The Right (Not) to Rest

On August 6th, President Obama’s Department of Justice submitted a statement in the US District Court of Idaho wherein they express opposition to the current laws and subsequent ‘criminalization of homeless people’. This announcement comes four months after the proposed Right To Rest Act in Colorado died in a committee hearing and consequently preserved urban camping bans in Denver and fourteen other neighboring cities.

Support from the DOJ comes in response to a recently filed lawsuit that contends the current laws prohibiting them from sleeping in public spaces is unconstitutional. The lawsuit claims that cities like Boise, Idaho and Denver, Colorado are outlawing basic human neccessities by banning outdoor camping in urban areas and point to the 8th Amendment, which prevents any type of cruel and unusual punishment or excessive fines. Aurora, Colorado democrat and advocate of the bill, Jovan Melton called the retention of urban camping bans, “just as bad as… segregated lunch counters, buses and water fountains.”

Of course, most people would agree that simply being homeless is not and should not be a crime. This is not an attempt to belittle people in genuine, dire need. I’m certain that most of us have come across, at some point, a person for which there was simply no other option. Once or twice a year my family and I take $150 and spend an afternoon filling a backpack with useful things – shirts, food & utensals, a flashlight, maybe a book & some playing cards, etc. Then we hit the road until my little boy tells us to stop. He & I get out the car and hand the bag off to someone who could really use it. However, that’s not the concern here. What is really being said is that it is alright for people to loiter, sleep and basically set up camp anywhere they like and for however long they like.

Paul Boden, the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project says in reference to Right To Rest:

“What matters is we all work together and support each other in ending racist and classist policing programs once and for all.”

This is not an issue of segregation or discrimination. This is not about wanting to hide unseemly people. This is not about class or race, as Mr. Bowden would have you believe. It would take anyone less than one minute and an internet connection to see that homeless population is 42% black and 38% white. This is an issue of law, economics and rehabilitation services. Our communities are held together and maintained by common laws and when we let our politically correct pathological altruism sweep away these laws, well there will be consequences. And we’re starting to see them in cities across the country. Is it pure coincidence that crime and murder rates are surging across the country when pro-active policing is declining? Professor Eugene O’Donnell of John Jay College of Criminal Justice says:

“A major development in the world of policing and the country is that police are avoiding interaction, adversarial interaction, with people in a way that is most troubling.”

Recently, a Birmingham, Alabama police officer was pistol-whipped unconscious when he hesitated to use force on an assailant. The officer was afraid of being destroyed by the media. With support for our police forces dwindling, it seems that many liberals are focused on other, more politically correct solutions.

The Huffington Post quotes ACLU Colorado’s Executive Director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley as follows:

It’s a bad idea to bring in more police simply to address people’s perceptions, not reality. It could backfire, too. Rather than providing reassurance, a heavy police presence could give the impression that the mall must be awfully dangerous to require so many police. It might also lead to more profiling, more unnecessary arrests for minor charges, or more harassment of people who are homeless or look like they might be.

This is dangerous thinking on a number of levels. Let’s begin with the concept that adding patrol officers to ‘address people’s perceptions’: is it now simply one’s perception that it is not okay for people to be using public fountains as bathtubs?  Mr. Woodliff-Stanley argues that an increased police presence might scare people. On the contrary, we can use Chicago as an example. In years prior to the construction of Millennium Park, the waterfront public area was known as Grant Park. It was full of vagrants and crime though seldom patrolled. With the rise of Millennium Park, which has become a rare and marvelous attraction – the sort that both residents and tourists love – came an addition of officers that patrol the park on segways. I’m sure we can all agree that segways are non-threatening, if not completely hilarious. But it works and Millennium Park is better off for it. Typically, the absence of police does not lead to a safer environment. In Camden, New Jersey for years the local cops simply drive around without ever stopping anyone even if a crime was occurring. The result was one of the statistically violent and unsafe neighborhoods in the country. It took a new governor to put an entirely new police force in place – one that was not afraid to do its job to finally get the town moving in the right direction.

Woodliff-Stanley continues his line of reason by mentioning the possibility of profiling and unnecessary arrests for minor crimes and of course, harrassment. It’s intriguing that the harrassment brought under consideration here is directed toward the police and not the street people. Consider that for a moment. When considering ‘unnecessary arrests for minor charges’ one would do well to recall former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his ‘broken windows’ stance on crime which was driven by the belief that co called ‘lower-level’ crimes ultimately give rise to larger ones. Under the watch of Rudy Giuliani New York City crime rates fell sharply.

But now, as our police officers are growing more hesitant criminals on the street are growing more comfortable. It seems that New York City has already enacted their own silent Right to Rest Act. We see a homeless man with a bar of soap taking a bath in the Columbus Circle fountain day after day. Police pass by. Children pass by. The local news runs an brief expose and yet there he remains every day. And Mayor De Blasio tells the residents of his city that he has ‘real concern’ regarding vagrants occupying public spaces. New York City remains the most expensive city in America. On the way to the Saturday Market in Portland, Oregon one encounters literally dozens of addicts and vagrants – each with what looked like their own living room surrounding them. The grass is dotted drug needles and liquor bottles. Something is not right when a father walks his little boy down the street past people curled up in a fetal position, shaking and sweating through dope sickness. Portland is currently the 10th most expensive city to call home in America.

Considering local services, transportation, employment, social well-being, physical & psycological health – all of the elements contributing to quality of life – that quality is rapidly declining in major cities all across the U.S. Consider that someone is literally paying $3200/month to live near that Columbus Circle fountain. Suddenly it turns into an open-air bath, maybe there’s a rash of muggings and robberies – and there’s nothing to stop it. Well that means parents don’t take their kids to the fountain, which means they don’t stop for ice cream & coffee. More and more people stop coming to the fountain on their lunch breaks. Tourists don’t want to stop so they keep walking. Business declines and that family-owned coffee shop closes. If a massive population of homeless, vagrants and addicts is basically causing public areas to be unusable by everyone else then simply allowing it take place under a banner of social justice is not the answer.

If a law such as Right to Rest were to pass, these are the scenarios that would most assuredly come to pass. Perhaps instead of focusing on resting, we might turn our attentions to social programs and job training. Perhaps we might take a look at the success of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s Navigator Center and find the means to reproduce it across the country. The Navigator Center guides the chronic homeless into the appropriate programs and rehabilitation services. Its homeless housing doesn’t demand curfews. Residents are allowed to bring partners, possessions, and pets with them. This allows the city to reach some people who had previously been unable to take advantage of these services.

Right to Rest sounds good, doesn’t it? How could anyone be so brutish as to oppose it? Are we to feel somehow guilty for not being in such a dire situation personally? This is about what we value. It is about our obligation to respect our communities. I believe I have a right to take my children to the fountain in Columbus Circle on a sunny afternoon because it is beautiful and we shouldn’t have to make our way past people bathing in it. This not about resting, it is misdirected altruism. Consider this broadly – if the Right to Rest Act were passed across the entire country – what would our country look like? What would it feel like? This is really about cherished, historic public spaces and monuments becoming default locker rooms and our public areas falling into crime and disrepair while we pass quietly by.

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