Bait and switch on homelessness

Posted: Apr 09, 2002 12:00 AM
Do hemlines go up or down with Republican presidents? When the Yankees win the World Series, is that good or bad for the stock market? A lot of the correlations made by folks looking for headlines are silly, but one seems to be holding true: A rising GOP tide lifts all press stories about homelessness. The same sad people ignored by reporters during the Clinton years are now sought out for their views on heartless conservatives. Yes, it's time once again for the poverty-fighting Bait and Switch. Attract caring people to liberal causes by preaching that they can change the lives of the homeless for the better by passing a multimillion or billion dollar (who's counting?) piece of legislation. Watch while nothing changes or -- more often -- money allocated for those who fail tempts more people to give up fighting and plop into the safety net. Then switch the proselyte to a position even further to the left: Lack of success means that the government must double its spending. But reality has a way of biting. Half a millennium ago, church leaders in Lyons, France, decided that their parishioners did not have enough opportunity to save themselves years in purgatory by performing the good deeds of offering alms to the poor. So the Lyons bishop sent messages to his counterparts in other cities: Send us your beggars. And so it was: Homeless men from all of Europe came, begged, drank and died. They kept coming, until the bishop begged, "No more." San Francisco is a Lyons of the present, offering its thousands of single, homeless residents $320 to $390 per month, plus food, shelter, clothes and medicine. That stipend, supplemented by panhandling, enables the homeless to stay in misery and -- according to National Public Radio -- helps to "preserve the city's reputation for compassion." So some propose to cut the monthly stipend (often used for drugs and alcohol) to $50; NPR says that is a "punitive approach." But what's compassion? San Francisco compassion, according to the Christian Science Monitor, means that "urinating in public is a cherished right." San Francisco compassion means that 183 homeless people died on the streets in the year 2000, the victims of drugs, alcohol and what President Bush accurately calls the soft bigotry of low expectations. The Monitor portrayed one San Franciscan "looking at a panhandler wrapped in a tattered and filthy blanket" and saying, "This guy here, you can't get him to follow somebody else's rules." So, rather than trying, give him $320 to $390 each month and watch him die. NPR says the problem of homelessness is complicated, and it is -- but part of it comes down to this question: Should homeless individuals have to follow somebody else's rules? Just about all of us have to do exactly that. "It's not tough to be homeless in San Francisco," the San Diego Union quoted one of the Bay Area's homeless men as saying. It's tough for those with little willpower to leave homelessness, because city support plus panhandling allows them not to follow somebody else's rules. Today's homelessness debate is not about caring. The liberal position is a classic bait-and-switch. The bait is, "Don't be mean-spirited," and those thus hooked are eventually switched to a perverse definition of liberty. When Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death," he was not talking about the liberty to urinate in public or sit around without using any of his God-given talents. He was not talking about the social equivalent of ignoring the law of gravity. But San Francisco compassion today demands that anyone can choose any lifestyle he chooses, no matter how destructive, and have taxpayers pay for it. We should say no to such a reality-denying manipulation of sentiment. Homeless individuals who want to change their lives and begin acting responsibly deserve support. Those who are psychotic and unable to change their lives deserve help. Those who disable themselves need not a road to further destruction paved with a few dollars, but true compassion, which means seeing them as created in God's image and helping them to restore that shine, no matter how many layers of caked-over dirt are in the way.