Homelessness, Wishful Thinking, and Insanity

by | Feb 3, 2011 | Uncategorized

Not long ago, Denise Wong reported from Reno, Nevada, on a special day set aside to strictly enforce a city ordinance that forbids “camping,” i.e. existing. People experiencing homelessness had already been discouraged from hanging around in certain areas, and those areas were expanded. This quotation from the piece is reminiscent of a comedy rule learned in screenwriting class: “A punch line is a punch word, and it belongs at the end.” Get this:

And police are allowed to arrest anyone camping on sidewalks outside the Record Street Homeless Services Center.

In the December sweep, Wong reports that no one was cited or arrested, but official warnings were issued. Rumor has it that many homeless people were forced to abandon their bedrolls and other possessions. Others say the street people had three days’ notice of the impending action and plenty of opportunity to move their stuff. Either way, three days’ notice doesn’t help when there is nowhere to go. Apparently, the other local possibilities are the railroad tracks or the riverbank. The same generous choices are available in many American cities. And then, if the homeless congregate in those places, the housed people still complain.

In January, Steve Chawkins of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the situation in Santa Barbara, California. It seems that in a fashionable area of town, benches are aligned parallel with the sidewalks, making it easy for beggars to sit around all day displaying to the shoppers and tourists their pitches written on cardboard. As one indignant business owner put it,

It’s just like they’ve made the street their living room. They just sit there — all day, every day. One of them even has a portable TV. It’s totally inappropriate.

Inappropriate? Anyway, the dignitaries in charge figure, they will hit those indigent homeless people where it hurts — in their overstuffed wallets. Here’s the plan: They’re going to rotate the benches 90 degrees, to be perpendicular to the flow of foot traffic. Thus, according to a re-development official Chawkin interviewed, the panhandlers’ backs will be facing half the people on the sidewalk, cutting their solicitation opportunities by 50%. Ta-dah!

But wait, there’s more. Benches along the “city’s most vibrant commercial thoroughfare” will also have their backs removed, so nobody can get too comfortable. The reporter spoke with a dismayed social worker who characterized the entire project as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Chawkin says,

Benches have been an issue elsewhere. Some cities install armrests in the middle of benches to keep people from lying down. In La Jolla two years ago, one community activist tried recruiting residents to sit three-hour shifts to keep homeless people off public benches.

By the way, to turn 14 benches to a perpendicular angle is going to cost — guess how much? $50,000. Now, that’s inappropriate. In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell relates how, when House the Homeless was considering ideas for the Homeless Memorial, the city of Austin offered to sell the organization a $5,000 park bench with a divider in the middle to prevent sleeping. No, thanks!

Please see Richard’s report on the current state of things in Austin, where it looks like the city is trying to do the same thing that many other political entities have done so many times in the past, which is to legislate a problem out of existence. The solution, in the minds of many Austin residents, is to change the homeless into non-persons, by using the force of law to deny them the right to sit in public places. (And, of course, there are already plenty of laws everywhere, about what can be done on private property.)

The theory behind such measures is, if the homeless are forbidden to do something, and then another thing, and another thing, eventually the accumulated weight of all these ordinances will somehow magically make the homeless go away.

When I saw these bus stop benches in Shanghai I had to snap a picture. They are clearly designed to stop anyone from sleeping on them, but are also very uncomfortable to sit on at all. Another example of ‘Architecture of Control.’

So says Albert Sun, who took the photo on this page. (Follow the link to Flickr where, in the Comments, there’s an artistic yet very un-sleepable park bench spotted in Los Angeles.)

The following might apply to an individual or a society: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. Every time legislation is made to increase the misery of the homeless, it’s based on a belief that a certain category of people should not exist, and that they can be made to go away by illegitimatizing everything about them. This belief is as quaintly erroneous as the belief that blowing out all the birthday cake candles will make your wish come true.

The park bench maneuvers are a perfect of example of a society’s tendency to “cut off its nose to spite its face.” Some cities solve the park-bench dilemma by simply removing them. Take that, homeless people! Try sitting on our park benches now!

The downside, and it’s a big one, is that nobody gets to sit on park benches. Not the young mother, who is taking her kids out for a walk because it’s free, and they need some exercise. Not the retired teacher, who is still recovering from knee replacement surgery, or the young sweethearts, who need a few minutes to talk, away from their parents.

How about this? How about putting more park benches around town, so there are plenty of places for anybody who wants to sit down, without having to spend a day’s pay for the right to sit inside the fenced patio of a sidewalk café?

Quotation of the Day:

It’s from a video by Patricia Espinosa and Christine Mai-Duc of Mission Local, regarding the sit/lie ordinance in San Francisco’s Mission District. One woman says, and this is really worth thinking about:

I do not typically sit or lie on sidewalks, but I think that if I needed to or if I wanted to, I’d like to have the right to.


Source: “Homeless Residents Forced Off Reno Sidewalks,” KOLOTV, 12/06/11
Source: “Santa Barbara seeks to turn the tables on the homeless,” LATimes.com, 01/21/22
Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Image by Albert Sun, used under its Creative Commons license.