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Meanest Streets, Part 2

In Dubious BattleLast time, following up an a 2005 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, we looked at the #5 (Las Vegas, Nevada) and #4 (Atlanta, Georgia) cities most inimical to people experiencing homelessness at the time of the report, and also at more recent developments in those places.

Other sets of mean streets were found down south. As an example, the report said:

#3 Little Rock, Arkansas [THEN]
Two homeless men reported that officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station, even after showing the police their tickets. In other instances, homeless persons have been told that they could not wait at the bus station ‘because you are homeless.’

In 2008, in an effort to stifle panhandling, the city slapped some paint on what used to be traffic-ticket pay boxes and changed them into homeless collection boxes. The idea was that townspeople could make donations and feel confident that their financial help would go for food and not substances of abuse.

Two years later, TV newsperson Ebone’ Mone’t revealed that most people had no idea what the orange boxes were for. As of July 2010, only about $1,000 had been collected to feed the homeless.

By December of that year, with increased publicity efforts, the amount reached $3,000, which was distributed among five agencies, and the city got busy promoting new ordinances against aggressive panhandling, among other things.

More recently, Change.org columnist Josie Raymond wrote a piece called “Little Rock Wants to Ban Anything Remotely Homeless.” She writes,

Another day, another criminalization measure… I just don’t get aggressive panhandling ordinances, like the ones considered by Salt Lake City and St. Petersburg. If people are harassing or threatening others, arrest them on that charge whether they’re panhandling or not. Creating a new charge sounds a lot like an excuse to ban panhandling entirely and to let police officers arbitrarily decide who’s obeying the law and who’s not.

The city also hoped to forbid liquor stores to sell single servings of beer and to charge a $25 permit fee to any group that wanted to feed the homeless. Get this: such a permit could only be issued to any group twice a year, at most. Raymond went on to say,

Even in times of stretched resources, if officials want to solve the situation rather than put a Band-Aid on it, the discussion should revolve around who’s drinking and why, and why homeless people are congregating and what they need in order to stop doing that. I’m guessing the usual: jobs, affordable housing, substance abuse treatment, medical care, etc. Not more chances to go to jail.

Last December, the Little Rock police department partnered with the Target retail chain to create a holiday event called Shop with a Cop. Journalist Faith Abubey reported on the $100 gift cards distributed to 30 of the city’s neediest children, all of whom lived in a shelter.

Earlier this month, discussion was underway about a proposed day center for the homeless. Three locations were proposed, all downtown, which of course is not agreeable to everyone, especially the merchants. Kelly Connelly reported on it for KUAR News, interviewing Homeless Services Coordinator Jimmy Pritchett:

Pritchett says the day center will provide a ‘one-stop shop’ of services. It will offer access to dental and mental facilities as well as things as simple as an address and contact number for job applications. A temporary day center currently operates at River City Ministries in North Little Rock.

Meanwhile, in the inner city, the Little Rock Compassion Center has been carrying on its good work for years. Last year, 142,000 meals were served. The facility, a member of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, sleeps 200 men and 40 women every night.

Digressing back to Part 1 of “Meanest Streets,” Rodger Jacobs evoked the spirit of novelist John Steinbeck, whom he called “perhaps the greatest literary defender of America’s downtrodden.” By coincidence, I had just been reading Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, published in 1936. Though that book appeared 75 years ago, many of the scenes could take place in a homeless encampment right now.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Americans who joined the Communist Party were the idealists. They wanted their lives to mean something, and wanted to make a positive difference, and to benefit others, not just themselves. They cared about fairness and social justice. For people with that mindset, the political scene was not offering any alternatives. Throughout a long spell of American history, if you gave a damn about humankind, the Party was the only game in town.

Back in the day, Steinbeck’s book attracted attention because it pointed out the reasons why Americans at the bottom of the economic barrel were motivated to join up with the communists. So, in a way, it’s kind of too bad that nobody is worried about communism anymore.

Reactions?

Source: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” nationalhomeless.org, 2005
Source: “Little Rock’s Change for the Better tackles panhandling,” todaysthv.com, 07/18/10
Source: “Little Rock Wants to Ban Anything Remotely Homeless,” Change.org, 09/03/10
Source: “Little Rock police help homeless children shop for holidays,” todaysthv.com, 12/12/10
Source: “Little Rock Proposes Three Possible Sites For Homeless Day Center,” KUAR.org, 06/15/11
Source: “Welcome to the Little Rock Compassion Center,” lrcompassioncenter.org
Image of In Dubious Battle book cover, used under Fair Use: Reporting.