We have always had poor and homeless people among us and likely always will. One thing that has changes in recent years is the breakdown in vagrancy law. Under vagrancy law, it was illegal to be a vagrant, a person in the community without visible means of support, and such a person subjected themselves to arrest and imprisonment. Enforcement of these laws were often capricious and sometimes cruel, and a number of these laws were thrown out by the courts. The same thing happened with the question of placing mentally ill persons under involuntary supervision or confinement such that the law now prohibits such action unless they are an immediate threat to themselves or others. Too often this means police can’t do anything until after they have actually harmed themselves or others.
A root problem then is the change of vagrancy from a crime to a constitutionally protected lifestyle, the cost of which is to be borne by the rest of society. Willful vagrancy, a homelessness largely of choice, including a refusal of various services, is not a right. It imposes costs on others and is not just the business of the individual. The ability to arrest and incarcerate willful vagrants is a necessary component of dealing with homelessness, without which the problem cannot be satisfactorily managed. Rather than scrapping poorly written vagrancy laws in response to court rulings and giving up, authorities should craft rational and compassionate systematic programs including both the
“carrot” of help programs and the “stick” of incarceration.
Help programs should all have the goal of moving people up to the highest degree of freedom and self-support possible. A range of programs should be crafted to assist individuals whose homelessness stems from different causes:
- The mentally ill should be evaluated with due process protections. Those requiring confinement for the protection of themselves or others will be few, and suitable facilities will be easily afforded by society. Those requiring only medication to control destructive behavior can be treated on an outpatient basis. If they fail to check in and take their medicine or counseling, they would be moved into the group requiring confinement.
- A similar approach should be taken for those with substance abuse issues with outpatient treatment the first choice and confined treatment the backup for uncooperative addicts. It would be useful to try a number of programs and compare their success rates. Choices between available religious and non-religious programs should be left to the individual.
- For others who are just down on their luck, suffering from marriage break-ups, lost jobs, medical expenses and the like, short term help and rehabilitation programs should be offered. The goal is always to move people up to freedom and self-sufficiency. Here again, there are many private sector charities working in this area, religious and non-religious. People should be steered to appropriate programs with due regard for their preferences. The option of accepting the help but refusing the rehabilitation programs is not an option.
Economic success is a ladder we all climb, from doing chores around home, to a first job, a checking and savings account, sequential levels of education and training, and so forth. But as standards of living in general have risen, we have implemented several well-intended laws and policies that have the effect of cutting off the lowest rungs of this ladder to the detriment of people at the lowest starting point. These policies impact the homeless and need reconsideration.
- Minimum wage laws have the effect of preventing the employment of people whose skills and work habits do not justify that level of pay. The correlation between excessive minimum wage laws and loss of low end employment is well known.
- Employer liability for anything a worker does or which happens to a worker similarly rises the risk and cost of hiring someone, particularly someone with a less than stellar past. These policies have made casual employment almost illegal.
- Minimum housing standards create a minimum cost for housing. A substandard form of housing, what we used to call slums, is prohibited by law. The alternative for people who cannot afford this minimum cost, with the exception of the few that get government subsidized housing, is homelessness. If we were to provide minimum standard housing for this population at taxpayer expense, why would the next group of people who have barely pulled themselves above this level by hard work want to keep working? There are reasons to not want substandard housing, but we must recognize that one consequence will be more homelessness and that subsidized housing will not be an adequate solution.
- In some jurisdictions, separation of church and state absolutists prevent public support for religiously oriented social programs trying to help the homeless, leaving nothing to replace them.