March 28, 2010

Banned for a Reason

An article I unfortunately cannot direct-link to (pay-wall) in today's SF Chronicle has a strange bent to it, especially considering the source. The bent is "neutral", which is entirely unexpected. Here's the deal...

Seattle, in 1993, passed a public ballot initiative that banned sitting or lying on public sidewalks in certain areas of the city. The initiative's goal was to prevent people from loitering around the areas that would otherwise be usable as places of business. This was passed in reaction to a major department store chain closing its location in Downtown Seattle. The closure resulted in a domino cascade of storefront closures in the area which then resulted in an increase in vagrancy, loitering, and panhandling. The area became a preferred location for the homeless because there was still traffic from tourists passing through the area. Tourists are a source of income for panhandlers, homeless or otherwise, and everyone knows in business the first rule for success is LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!

The Sit/Lie Ban allowed police officers to issue "Move Along" warnings to people who were in violation, followed by a $50 citation. Ironically, the majority of offenders who would warrant a citation would never have been able to pay it, but the intent wasn't to generate a revenue stream for the city; advocates of the law wanted the blight that had become the area around where Fredrick & Nelson used to be in 1992 to become a center for commerce again. Dissenters referred to the law as "...Fascism on Seattle's streets.", indicating that homeless have nowhere else to go.

Both of these views in the same article in the SF Chronicle wasn't expected, and was actually pretty refreshing. There's more, though. Gavin Newsom, SF's mayor, wants to copy the law, but make the provisioning city wide. It would effectively limit stationary panhandlers, homeless, or anyone from sitting or lying on the sidewalks in the city between the hours of 7am and 11pm, a wider hour range than the Seattle law. Police Officers would be empowered to issue "Move Along" warnings followed by $50 citations to those who fail to comply.

Both the Seattle law and the SF proposal are molded around the goal of limiting or eliminating vagrancy interfering with or deterring tourism. Tourism is the lifeblood of both these cities, and vagrancy chases tourists out of the tourist traps, thus robbing the businesses and the cities of revenue. Both cities are very liberal, opting to spend taxpayer money to support vagrants with programs aimed at feeding, clothing and housing the impoverished. I'm of a mind that these programs enable the same types of behavior that cause poverty; drug use, laziness, reliable income via aggressive panhandling and no incentive to seeking legitimate work due to an oppressive tax structure (which deters business and job growth) and high housing costs. The ironic part of all of this is that homeless people don't pay taxes, but tourists pay sales and municipal taxes to local governments, which in turn bolster the local governments revenue streams, which are then used to support the poor. The dissenting view is that laws preventing vagrancy from taking place everywhere is an affront to the poor; an attack to their civil liberties.

Attacking a homeless person's civil liberties would be more along the lines of arresting a poor person for holding a sign in public. Warning a homeless person that it is inappropriate for them to lie on the sidewalk, or in an abandoned storefront during city business hours isn't impinging on their civil liberties... Its more like protecting a revenue stream by protecting one's storefront and environs. If it wasn't a homeless person, but a drunk man lying on the sidewalk vomiting on the steps of Mary-Lou's Scrapbook Emporium the police would be called upon to resolve the situation, and decried vociferously if they failed to do so. The argument that homeless oftentimes have nowhere to go is systemic, and has solutions that can be implemented alongside policy that enforces common public courtesies.

Allowing the image of a city to be subverted by the idea that the city is complacent in protecting its primary industry harms everyone: tourists, locals, businesses and the poor. Comparing the local government's responsibility to develop and enforce laws that protect the public at large, as opposed to protecting a minority (homeless), to the wholesale oppression of said minority is naive and irresponsible. Not only can SF protect its primary industry, but the city can also use this protection as leverage to be able to then provide services with the "bought revenue" this protection would create. Since the detractors to this sort of law are also in favor of spending public funds to provide services to those who do not provide said funds, you'd figure finding ways to protect the revenue streams that provide those funds would be part and parcel to any solution... Often times you'll find a less than holistic view to social issues from the Left. The core issue isn't making sure their solutions are sustainable, but making sure the minority is protected, regardless of their participation in the protection.

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