In our opinion: Stop punishing the needy; help the homeless become self-sufficient

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In an April 27, 2011 file photo, worker Francisco Ortiz talks about his own experiences as he stands outside Sister Jean's Soup Kitchen, in Atlantic City, N.J. , where hundreds of homeless and indigent people line up each day at lunch time.

Mel Evans, Associated Press

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Shame on the more than 50 cities across the United States that have decided the way to deal with homelessness is to pass ordinances that outlaw the things homeless people do. Some even go so far as to outlaw efforts by charities to feed such people.

These tactics were outlined in a Deseret News story this week. Perhaps the starkest example is from New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has successfully made it impossible to donate food to shelters because the city can't tell how much fat, salt or fiber the food contains. This is the same mayor who wants the city to outlaw the sale of soft drinks in cups larger than 16 ounces. It would seem he has allowed his concerns with obesity and healthy eating to trump things that are more important. The homeless tend to be less concerned with salt and fat content than with simply filling their bellies.

Contrast these punitive efforts with those along the Wasatch Front, begun seven years ago, to attack chronic homelessness through a coordinated effort among local governments and nonprofit agencies. The idea is not to punish, but to provide real help and humanitarian care. Utah officials said earlier this year the number of chronically homeless people in the state has dropped 72 percent since 2005, and 9 percent over the last year alone. The state has a goal of ending chronic, long-term homelessness by 2015, and experts say that goal is within grasp.

This effort won't end homelessness, mind you. People are constantly entering that realm as they lose jobs or suffer physical or mental illnesses that make it difficult to cope. But in Utah, those who remain homeless for 300 or more days qualify for permanent housing in a situation in which they have access to the services they need, whether this involves care for illnesses of a physical or mental nature, help to get off drugs or job training. The idea is to help people restore their sense of self-respect as they get their lives in order.

Other cities in the United States ought to be studying what is happening along the Wasatch Front, rather than passing ordinances that punish the homeless and trying to suggest that such rules actually help them. Atlanta, San Diego, New York City, Philadelphia and others seem barely capable of hiding their contempt for the homeless, or their wishes that they would simply wander off to some other place.

A struggling economy naturally leads to an increase in the population of people struggling to remain self-sufficient. The causes of homelessness are often varied and complicated, and they can be difficult to solve. However, it is a condition affecting real flesh-and-blood people; neighbors who need a chance to once again contribute. The way communities deal with them says much about the priorities of those in charge.

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