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The Irrational Stupidity of “Sweeps”

feet homelessThere is a growing trend, and it’s not a good one. In some quarters, people experiencing homelessness are persecuted with a ferocity previously reserved for witches and suchlike. Here, in America, an amazing number of people live like refugees, and there is no sane reason to make the situation worse. But that is exactly what the sweeps, cleanups, and raids on homeless encampments seem perversely designed to accomplish.

If the goals are law and order, busting up a settlement doesn’t even begin to make sense in terms of law enforcement’s own logic. Traditionally, since the world began, all societies have labeled certain groups, whether religious, ethnic, or political, as undesirables. The tendency has always been to herd the underclass together, the better to keep an eye on them. The efficacy of this policy was demonstrated in Riverhead, New York, not long ago. From a purely authoritarian standpoint, containment is a definite advantage. That’s how ghettos got started.

Look at the gypsies. After hundreds of years, the authorities in Europe and Great Britain finally realized that it’s no use chasing the gypsies away, because they always come back. Okay, if you can’t make them stay away, the next best thing, in control terms, is to make them stay in one place. Tie down that troublesome crowd and insist that they act like regular people. And the push was on to legally require gypsies to take up permanent residence, or else.

They have sweeps in Atlantic City — 150 of them last year alone, says Associated Press reporter Wayne Parry. As of May 2011, an estimated 500 people were experiencing homelessness in the gambling capital. (Doesn’t it kind of make you wonder how many were ushered into homelessness by gambling habits? They helped the casinos get rich, and now the ungrateful businesses owners want to get rid of them.)

The local authorities hint that the Boardwalk sweeps could become even more frequent. That’s the disincentive for hanging around. But unlike many other places, Atlantic City arranges for people to go back to whatever their closest approximation of “home” is. Even if home is the Philippines, there’s a chance of getting the fare to return.

A privately administered shelter has run a Travelers Assistance Program for many years, but the promise of fresh funding from the state of New Jersey (reportedly close to $100,000) will take the relocation program to a whole new level. This is not, officials say, your typical “Greyhound therapy.”

Parry notes,

The program is strictly voluntary; no homeless person who wants to stay put will be forced to leave. And before anyone leaves, the mission will make sure there is someone back home who is willing to take them in.

On the other hand, as explained by the soup kitchen cook Joseph “Papa Joe” Bocchino,

You can’t just put them on a bus, send them back home and forget about it. That’s just moving people around, not solving the problem.

And there’s the rub. If, as the Atlantic City Travelers Assistance Program maintains, some people are really returning to places where they have a chance to make a go of it — great. Maybe, sometimes, it amounts to more than to just moving people around. Let’s hope so.

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Source: “Atlantic City Looks to Bus More Homeless Back Home,” ABC News, 05/10/11
Image by Elvert Barnes, used under its Creative Commons license.