Advocates who demand non-judgmental public policies out of a sense of guilt only lead vagrants into dependence.
Back in the days of TV’s Andy Griffith, Otis Campbell, the town drunk, would put himself in jail so as not to bother anyone in Mayberry. The sensibilities back then were straightforward: Show compassion to Otis’ humanity, but hold him accountable for his decisions and behavior while protecting private and public property.
Today, this idea is anathema to many homeless advocates in Sarasota who favor more government support and protections. Others, however, are concerned about the unintended consequences of allowing people to live at will on the streets.
According to The Heritage Foundation, homelessness is usually a transitional condition, with individuals who lose housing typically residing in an emergency shelter for a few weeks or months before re-entering permanent housing. In 2009, one out of 180 poor people was homeless in the literal sense of being on the street and without shelter. Studies also show that on a typical night, shelters have an average vacancy rate of 10%, so there are enough beds to meet the need.
Because more people become temporarily homeless over the course of a year than are homeless at any single point, most homeless people are one-time victims.
As you can see, “the homeless” is a poor description of the individuals the community is concerned about. A more accurate description would be: vagrants. Granted, some individuals are wandering the streets because of psychiatric or substance-abuse problems. For them, many avenues of help are offered in the community. No one is begrudging private charities, churches and families that historically have taken the lead offering assistance and hope to those whose freewill is broken.
But it is unacceptable to defend those who defecate in public, commit crime and engage in behaviors that violate property rights. Advocates who demand loose non-judgmental public policies out of a sense of guilt, pity and self-promoting compassion only lead vagrants into dependence and despondence instead of personal responsibility and dignity.
The role of government is to protect people and their property, so government’s responsibility addressing the vagrant issue must defend a larger moral principle. Morality is based on the simple idea that anything that harms a person or his property is immoral. For example, murder, rape, theft or vandalism is immoral, and there are criminal laws against such acts. Even behaviors that cause property values to be diminished can be seen as immoral so consistent laws must also be applied to protect abuses that are seen and must be foreseen.
People, homeowners and businesses have the right not to have their persons or property harmed, damaged, disrupted and capital destroyed as a result of the free choice made by vagrants. Citing and arresting vagrants who cause property to be harmed by direct or indirect means is morally right and as such is lawful policy.
Likewise, public property also has a moral component attached. The government has the responsibility to regulate and protect public property so it can be used and enjoyed equally. Vagrants who behave in ways that negate this social contract should be cited and removed just like any other citizen who is violating the rule of law on public land.
In short, vagrants have the right to their persons and property under the rule of law, but they do not have the right to harm the property of others.
Soaring rhetoric to protect “the homeless” based on feelings of social justice violates the rights and moral basis do-gooders claim they want to protect. Policies that create the incentives for more dependency and despondence epitomize what can only be called immoral compassion.
T.S. Eliot summed up the psychological reality of those who want government policy to embrace vagrants.“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
Even Barney Fife understood these lessons.
Dean Kalahar teaches economics at Sarasota High School.