Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Least of These My Brothers: Homelessness and the Moral Test of Government

by Nomad

American exceptionalism is a useful tool when it comes to claiming the higher moral ground. However it comes with serveral pre-conditions and mandates. One of those is a higher sense of moral development. We must be -at least in some way- a bit better.
However, when it comes to our treatment of the homeless, the elderly, the sick and the need, where is our moral superiority?

A long time ago, President Andrew Jackson made this observation about the duties of government
The great can protect themselves, but the poor and humble require the arm and shield of the law. 
Back then, it was like stating the obvious.
Over a hundred and fifty years later, in November 1977, former Senator and vice-president. Hubert Humphrey said:
"..The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life- the sick, the needy and the handicapped."
If, as one philosopher said, compassion is the basis of morality, then what does it say about the present state of morality in government today.

  • Has our government passed that moral test?
  • Is that even a criteria for public policy anymore? 
  • When did it stop being important?

When Charity is a Crime

Thirty-three US cities have enacted policies banning the feeding of homeless. Daytona Beach, Florida, Raleigh North Carolina, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Birmingham Alabama have all recently fined, removed or threatened individuals and private organizations found breaking the laws.
As one source notes:
According to a report co-released by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, during the past seven years Gainesville, Fla., began “enforcing a rule limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in one day;” Phoenix, Ariz., “used zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to community members, including many homeless people, outside a local church;” and Myrtle Beach, S.C., “adopted an ordinance that restricts food sharing with homeless people in public parks.”
 In a Daytona Beach incident, a couple who ran a Christian outreach group for over a year were fined for giving free food to the homeless.
In all, police officers ticketed six people, including four volunteers who helped the Jimenezes on Wednesday – one of them, a man in a wheelchair who recently escaped homelessness and participated “to pay it forward,” Debbie Jimenez said. The fines levied by authorities total $2,238.
Police officers also warned that all members involved were permanently banned from the park. If they ignored the warning they would be arrested for trespassing — on public property, no less. As one reporter said, "The right to peaceably assemble has been declared null-and-void for charity workers."

The excuse the officials gave was that not all of the homeless people are mannerly or clean while in the park. Living on the street tends to take the GQ and Gucci out of its victims. They also point out that some homeless people have mental health issues and substance abuse problems and criminal records. 

It's an ironic statement, as we shall see. 

Charity has always been considered one of the fundamental virtues of the Christian faith. Famously, the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew relates the parable of the good King who admonished his ministers for their pettiness and selfish.
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
The punishment for helping only the well-off and powerful to the determent of the needy? The King cursed them, "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
Pretty harsh.

Both St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas wrote that charity united us to God and that the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God but also to "the love of our neighbor."

Many Christians would say that love for your neighbor- whether rich or poor- is the key principle of the religion and any law that forbids individuals from assisting the needy is, in fact, anti-Christian.
However, it appears that the same people who claim that America is a Christian nation are quite comfortable with outlawing feeding the hungry and helping the needy. They must be too busy fighting for their religious liberty not to bake cakes for same-sex couples. 

Criminalizing the Homeless

If that were the only laws that made things difficult for the homeless, it would be shameful enough. But sadly, that's only the tip of the iceberg.

In Houston, it has become illegal to search in dumpsters for food, as so many homeless people are forced to do. One 44-year old homeless man was ticketed by a Houston police officer for." disturbing the contents of a garbage can in (the) downtown business district."

In the Houston area, the most recent statistics indicate that more than 6,300 people are without a home on any given night. Nearly half of the unsheltered homeless population have a mental illness and/or substance abuse disorder. (There is good news too. Since 2011, there has been a 37% decrease in homelessness in Houston and in the past year, an impressive 16% decrease, according to the  Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.)

In San Francisco, arrests for illegal lodging, or sleeping outside are increasingly common citywide. According to one source, 
The number of such citations of homeless people jumped sharply in the last two years: Illegal lodging charges increased from 85 to 219; maintaining a public nuisance, from 134 to 240; and obstructing a sidewalk, from 317 to 677.
Said Elisa Della-Piana, director of the Neighborhood Justice Clinic in Berkeley explained to T.J Johnston, writer for Street Spirit:
“A tired homeless man faced up to three years in prison for dozing off on a milk crate. Prison. For sleeping while sitting up — an act that anyone who has ever been on a plane ride can attest is torture in and of itself.”
Increasing the penalties against the homeless only punishes the ones who need help, especially after deep cuts in affordable housing and "other poverty-abatement programs starting in the 1980s." 

Origins of Our Contempt

According to the nonpartisan think tank, The Urban Institute, between the years 1981 and 1989, the homelessness rate tripled.

One reason for this was the lack of affordable housing. Available housing for the low-income household became harder and harder to find. There was a reason for that.
In the effort to limit government responsibility- a prime directive for conservatives- the budget for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was cut by a staggering $65 billion, going from a budget of $83 billion in 1978 to only $18 billion in 1983. 
In effect, as one source put it, the federal government under Reagan "relinquished its responsibility for developing affordable housing for low-income families."  
For an explanation of the full effects of the policies, you can go to this informative site.

Consider that during the same years, Congress was debating the Reagan budget of the B-2 stealth bomber. At $2.4 billion each, Congress cut its initial purchase of was 132 bomber to just 21.
If nothing else, this gives some indication of the moral priorities.

Another of Reagan's policies which contributed to the rise of homelessness concerned the governmental responsibility of the mentally ill  (including substance abuse.) 
Combined with a sharp rise in homelessness during the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pursued a policy toward the treatment of mental illness that satisfied special interest groups and the demands of the business community, but failed to address the issue: the treatment of mental illness.

Betraying our Duties 

Upon closer inspection, we can see that the movement that put more and more mentally ill patients on the street did not begin with President Reagan.

It was actually a part of the 60s and 70s reforms that gave more rights to patients with treatable mental illness. Drugs were seen as the panacea for mental illness and policy-makers with doctors decided that the best course was to put the less severely patient back into the community. It was a major mistake.

The range of patients who could be released into the community - so long as they were not a threat to others- broadened considerably. 
The effect was predictable: Once released, they would fail to take meds or get counseling and went right back to being seriously ill. As reported back in 1984, the policy was not working and something needed to be done:
Dr. Frank R. Lipton and Dr. Albert Sabatini of Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in Manhattan, who have done research on the problems of the homeless, say one of the major flaws in the concept of deinstitutionalization was the notion that serious, chronic mental disorders could be minimized, if not totally prevented, through care provided within the local community.
The neo-conservative mandate under Reagan to slash government programs all but ensured that Federal funds for community mental health programs would begin to dry up, shifting the burden to the states. The states, in turn, followed the federal government's lead and legislators too cut their  budgets on mental health programs. 

It was more than any single Reagan policy. It was a general attitude that homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, and even diseases like AIDS, were all personal problems and that governments had no mandate to seek resolutions. In short, social problems could and should be resolved without any cost to government. 

It may surprise a lot of the young whippersnappers that at one time when it came to helping the homeless, it was a matter of national pride. Edward Kennedy in his 1980 concession speech at the Democratic convention said:
Our commitment has been, since the days of Andrew Jackson, to all those he called "the humble members of society.." On this foundation we have defined our values, refined our policies and refreshed our faith.
And that was the historical pivoting point.
By electing Ronald Reagan in 1980, Americans decided by popular vote to turn their backs on the poor, the drug addicts and the mentally ill. The road to prosperity had to have its scapegoats, after all. The humblest members of society didn't deserve our attention. There had to be winners and losers. 
What was the joy of success if prosperity was to be universally shared to all members of society?

When Compassion Became a Joke

Nobody can claim ignorance about Reagan's record. His sense of empathy had been made clear for years, well before he was elected president. In 1966, before a TV audience he said:
"We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry every night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet."
Hunger in America, for many, was just a joke. 

When heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped and the SLA- the group that abducted her- initially demanded that free food for the poor and elderly be distributed in the poor neighborhoods of San Francisco. It was, they said, a condition of beginning negotiations for the release of Miss Hearst. In three days of distribution, over 75,000 resident received food through charity organizations. 
What was Governor Reagan's response? 

Reagan told reporters that people who accepted the food were "aiding and abetting" felonies. (I am sure he meant felons, not felonies.) He said he "deplored the fact that these people are accepting the food." 

Fuming at the hostage-takers' demand, Reagan reportedly told Republicans at a luncheon (a luncheon!)
"It's just too bad we can't have an epidemic of botulism." 
(He later claimed the botulism remark was just a joke.)

Joke or not, sometimes an off-hand remark can reveal so much about the character and the moral standards of the teller.  President Reagan and the party that has always held him in high regard- indeed idolized him- set the path that would today lead to laws making the poor and the sick and the homeless criminals. 

For a nation that takes so much pride in its Judeo-Christian roots, -with a moral code that demands we treat others the way would expect to be treated, that teaches us to care for the needy and the helpless as a glory to God- you'd think we  could treat the homeless just a little bit better than this.  

After all, they really are human beings.