the local news today because he’s come out with a new proposal that can be called “the homeless bill of rights“:

Among other things, the proposed law would require legal representation for anyone cited under such laws as San Francisco’s sit/lie law or anti-panhandling ordinance.

It would give “every person in the state, regardless of actual or perceived housing status,” the rights to “use and move freely in public spaces,” to “rest in public spaces,” and to “occupy vehicles, either to rest or use for the purposes of shelter, for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

However, one provision of the bill can be interpreted to allow restrictions of those activities as long as they are applied equally to all people, and not just homeless people. That leaves wiggle room for evaluation of local ordinances that would probably not spell their immediate dismissal.

(You can see that Ammiano envisions himself as a modern-day Anatole France (“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”).)

Ammiano’s proposal makes the news in the same week as two other stories about society’s lost souls.  The first was the story of Larry DePrimo, the policeman who, frustrated by his inability to aid a barefoot homeless man, went into a shoe store and bought the man a brand new pair of all-weather boots. The second was the story of a crazed man who pushed a father-of-two to his death on the New York subway tracks.

All three stories revolve around a single issue:  what should a civilized, affluent society do about those who are too dysfunctional to live a stable life, but are just functional enough to survive on the streets without starving to death?

Any discussion about the homeless has to begin by recognizing that there are two different types of homeless in America.  The first type, the one that makes for heart-rending headlines telling us that we must socialize our economy, is the down-on-its-luck family.  These families are the economic tragedies, the ones who fell victim to a bad economy and lost first their livelihoods and then their homes.  The adults are functional, but have fallen through the cracks, created by bad luck and hard times.

These “working class” homeless are, in theory, quite simple to help.  Give them shelter and childcare, and then give mom and dad a job.  I understand that the procedure isn’t as easy as the theory.  I’m just pointing out that the remedy is a straightforward one, no matter how challenging it may be to implement it.

The second category of homeless people is the more vexing one.  These are the ones who are homeless because they have mental diseases or addictions that render them incapable of functioning in normal society under any circumstances.  Jeffrey Hillman, who was the beneficiary of Officer DePrimo’s charity, is a prime example (emphasis mine):

It turns out the homeless, barefoot man who captured the hearts of thousands isn’t actually homeless. Jeffrey Hillman, the recipient of a pair of boots given by a good samaritan New York City police officer, has an apartment in the Bronx, officials told the New York Daily News.

According to the Daily News, the 54-year-old Hillman lived in transitional housing sites called “Safe Havens,” from 2009 until 2011. He then secured his current apartment through a Department of Veterans Affairs program that helps homeless vets. Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the city agency, told the Daily News that outreach services continue to try and help Hillman, but he “has a history of turning down services.

I know Hillman’s type of homeless.  You couldn’t miss this type growing up and working in San Francisco.  Because San Francisco has a temperate climate, its downtown streets are dotted with filthy men (plus a few women) who sit on the sidewalks all day begging for handouts.

It is immediately apparent looking at these beggars that they are not simply slackers who prefer begging to work.  All of them show the signs of serious illness and advanced substance abuse.  Many of them are obviously seriously mental ill, with the scariest ones have long, angry conversations with invisible companions.

The paranoid ones, like Hillman, resist help.  They would rather live outdoors, even if outdoors means the mean, freezing streets of New York, Chicago, or Boston, than put themselves in one of the shelters that their delusional minds classify as dangerous.  To them, having your own primitive tent, cardboard room, or doorway, complete with tinfoil hat and nearby dumpster for food, is a much safer way to live than anything offered by the “enemies” who surround them.

It is these homeless people to whom Ammiano wishes to extend the virtually unlimited right to live on San Francisco’s streets and in her parks.  (Incidentally, in San Francisco they live that way already, simply because the City only intermittently enforces its vagrancy laws.)  By advancing this right, though, Ammiano manages to forget about the other people in San Francisco, the ones who are not homeless, who work, pay taxes, go to school, play, and otherwise try to live normal lives within the City.

You see, the problem of homelessness isn’t just a problem for the homeless.  It’s a problem for everyone.  The parks that used to see children playing while their mothers sat nearby in cheerful, chatting clusters quickly turn into needle, condom, feces, vomit, and bottle strewn bogs, complete with smelly, often violent men and women camped out on benches and under bushes.  The streets with the charming, inviting stores are now a dirty, smelly mess, repulsing casual shoppers.  Tourists, tired of being importuned by by a Calcutta-like stream of beggars, stay away.  And because the homeless carry with them lice and tuberculosis, they create public health risks.

More than that, as I’ve frequently argued, it is psychologically damaging to ordinary people in a community to be told that they must allow a person who is manifestly mentally ill, whether because of disease or drugs, to lie around on the streets.  I hew libertarian in most respects, but my support for absolute individual freedom begins to fray when an individual is incapable of caring for himself.  Just as I wouldn’t say that a five-year old is free to make her own lifestyle choices, I’m loath to allow free rein to a person so mentally ill that he cannot perform basic human functions, such as seeking shelter or feeding himself. To me, he is as incapacitated as a five year old.

The problem is obvious; the solution less so.  In the old days, vagrants were thrown into prison, which had the virtue of giving them shelter and food, but also exposed them to criminals who preyed upon them and left them back on the streets when their sentences ended.  Another tactic was for the police to tell vagrants to “move along,” getting them off of one cop’s beat and putting them on another’s.

The 20th century saw a growth industry in “modern” psychiatric institutions, which treated the mentally ill as patients rather than as zoo animals, as was the case in old fashioned “insane asylums.”  Sadly, though, too many of inmates suffered terrible abuse in these institutions.  Because they’re unpleasant work environments, too many employees were lazy and/or sadistic, and too many of the doctors were mini-Mengeles, viewing the mentally ill as human chimps for experimentation.

The 1960s and 1970s, therefore, saw a coming together of the Left and the Right, both of which groups, for different reasons, believed the asylums were dangerous places for society and for the inmates, and passed legislation to close them down.  The law of unintended consequences hit hard when these institutions closed:  The mentally ill had no place to go but to their families, who either made them crazy in the first place or who couldn’t cope with their craziness, or to the streets.

I don’t have an answer to the question I posed in this post’s title:  How should cities cope with the homeless?  I know that I disagree strongly with Ammiano’s push to give the homeless a special set of rights that turns San Francisco’s streets into a vast homeless shelter with no recourse for the regular folks who live in and pay for the City.  That’s the wrong approach and, to my mind, a cruel one.  As humane people, I believe we have a moral obligation to care for those incapable of caring for themselves.  The old psychiatric institution model is a good one, because we know that mandatory treatment can work, but I’m at a loss as to how to prevent the abuse that once-upon-a-time made closing these institutions a reasonable decision.

Do you have any ideas?

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  • weathtd

    Having spent 20 years as police officer in large Southern city, Charlotte, my experience with the homeless pretty closely matches a study done in San Diego some years ago.  What you refer to as “working class homeless” make up approx. 20% of the homeless.  Another 40% are “hardcore” alcoholics that don’t want help and will resist any attempts to help.  The remaining 40% are mentally ill, but thanks to the Supreme Court, not mentally ill enough to force them into involuntary treatment.  It’s a tough problem to address across the board since each group has different needs.  Charlotte tried building a new shelter back in the 80’s.  The result—legions of homeless hitching rides from all over the country to Charlotte because, “we heard they’re building us a new shelter”.  The alcoholics used the police dept. as a blue and white taxi service during the cold months to get free rides to Detox.  Don’t know the solution, but do know the current approaches are not very effective.

  • jj

    Disagree with one piece of your analysis.  I grew up thirty minutes from the biggest hospital in the world, Pilgrim State; and when I moved off Long Island I found myself about an hour from Harlem Valley, which was also huge, though only about half the size of Pilgrim State.
    They didn’t close because they were snake-pits: they weren’t.  They closed (to the extent they closed, both have bits and pieces that remain open and functioning,) for two reasons.  One: because of the generalized improvement of the psychotropics.  (Though it’s yet to be explained how you can introduce a nut to self-discipline sufficient to get him to take his pills as prescribed without supervision.  Experience indicates it doesn’t work, but we’re an endlessly optimistic sort of creature, aren’t we…)  Two: turns out to be the usual reason anything connected with any level of government gets closed: New York State was on its  ass – as it often is – and well on the way to being broke.  Institutionalizing and medicating 20,000+ people between the two hospitals, (just those two – God knows what it was state-wide), was freaking expensive even back then, and the state decided they couldn’t afford it.  And they couldn’t.  They can’t even keep the sight-lines on the parkway that runs outside Pilgrim State mowed.
    So what do you do?  It certainly hasn’t gotten cheaper in the intervening years to institutionalize people.  Can’t reconstitute the institutions, either: Pilgrim State occupied 1,000 acres of land – most of it’s been sold off and the buildings taken down.  Harlem Valley’s intact, all the buildings are still there, you could stick six or seven thousand people in them, but if you couldn’t afford it 40 years ago how are you going to now?
    It all comes down to money, doesn’t it.  City government’s broke; state government’s broke; the federal government’s broke.  I guess it’s another of the long list of problems waiting for the people to finally get pissed off enough to address solving it.  Given the general tenor and intellect of the American people, it’s going to be a while.

  • Charles Martel

    In a leftist town like San Francisco, the cultural norm is eternal struggle against all forms of authority except for, of course, the authority of the enlightened state as envisioned by Tom Ammiano.
    One institution that has fallen victim to the left’s control freakism is the old-fashioned flophouse. These were cheap hotels that would rent out rooms for the night at a rock-bottom price—$5, $7, $10—that most homeless could afford with a little adroit panhandling. By leftist gentry standards, flops were pretty icky places—tiny rooms, threadbare sheets, thin walls, tacky and rundown furniture.
    However, the people who ran the flops delivered on two things: quiet and security. If you rented a room, you could be sure that the lock on the door actually worked and was strong enough to keep out almost everything short of a SWAT team. The other was that you were guaranteed quiet. Renters who partied or yelled would be unceremoniously thrown into the street, their money returned, and told to come back only when and if they learned how to behave. Word got around quickly, and only the craziest of the crazies ever made noise at a flop.
    Of course letting people who desperately needed sound sleep slumber in a relatively warm and safe place at an affordable price was an affront to our moral and intellectual (and aesthetic) superiors on the left. Result: In San Francisco there has been a relentless attack on flops for the past 30 years. The aim is to push the homeless into huge, impersonal shelters where the concept of noise control or physical safety has been abandoned. The all-knowing state has decreed that the homeless are a faceless mass that must be treated en masse.
    So it’s often not dementia that makes some homeless resist “sleeping” in a mega-shelter. The ceaseless noise and roving bands of predators, looked on indifferently by so-called proctors and guards, make an unpersuasive case for bedding down in one. If you are demented and mostly out of it, a remnant part of your rational self tells you not to go where you have no real means of defense. 

  • Ron19

    Two people I’ve known were in yet another category. 
     They are homeless in the sense that they live on the street.  They are not sick.  They are not crazy.  If they are mentally ill, it’s only to the same degree as your depressed co-worker who comes to work every day and does productive work; but they are not depressed.  If anything, they suffer a severe lack of ambition, or have just given up on trying to do it society’s way.
    They do do productive work. 
    The guy (about 45-50) in the Riverside, CA, area will do handyman or yard work, $5/hr., maximum of 4 hours per day.  I got so comfortable with him and the work he did for me that on my way home from work, I would ask him to mow my lawn the next day, and pay him $20 in advance.  Then the next morning I would leave my electric lawnmower on the patio in back, with one end of the extension cord coming out of the locked patio door.  I was living alone at the time, and believe me, I do hate to do yard work.  When I got home that evening, the lawn was mowed, the lawnmower was left were I had left it, and the cord was neatly coiled up, except for the end locked in the house.  Nothing was ever missing from the yard, garage, or house.
     The woman (about 30-40) had a little permanent covered nest on a sidewalk in Santa Monica, CA, near where I worked as a computer contractor for a few months.  She did volunteer work for a religious group about a mile or so away, in exchange for a place to clean up, a meal or two, and a little bit of money.
     Both of these people are clean, reasonably well dressed, in charge of their own lives, and satisfied with their situation.  They had figured out a way to live in enough comfort, and maintained their personal environment.  In another time and place, they would probably live in a small cabin or farmhouse out in the woods near a small town.  I’m not suggesting that you go out and look for people like this; these two are getting all the help they want. 
    I also know some other people who are crazy, off their meds, dangerous, and scary.  I avoid them.  There are also some people who are not crazy, don’t need meds, and are dangerous and scary.

  • Danny Lemieux

    There are some problems in society (local and global) that are just so intractable, that it may be best to fight against our very instinctive human compulsion to meddle and just leave things alone so that resources can be directed toward more productive pursuits. I put homelessness and the Palestinian issue in the same category here. 

    Government intervention just makes things worse in both of these situations. However, local groups (churches, not-for-profits) are often in a better position to customize local solutions to a problem. We had a homeless man that was a regular sight in our upper-middle class neighborhood. He would often be seen bicycling along the bike paths with his belongings in all seasons. Truth be told, I suspect that he enjoyed sleeping in the woods. He had several “flophouse” churches that he could count on to give him a place to sleep in inclement weather. For meals, there were handouts and soup kitchens.

    The problem that I have with much of the homeless is that there are many people that gravitate to that lifestyle. There are also some panhandlers that make quite a good living from that lifestyle. To the extent that we extend a “helping hand”, are we helping them…or enabling them. There have always been and there will always be homeless and hobos among us. 

    So my solution to both the Palestinian and Homelessness issues is…don’t meddle, do nothing! 

  • bkivey

    I lived in San Francisco during the mid-80’s when the effects of ‘mainstreaming’ policies for the mentally ill were starting to be realized. One woman spent her days digging up the paving bricks on the Market St. sidewalks. This presented a clear danger to pedestrians, as people could, and did, sprain their ankles after stepping in the holes she left behind. Despite complaints from the citizenry, the city authorities decided that taking the woman off the streets would violate her civil rights. Apparently the civil rights of taxpayers to use a sidewalk free of tripping hazards weren’t considered.
    At the time, San Francisco had an unusual version of the ‘move along’ policy: on request, the city would supply a person with a one-way bus ticket to anywhere in the continental US. This was much cheaper than providing services, but as you pointed out, they just became someone else’s problem. 
    It seems to me that any serious discussion on problem solving for complex systems (homelessness, health care delivery) has to start with the realization that as systems become more sophisticated, there are increasing amounts of uncertainty. A fair chunk of engineering is figuring out when ‘good enough’ is good enough. A few years ago the director of a homeless help organization in Portland, OR (a city with a large number of homeless) told the city council that they’d reached the effective limit of whom they could help. It wasn’t that they needed more money, it was that the people who weren’t getting help were actually refusing it.
    A lot of people operate under the mistaken assumption that a given system is a failure if it doesn’t operate with 100% effectiveness. That’s simply not true, and unless the system is very simple, impossible to achieve. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Economic laws are as immutable as the physical variety, and require that we look at what services can be provided at a price people are willing to sustain.

  • Earl

    I read a piece about Hillman that said in addition to his housing, the taxpayers were providing him with his food and other necessities, plus all the drug and alcohol rehab he wanted, which was nil.
    So, like many “homeless”, he got his needs from the taxpayers, and he panhandled (or stole) to feed his drug and alcohol habits.
    Why is this a good idea? 

  • Spartacus

    Bloody good post on a nasty, tough problem.
    I love erring on the libertarian side of things when reasonably practical, but find myself getting increasingly permissive of requirements and prohibitions as the jurisdiction becomes more and more local, and thus people retain the right to live as they choose, or vote with their feet.  At the municipal level, I tend to side with the right of the people to live as they choose, and draw some nice, bright, objective lines, for the good of everyone.  Some might be invited to a facility, as they might be more comfortable there; some might be strongly encouraged toward a different facility, or to leave town; and some might be physically arrested and taken to yet a different facility, as they would certainly freeze to death before morning.
    Two thoughts on keeping the help honest in the institutions come to mind.  1) In our church’s children’s ministry, security is intense, including a strict requirement that no one adult is ever to be alone with the children.  Ever.  Always two or more.  In spite of all the windows into the classrooms that make it a pretty open place to begin with.  And these are all folks who have had background checks just to be able to volunteer there.  2) Recording technology is now cheap enough that any facility for the homeless could have 24/7 surveillance in all public areas, periodically audited by a third party, for additional reassurance.
    Still far from perfect, but like bkivey said, best not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

  • Doug1943

    Two thoughts in response to this excellent essay.
    (1) How do other countries deal with this problem? Or rather, what are the contours of this problem in other countries? Do they have as many mentally-ill homeless as we do?
    (2) A radical — but statist, sorry — solution: find someplace with fairly mild year-round weather and cheap [or better, federally-owned] land — New Mexico comes to mind.
    Build a (federally-funded) “New San Francisco” there: free housing, food, alcohol, TVs in every room, clinics, policed just enough to keep the predators away. You could lower costs a bit by getting the various charities and religous groups to build all kinds of housing there, from little cabins to apartment buildings … and get them to send volunteers to live there for a period of time, ministering to  these lost souls.  Cities would see the benefit of making available free bus tickets to the New San Francisco.
    The major disadvantage: if enough mentally ill people become concentrated there, it would become a Congressional District and reliably send yet another Democrat to Congress.

  • Caped Crusader

    Why would the Democrats not be in favor of very late term abortions on “non functioning” members of society/?

  • Danny Lemieux

    Good question, Doug1943. Some countries just pretend that it doesn’t exist. Take France, the socialist paradise that Obama wants to emulate.

    There are homeless people all over the place in Paris and other cities, even though they are supposed to have all the social programs to keep that from happening. These “clochards” have always been and always will be part of the Paris landscape. It’s a lifestyle.

  • Earl

    I don’t know what the numbers are, although I suspect they’re bigger than any of us more conventional types suspect, but there are plenty of people who are “working the system” because it’s easier than working a job.
    My wife was a nurse on the mental health ward of a hospital 30 years ago, and they had “regulars” who would come in, just like clockwork, when the rains started.  They knew how to act just “crazy” enough so they could stay three or four weeks, and then they’d leave for another hospital and stay there a while.  During the warm season, they’d live on the street, sucking on the government teat, and panhandling for drug and alcohol money.  Many were on methadone – also at taxpayer expense – and they figured this was a better gig than reporting to work every day. 
    One guy, perhaps late 20s at the time, even bragged about all the different programs he signed up for and how much money he got from them.  She asked him if he wasn’t just a little bit ashamed at some level, and his reply was “No, why should I be?”  That attitude wasn’t terribly common among my generation, but it’s far more prevalent now. 
    I’ll mention again my two neighbors, both of whom are on disability, and both of whom seem fairly able-bodied to me….they live in a top-25% of this market house, just like I do, and they own property back east and drive a very nice four-seat pickup.  It’s just that neither of them work….and last week the wife complained to me that she wants her own car.
    This is what 40 years of socialism in public schools has produced, and it’s going to get worse.

  • Ymarsakar

    The thing about large organizations, governments included, is their desire to impose one size fits all solutions. Humans, however, aren’t built like that. Humans tend to want a variety of things, and when it comes to one group getting their way over everybody else, what eventually happens is strife, conflict, and war. What government is ostensibly supposed to prevent, is also what it essentially causes.

    Humans live by order of their creative freedom, even if some believe in the freedom to adopt slavery for themselves.