Tuesday, May 1, 2007

"A more common word for a vagrant would be a tramp, or formerly, a bum." - Wikipedia

Back in about 1987, KRON-TV discovered the delicious irony of a homeless problem in Napa. (Great in-depth story here on the days when KRON had a real newsroom.) Imagine! Homeless people in Napa, where each and every citizen receives a volcanic mud scrubdown and bathes in milk each morning, and breakfasts on Beluga caviar and truffles before being carried in a litter to their chateaus, where they oversee the production of their $100 per bottle boutique wines. (That's really the way it was back in '87. If you weren't living here then you really missed out.) Sylvia Chase, who was the star of Bay Area TV news at that time, oozed with indignation. "Some people here have so much, and you let these poor wretches live in the gutter - how I pity your souls." I am paraphrasing here.

So flash forward 20 years and guess what? We still have the same problem, only there seem to be more of the them. And we have the same debate points - the homeless are local people, they grew up here, they are squeezed by the new economy, they have had some hard luck. They need a shelter, they need a program, they need a haircut, clean clothes, and second chance. OK.

But we also seem to have new angles on the issue this time around. Some people are pointing out that there are lots of homeless people who are illegal immigrants. They're opting to live in the weeds down by the river as part of their financial plan for success. And then there are the boozers and druggies you see making their treks to the liquor store on Third Street. About the same time regular folks are going in for morning coffee, these folks are ready for a quart of the hair of the dog, every single day.

It feels like things are heating up after a couple of crimes involving homeless people (albeit in one case the homeless person involved was the victim) and I have the feeling there's going to be some change. Some people are starting to see them like stray cats - if you feed them, they keep coming back. And one letter in the Register even goes so far as to use the word "bums" - which of course is the accurate term for a fair number of these people, but heaven forbid we should call a bum a bum. (My other pet peeve is the use of the word "campers" for homeless people. These people are not "camping" they're squatting or trespassing.)

Do people have a right to be homeless? If it's true that most of them have either an addiction problem or are mentally ill, shouldn't we compel them to get treatment? Are we really being compassionate when we let people live this way, or are we enabling them? How much caring is too much? Would some tough love be a better strategy?

If Jonathan Swift was still around he might have a "modest proposal" to solve this problem, but I fear they would be tough and gamey.

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