Paul Jacob

It's tempting, I know. At least I'm tempted. I see the headline, and my first instinct is to shout, "It's come to this!" Or perhaps make a subtler point: "The poor will always be with us . . . and the state will always work against those who help them."

The headline? "Activist arrested while feeding homeless in downtown Orlando."

My instincts would have me side with those who aim to help the poor. Even the lefty-sounding name of the group, "Food Not Bombs," doesn't offend me. Hey, I feel a bit threatened by bombs. I don't feel threatened by food. So, on the face of it, hats off to Eric Montanez, age 21, who aims to feed the homeless.

But instincts are not enough. Montanez was arrested — not for feeding the poor as such, but for feeding the poor in a public park.

Public parks are for the "public," but not for certain members of the public to turn into homes. Houses are for homes. Parks are . . .

Well, parks could be said to be for the "homeless," these days. That's where many homeless people like to sleep. Nice benches. Nice grass. Trees.

But we who own or rent homes — we workers and business owners and professionals and politicians — like to retreat to parks to free ourselves, however briefly, of work and business and house and such duties. Parks are places to "get away." Relax.

It sure is hard to relax or play while hordes of the impoverished go about their mass feedings.

Selfish? We, who have so much, would deny others who have so little.

But, we who have so much have also denied ourselves many of the things the poor and the homeless have not denied themselves:

Inebriation, for instance.

And, well, free time.

A homeless person can wander about to no set schedule. A person who works finds himself or herself at the beck and call of customers, colleagues, clients, bosses, what-have-you. To gain wealth (or just a mere taste of it), we give up some attitudes. We spend time on personal grooming. We clean ourselves up, make ourselves presentable (clean T-shirt and shorts identify the level to which I aspire; I often must wear a suit and tie, though). We give up a lot . . . to gain a lot.

The homeless can be classed as those who've (a) given up on making rational trade-offs, (b) have (through either chance or incompetence) failed to make good trade-offs, or (c) have suffered a sling or arrow or two of outrageous fortune. However they get there, they are left with a lot of free time . . . but diminishing options. And like someone stuck with a mortgage and a dead-end job, one can feel trapped, be trapped.

It's sad, like so much human tragedy.

The way out? Hard to navigate, hard to endure.

That's why the homeless often (though not always) need (or could use) assistance.

But many simply want to stay where they are. The trap becomes gilded. The freedom from responsibility? Palpable, making it difficult for some to give up.

What to do?

Well, a lot of hard-working people would like to help those homeless who haven't given up, or could be sparked to try again. But, understandably, most of us have little interest in helping those who wish to stay homeless.

You make your park bench, you lie on it.

Which brings us back to Orlando. The homeless did not literally make the park benches there. They appropriate park benches made for uses that didn't include six-hour snoozes to sleep off zigzags.

There used to be laws against vagrancy. And there still are, in some form or another. Mr. Montanez got arrested for violating an Orlando ordinance stipulating that one may not feed more than 25 people in a public park. One can see the logic to it. And, alas, the logic to arresting Mr. Montanez.

Granted, it seems a bit much to arrest the man. Had the officer called to the scene been Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, or someone with similar people skills, the whole problem might have been patched up short of legal entanglement. But often, folks like Montanez almost insist on being arrested.

Where should the homeless be fed? In homeless shelters. Churches. Rented facilities.

That is, they should be fed on private property.

That's the only way to bring the homeless back into civilization. They need to see how private property can work for them.

So, this Easter weekend, I encourage all who would give to the poor to discriminate. Do not give to the poor without concern for the manner in which the poor are to be helped. Give to the poor so that the manner of giving and acceptance encourages better behavior.

In point of fact, such institutions exist in most cities now. One reporter in one news story had the sense to ask a homeless person the right question:

"If you don't get food at the park that Wednesday, you could have gotten it someplace else?" reporter Josh Wilson asked Jacques Davis.
"Yes, I could have gotten it at the Daily Bread or the Salvation Army," Davis said.

Feeding the homeless in parks may seem humane. But really, can it do any real good? Not long-term. Those charitable groups that establish soup kitchens and flop houses and all the rest do more good than those that set up, in the minds of the homeless, the idea that anything goes, that "public property" is theirs to squat on.

We could wish reality were otherwise, I suppose. Perhaps anthropological reading about hunters and gatherers could make the homeless life sound glamorous. Perhaps careless reading of the Gospels can make indiscriminate giving seem wise. Perhaps two hundred years of socialist thought can inspire. But none of this should inspire us to give up certain obvious truths.

Now that I think about it, I wonder about Food Not Bombs. The lefty moniker gives it all away, doesn't it? Are you at all surprised that Food Not Bombs has sued the city of Orlando? The group charges that the ordinance is unconstitutional, of all things.

Can we hazard an early verdict? This is just another leftist attempt to make the public realm one huge feeding trough.

That's no way to help the homeless. It's a way to use the homeless as political props.

Our civilization can do better. And, regularly, does.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.