Sunday, August 10, 2008

On homelessness

While I lavish praise on Thomas Wheatley at CL (and I should disclose that I count him as a friend although I believe his work stands for itself), I should not leave out Scott Henry. His recent article on homelessness is good, and certainly educated me a bit about the, erm, situation.

One thing that was new to me:
The commission targets the long-term homeless, people who have lived in a shelter or under a bridge for more than a year. He [Regional Commission on Homelessness chairman Horace Sibley] estimates Atlanta may have fewer than 2,000 who fit that definition.

On the other hand, he says, "A lot of the panhandlers aren't homeless at all." Instead, many are crackheads, vagrants or professional beggars for whom bumming money from frightened tourists is their preferred job.
Well, I knew that most of the panhandlers were crackheads - I was unaware of the distinction between chronic homelessness and, erm, regular homelessness. The article suggests that the city is actually quite successful with what it is doing for the chronically homeless. Apparently, we are a national model.

So, good news on that front. The bleeding-heart half of me is very happy from a feel-good perspective. The political operative half of me recognizes that any effective policy to combat homelessness has to have a feel-good aspect to get away with a tougher enforcement policy.

Speaking of a tougher enforcement policy, what about the panhandlers? Thats the real issue, in my mind.
[Fmr. City Council member Debbie] Starnes says the city is about to launch a new assault on panhandling. The first move will be a marketing campaign asking people not to give money to beggars. Next, the United Way will promote alternative ways to help the homeless, perhaps even setting up donation boxes in downtown hotels and restaurants where people can deposit coins they didn't give to panhandlers.

Finally, Atlanta police will coordinate with other public and private entities, from GSU police to hotel security guards, in stepping up enforcement and making beggars feel unwelcome.
I'll believe it when I see it. I mean, I don't question the commitment behind the Commission or behind Starnes' statement. I question the police's ability to do anything. They just don't have much credibility with me, especially on this issue. If you've worked downtown, you can probably relate.

I'll be honest, it is really difficult for me to summon compassion for homeless folks. It is a real shortcoming of mine. I've been better at it lately, though. I remind myself of how easily it could be me, I remind myself that they are human beings, the same as me. I don't let myself go on tirades about homeless people when I'm driving around with friends. I'm not as bad as I used to be.

But man, panhandlers really get under my skin. It is probably the only issue that makes me like Rudy Giuliani (which is how I know it is a shortcoming, zing!).

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