Special Report

Homeless on the Range

It’s that time of political season again.

By 11.23.04

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WASHINGTON -- Well, it is time again for the homeless to make their appearance. Having been housed during (if not by) the Clinton Administration, it appears that they are now back on the streets on the eve of the second Bush term.

The homeless first became major news during Ronald Reagan's second term when, almost like magic, they began to appear on the streets. No one -- least of all the media -- seemed to know whence they came. Of course, it was no mystery. Right after his reelection the heartless, uncaring Gipper sent shock troops out to find those folks, force them out into the cold November night, and bar the door behind them.

Apparently, the Clinton Administration could not repair all of the damage. Two weeks after Bill Clinton's reelection, a Lexis/Nexis search revealed 1,424 stories containing the term "homeless." But Clinton fixed enough of the problem that the homeless were able to disappear back into their homes. Well, guess what: They're baaack! In the two weeks following November 2, Lexis/Nexis reveals 2,332 stories using the term "homeless."

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) is on the case. In a report released November 9 and titled "Illegal to Be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States," NCH examined the "meanest" cities and states in the U.S. By coincidence, President Bush's home state of Texas ranked 4th meanest to the homeless, while little brother Jeb's Florida ranked 2nd. Many cities in their states, including Gainesville, Austin, Sarasota, Key West, Dallas, and San Antonio, ranked among the top twenty meanest cities.

The NCH criteria for "meanest" are varied. One measure is the number of anti-homeless laws. According to the report, laws against panhandling and loitering are counted. But so is any law against obstructing sidewalks, bathing in public waters, and urinating and defecating in public. I can still remember a time when it was considered "mean" to the public if some bum -- oops, sorry, homeless person -- relieved himself in a place frequented by the public. But this is the era of sensitivity, when it is a violation of civil rights to prevent someone from using any place that strikes his fancy as a toilet.

The report has other oddities. The states ranked 1st and 3rd meanest are California and Hawaii where John Kerry did well. Cities making the top twenty list included San Francisco (9th) and Berkeley (14th)! Curiously, the NCH report notes that it is perfectly legal in both cities for the homeless to relieve themselves in public. Furthermore, according to the report, Berkeley has only five laws against the homeless and San Francisco has eight. That's less than Phoenix (13) Jacksonville (12), and Colorado Springs (11), none of which are in the meanest top twenty.

A defensive Cisco DeVries, chief of staff to the mayor of Berkeley, responded, "Berkeley provides more services per capita to the homeless than virtually any other city on the planet." I believe him, having stepped on countless homeless people in my many visits to Berkeley. And until late 2002, over 8,000 homeless people received monthly $395 cash stipends from San Francisco. Here was a city where homeless folks went to the bathroom wherever they wanted and got paid to do it. (The city has toughened its homeless laws recently.)

Why are two traditionally "tolerant" locales considered among the meanest cities? Perhaps because NCH criteria for meanness is that "local activist(s) or organization(s) supported the meanest designation." Of course, Berkeley and San Francisco are havens for left-wing extremists. Call it a wild guess, but I'd say they told NCH researchers that San Francisco and Berkeley were mean. Apparently, saying so makes it so.

None of the media stories about the report examined its less-than-rigorous methodology. Only the Dallas Morning News and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune noted that laws against public urination and defecation are part of the criteria.

Expect the media to treat the homeless and their advocates with kid gloves. Because a Republican has just been reelected stories about misery and poverty are once again pertinent. It won't be until a Democrat is President that the homeless will again disappear.

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About the Author

David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.