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San Francisco Sit/Lie Ordinance Documentary

No PanhandlingThe impressive Mission Local website is only part of a grander scheme, which encompasses print and multimedia avenues in two languages. Its aim is to generate quality journalism that fairly and thoroughly covers San Francisco’s Mission District. The staff are from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, San Francisco State, and the community.

Reaching back a couple of months, we’re looking at a piece of video journalism by Patricia Espinosa and Christine Mai-Duc, in which everyday people react to the Sit/Lie ordinance. Not surprisingly, the local law represents yet another misguided attempt to “do something” about the problem of homelessness by sweeping it under the rug. (It’s getting mighty crowded under that ragged shred of national carpet.) The reportage itself is great, but even more interesting are some of the comments the piece inspired.

For instance, “pdquick,” a doctor who treats people experiencing homelessness, points out the absurdity of forbidding people to sit or lie as a way to reduce aggressive panhandling. How aggressive can a panhandler be, after all, who is sitting or lying? That is some pretty laid-back aggression. Good point, pdquick!

“Lee” is impatient with housed people who convince themselves that the homeless are already spoiled and pampered by a plush existence, and is also angry with those who use a certain word:

The notion that the homeless are living a ‘lifestyle’ — which they could choose to stop living at the snap of their fingers — is truly ludicrous… You’d rather have the garbageman sweep up the unsightly blights on your block so you can walk down the street without having to think about all the bad stuff happening in your country. That’s why you have to convince yourself that homelessness is a ‘choice,’ a ‘lifestyle,’ a ‘decision,’ easily reversed, and that the homeless already have a vast and generous infrastructure of support.

“Lynae” makes a very good point about the sit/lie ordinance. How stupid is it, on the one hand, to encourage people to become employed, productive citizens, and at the same time hit them with criminal charges that will stick to their records, and make job hunting even more impossible? Plus, agencies providing basic services have more barriers against those with criminal records. This commentator reminds us of an even more basic truth:

It’s not illegal to be homeless. People have a right to NOT have housing. With that in mind, making laws that make it virtually impossible to be homeless without constantly being ticketed/arrested is just as wrong as making tons of laws that infringe on someone’s right to be black/Jewish/handicapped/what-have-you.

Many critics of the ordinance have also mentioned its redundancy, and this is true not only in San Francisco but just about every place where such ordinances are passed. There are already laws in place forbidding aggressive panhandling, loitering, public alcohol drinking, and so on. Additional rules are not really needed, and only serve to make the overall situation worse for people experiencing homelessness.

A society is only as good as the treatment it extends to its most vulnerable members, and America could be scoring a lot higher in this performance area. The thinking seems to be, if society can cut off the homeless from enough amenities, such as food and the right to sit on a park bench, all the drifters and transients and refugees will come to their senses and say, “Well, duh! This homeless thing just isn’t working out!,” and go get themselves a place to live, like decent people. And that’s not the worst of it. For some, the thinking is, take away enough amenities from people experiencing homelessness, and they will come to their senses and kill themselves, saving everybody else the trouble of dealing with them.

Paradox alert: We said that some hard-hearted Americans wish the people in the “homeless” category would just simply cease to exist. And we soft-hearted Americans also wish the category of “homeless” would cease to exist — only, we want to see this happen by finding everybody a place to live. We talked about the insanity of trying to legislate homelessness out of existence by forbidding homeless people to do just about anything.

Here’s a question. Name one social problem that has ever successfully been legislated out of existence. If you can’t think of one in five seconds, the point is made. Racism? Domestic violence? Murder? Addiction? We have plenty of laws, and still have plenty of all of the above. It’s unlikely that homelessness can be made to disappear by persecuting its victims.

Reactions?

Source: “About,” MissionLocal.org
Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Image by TheTruthAbout, used under its Creative Commons license.