Saturday, September 27, 2003

Letting the homeless be squatters is inhumane

Peter Bronson

At the end of the Interstate 71 tunnel into downtown on Third Street, I slow for the stoplight at Main Street and there it is: an ant-farm view right into the bedroom of Bob and Nancy Homeless.

They've turned concrete beams into shelves for their belongings. Old blankets, shoes and cardboard boxes hang out like old friends who don't know enough to go home when the party's over.

We're supposed to feel sorry for them. Instead, I feel vaguely annoyed, because I know there are plenty of empty beds at local shelters, dozens of agencies that offer counseling, legal help, medical treatment and free food that's not scraped from the bottom of a Dumpster.

Why should I have to feel like a window peeper on my morning commute?

That makes me "mean-spirited" to homeless activists who blame me, Mr. Taxpayer, for not doing enough. But I don't buy it.

Rough numbers provided by Councilman Chris Monzel and homeless agencies show that more than 50 local agencies spend more than $10 million from federal, city, county and United Way sources, to help about 1,200 homeless people in the city. That's nearly $10,000 each.

"It's our moral obligation to help these people out," said Monzel, who pushed a resolution to enforce trespassing laws. "To just let them sit there is intolerable."

So why can't homeless advocates get it: Irrational compassion is the cruelty of counterfeit kindness.

Studies say most homeless people suffer from substance abuse (45 percent) and/or mental illness (30 percent). They are by definition incapable of making good decisions for their own welfare.

They fall through cracks in the sidewalk and wind up under bridges, in refrigerator cartons, vacant lots and abandoned buildings. They are the helpless victims in the concrete forest, prey for prostitution, drug abuse, robberies, violence and disease.

The humane thing is to get them to shelters for free medical care, warm meals, safe places to sleep, education and job services.

But homeless advocates and their lawyers insist they should be allowed to live anywhere, no matter what risk it presents to them and the rest of us.

When Covington tried to clean up a tent-town on the riverfront, the city's health department found the camps "unsuitable for human habitat due to the unsanitary conditions and many health risk hazards," such as "bottled urine, visible human feces, insect- and rodent-infested bedding areas, as well as broken glass and dirty clothing."

Finally, Cincinnati City Council passed Monzel's resolution urging police to clean up homeless camps after 72 hours' notice.

Some homeless protesters yelped. But not Pat Clifford, general coordinator at the Drop-Inn Center shelter downtown. He said police sweeps "are not necessarily a bad thing."

"I have no problem with the way the police are handling it. All we ask is for some notice, to act in a humane manner."

To put it more bluntly, enforcement of trespassing laws is the pointy stick that can prod the homeless into getting the help they need.

On Friday morning, the police were under the freeway, gently counseling Bob and Nancy Homeless about their options now that the party is over. That's compassion. Letting them play house under a freeway bridge - now that's mean-spirited.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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