Imagine that you are a social worker. You open the local paper the day after Christmas to find one of those stories that editors like to have in the can for this time of year when newsrooms are short staffed, hard news is scarce, and readers are still recuperating from too much food and drink.
It’s a human interest story about a poor old man who has lived in a broken down van in the parking lot of a nearby towing company for the past seven years. He could live there because the business owner lets him stay in the vehicle and use the company washroom. The owner also allows the old guy to run a power cord out to the van so that he can cook and heat the place.
The man has earned no money for at least a decade but he gets by. People in the neighborhood know him and help out where they can. He doesn’t have to beg because friends bring money and food. Through the intervention of one friend, the man will soon receive a small pension for his service in World War II. He avoids fast food and walks three to five miles a day, though he does still chomp on cigars. In the summer, he hikes north to fish for catfish and carp.
What sort of response would this story provoke in you, the social worker? Would you (a) mutter “Good for him…” and flip to the sports section; (b) get warm human interest fuzzies and read it to your hung-over fellow breakfasters; (c) turn up your nose at his cigar habit but shrug it off and read the comics; or (d) go evict the guy from his van?
It’s not an academic question, because no part of this tale was made up. The Indianapolis Star ran a story in December titled “Mr. Green Is Doing Just Fine, Thank You,” and then had to do a follow-up story three days later about how the 93-year-old Thelmon Green had been ordered to vacate the dilapidated ’86 Chevrolet van in the parking lot of Big Red Discount Towing.
Sheryl Crum was the employee from the housing division of the Marion County Health Department who visited Green’s van after the story ran. She pronounced it in violation of the County housing code and therefore uninhabitable. Reporter Will Higgins explained the code requires that “a domicile have running water and electricity,” and power cords and bathroom privileges at the towing company don’t count.
If you think there’s something absurd about rigorously applying the housing code to a broken ’86 Chevy, you’re not alone. The Star was flooded with mail and comments on the paper’s website. Most readers were either angry at the Health Department’s meddling (“Did the[y] drown any kittens that day also?”) or disappointed with the newspaper for bringing Green’s unusual living arrangement to the government’s attention. (“Way to go Star.”)
The paper published first a defensive column by its editor, Dennis Ryerson, and then an unsigned editorial. Ryerson quoted reporter Higgins on why he wrote the piece: “It was a story of a guy living in a van happily, and a story of how a village can look after folks as well as a bureaucracy.” The editor added that it was a “touching, anti-greed story in a season of so much greed.” He also addressed the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question:
Q: Did the Star folks stop to consider that they might be getting Green and Big Red Discount Towing in trouble?
A: “Higgins and his [section] editor tell me they did consider whether Green would be evicted. They thought of the many other people in Marion County who are left to live in even worse situations. Surely, they reasoned, Green would be left alone.”
That explanation made a certain amount of sense, but bureaucracies have their own way of reasoning. Rules are rules. Thelmon Green’s fate is still uncertain. He can stay in the van until something suitable is found but he and the government have different ideas of what’s “suitable.” Green would rather avoid the noise and crime of nearby apartment buildings. In fact, he’d like to stay right where he is. That that’s not likely to be allowed seems almost un-American.