Votes Nix Free Digs


I see that voters in Denver have rejected a ballot measure that would allow homeless the right to eat, sit, sleep, and camp out in public parks and highway rights-of-way, and on public sidewalks. Voters rejected it by a vote of 81% to 19% — four to one! — despite its warm endorsement by the local Democratic Party, the local American Civil Liberties Union, and a group called Occupy Denver.

I guess the voters of Denver didn’t want to be occupied. I don’t want to be, either, except that I live in Seattle, a city that already is. Here the homeless eat, sit, sleep, pitch tents, park their ramshackle motor homes, steal grocery carts, and chuck garbage in a lot of places. At the park near my house the cops do clear them out from time to time, but they come back. Around some freeway interchanges near downtown their trash-strewn encampments seem to be permanent.

The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs.

Denver’s ballot measure was called the “Right to Survive Initiative.” This “right” included “the right to rest in a non-obstructive manner in public spaces,” “the right to shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces,” and “the right to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle.” All winter, as I went for daily walks, I passed several of these vehicles in the city park. They were in the park for months, conveniently located near the covered cooking areas and the restrooms.

I resent this. Not so much because it is dangerous to the public health. That is the reason politicians cite, but it’s a political reason, a lawyer’s reason. Some of the encampments may be a health hazard, but some of them near public restrooms and garbage cans may not be. Health is an issue, but it’s not the central one. The park near my home is an urban amenity. It is in an area of some of the most expensive real estate in the Pacific Northwest — real estate that is far too expensive to be used as a campground of any sort. Campgrounds belong on cheap land away from the city, in the desert or out in the woods. The park I’m thinking of is surrounded by million-dollar houses. Some of the owners of those houses are paying more than $10,000 a year property tax, to say nothing of their house payments. They need to work, full-time, at intelligent and stressful jobs to be able to live in such houses, and they treat their houses and yards with care. And right across the street, or a few blocks away, some suntanned, unshaven vagrant waddles up with a stolen Safeway cart overflowing with bags, pitches a tent that the welfare people gave him, and sets up housekeeping while paying nothing. The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs. It’s not that he pees in the bushes. Dogs pee in the bushes. It’s that he’s there at all.

For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available.

I can hear the apologists: “You’re just a bourgeois.” Damn right. And no apologies. But I do not limit my solicitude to the owners of million-dollar houses. My neighborhood has townhouses, condos, apartments, and old houses cut into rental units. There are garages converted to mother-in-law units, some of them legal and some not, and there are houses shared by single tenants. I know of an old junk shop with a room in the back. I don’t object to any of those. I draw the line at sleeping in doorways and camping in the park.

Again, I can hear the apologists: “They’re homeless. Where are they supposed to go?” Hey, that’s their problem. It’s a problem that every adult has, and until recently everyone has been able to solve. It’s not that difficult. You ask, where can they go? The social welfare people regularly visit the homeless and offer them space in shelters — and they refuse to live there. And that’s fine: they can go to work. The unemployment rate in America is the lowest in 50 years, and it’s lower in Seattle than almost anywhere else. For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available. A few miles from my house is a Home Depot where a line of Mexicans stand every day, waiting for work for strangers who drive up in cars. These Mexicans are poorly dressed. Probably they speak only a little English, if any. Maybe many of them are illegal. But they are willing to work.

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Well perhaps I can bring even more confusion into this homeless encumbrance.
Now I don’t know what being homeless in America entails but the greatest number of homeless people I have personally ever seen was in Munich, Germany in the 1980’s. Unlike Seattle they weren’t allowed to break camps, build tents or set up any permanent quarters there — apparently, the Germans being sticklers for the law, took seriously the no-camping-allowed signs, so common everywhere in the world where people care to have public parks at all, and enforced it. Even they could not stop people from hanging around in the park though, but the bums were forced to move around a bit, which made it — together with the abundance of the parks — quite tolerable. But what was befuddling to me was, that between the German welfare state and numerous Christian charities there was absolutely no reason to be spending the nights in the bushes there, while evading the police not too fond of this practice, whatsoever.
Every German legal resident can apply for welfare at any time he finds himself without means to support himself and that meant, at that time, that the welfare office would pay 22 Deutschemarks per day, on applicant’s behalf, to any hostel or hotel he could find and would have him/her (and some places were of course specializing in precisely that as it was close to the going rate for a cheaper motels), then he would get some clothes, and enough money (in cash, no food stamps) for personal consumption to comfortably live on and still save for some niceties. Of course some drunks could liquefy it in one day and so, to prevent that, the welfare office would pay some people daily. But since it was all cash, there was still no guarantee that the drunkard would actually spend it on solid food and that is where the Christian Charities would step in. They had shelters all over town where, if you showed up in the evening, they would feed you, give you a clean blanket and let you sleep overnight. You could take shower there, watch TV, in the morning you would get breakfast and after that most charities would kick you out – presumably to find work — until the evening again and then the cycle would repeat itself. And living on two meals a day, with bathrooms and roof over your head ain’t bad.
I know because I have used their hospitality a few times and I was absolutely ecstatic about it. The food was great, shelters clean and not overcrowded and I thought that if one ever needed to get back on his or her feet, this would be all the help anybody would ever need until a job comes along and some money is saved to afford a place of their own. (1) But then again I was beside myself already that one could be without any job, money, desire or any remnants of will to do anything about it in the first place and not go to jail for it. (2) It felt like an unbelievable fantasy, like flying out of a cage, a huge terror lifted and being fed and sheltered to boot felt like a cherry on top of it all just to induce a huge grinning smile to make the day even shinier and so perhaps I can be forgiven for seeing some of the ungrateful, demanding homeless as spoiled rotten.
Anyway, I suppose it is not all fully applicable to Seattle but I think it suggests that we are not dealing here with just people being down on their luck, because if that was the case, there would be absolutely nobody sleeping in the parks of European welfare states or even Seattle as you say).


The whole job application system as it has evolved weeds out people without home computers, and especially weeds out homeless people.
As for bums standing around hoping for day labor: one question should be what fraction of the homeless population is in good enough physical condition to be doing the kind of manual labor a day laborer can expect to do?

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