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Alcohol, public accommodation, and humane approaches to homelessness

This video was recently drawn to my attention, and frankly, I don't think much of it. It's a blatant, emotionally manipulative gimmick, and as one friend pointed out, looking intently at every homeless person you pass is not a good rule for urban survival. A politically incorrect point, but a true one. The idea seems to be to shame ordinary people for going about their lives as if their failure to DO SOMETHING (unspecified) about all the homeless people they see is the cause of homelessness.

And, no, the analogy to the parable of the Good Samaritan is exceedingly poor. The Good Samaritan had reason to believe that he could give immediate, effective help and succor to the victim, or at least see that the body got decent burial (if the person were dead). Just stopping whatever you are doing and trying to do something-or-other to help the homeless is a far more complex proposition.

Then there's the small problem of familial betrayal to shaming and ridicule. Am I the only person who thinks that a wife who sets up her husband to be shamed as heartless for failing to recognize her in disguise is doing something despicable? Of course I would say the same about a husband who did that to his wife, but in this case it happened to be a wife doing it to a husband.

All of that is merely by way of introduction.

While debating the merits and demerits of this video on Facebook, I was struck with the thought that it would have made more sense for someone to make a documentary blaming liquor store owners for selling to people who are obviously homeless and feeding a harmful addiction. At least that would be addressed to one of the real causes of homelessness, which this video is not. And no, I am not saying that alcoholism and other substance abuses are the only causes of homelessness, merely that alcoholism is one significant contributing cause.

But then, after thinking about liquor store owners, it occurred to me that they probably can't discriminate and refuse to sell to the homeless because of public accommodations laws. True, there is no explicit mention of not discriminating on the basis of a state of homelessness in most public accommodations laws. (Though give it time and that will probably be included somewhere.) But any such discrimination would doubtless have "disparate impact" upon people according to other categories that are named--be it by race, marital status, sexual orientation, or some other sacred criterion.

I'm not going to go out on a limb and advocate a return to Prohibition--though for hard liquor, at least, a case can be made, given the havoc it causes. But at a minimum, it would be far more helpful to the poor and indigent if those who sell alcohol could rampantly discriminate on the basis of a gut instinct that this particular person is worse off buying and consuming this product. And compassionate--yes, truly compassionate--store managers could instruct their employees in how to recognize those to whom such a consideration applied.

This point leads to a consideration of how public accommodations and other non-discrimination laws have eroded our social capital by mechanizing the entire process of monetary exchange for goods and services--mechanizing the market, as it were. The market is composed of people associating, ideally associating freely rather than by force, with one another. This sort of free association in the market can indeed make room for a lot of bigotry and rudeness. But it also makes room for a lot of compassion and kindness. Price breaks can be given to those who need them, for example. And people who shouldn't be consuming a particular product can be refused it even as others are permitted to buy it. A humanized system of buying and selling has many faults but also allows far more room for many virtues than a system in which the seller is merely a robotic mechanism, a kind of slot machine, for giving out a product in return for a preset amount of money, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, in the system we actually live in, it would probably be unfair to make a video trying to blame and shame liquor store owners who sell to homeless addicts. If we would recognize that selling everything to everybody if they can scrounge up the money is not really fair and compassionate, that could be changed. And that would be an interesting approach to helping the homeless.

Comments (8)

While I don't work with homeless, I do work in C and D class real estate and therefore work a lot with low income/poor.

Yes, cheap, powerful alcohol is almost as big a problem as crack and meth, at least in this demographic in my area.

I have been walking past homeless people on my way to work for 29 years. I perceive a couple of things:

(a) there isn't ONE "homeless problem". There are many. Some of them are actually middling poor, instead of destitute poor, and they choose to beg as a way of supplementing whatever other income is coming in. Some of them are capable of working, some not. Some of them are highly communicative, some not. Not everyone out there with a cup or a sign is actually in misery: some are simply out there interacting: I used to pass a blind guy who wouldn't beg though he had a cup out, he was mainly there to smile and bless people: if anyone put money in his cup, he would say "I call on Jesus to bless you today". If you simply passed by and said "God bless you" he would respond "I receive that blessing and accept it in Jesus's name."

(b) To paraphrase Napoleon, the moral (and mental) problems are to the purely economic as 9 to 1. Even when a person isn't NOW in some form of substance abuse, chances are he either was, or his parents were and left him such an emotional / psychological basket case that he is non-functional. Or he simply has a mental disorder, one that might justify medical treatment but which does not (in our current set of social rules) justify forcibly putting them in a mental institution because they are not "dangerous". Between these, the typical plight of a homeless person cannot be "solved" with simply a roof over their head, because they cannot function to handle the rest of what ordinary living entails, whether they are addicted or simpletons or disabled or otherwise.

(c) Every homeless person came from a pair of parents. They OUGHT to have connections of family, neighbors, and friends. The degradation of family, the splintering of neighborhood communities into individual houses that don't communicate with each other, the removal of work from where you live, have taken their toll on the at-risk people who could have been taken care of by people who know them and have ties to them - people who could make an honest and useful assessment of what they actually need and whether they are disabled, thieves, addicted, retarded, or just plain down on their luck. When I walk past someone on the way to the train station, I don't know them because they aren't "from my part of town." But when I drive down my street I don't know 3/4 of my neighbors because they don't go to my church, they don't school their kids the way I do, they don't work at or near where I work - I have little to connect with them about OTHER than mere proximity during non-work-and-commute hours.

While there are systemic and social avenues that could ameliorate the problem of homeless people, the main ones are not government hand-outs. Most homeless people need, more than anything else, some individual person who can lead them to accountable right living and who can be their advocate for the existing and available services for poor people - and for help from neighbors even apart from "programs"; someone who can lead them to God's forgiveness and grace; someone who has the moral authority to tell them right from wrong, who can be the voice of conscience and the voice of the community directly in their ear when they are stepping off the path of true freedom. That doesn't come from a government program.

Tony, you so rightly point to the incredible complexity of the problem. And what this leads to is the further fact that not only will a government program not do all that needs to be done, but a random stranger walking by and looking at the person or wanting to help the person won't do all that needs to be done. Or perhaps even worse, might make matters worse. The random stranger, for all the concern that he might feel, simply *does not know* what needs to be done, and it's a fair guess on his part that there might be *little he could effectively do* for any given individual. For that reason, the random stranger is not to be blamed for failing to "connect" with a row of homeless people he happens to pass (and hence missing the fact that one of them is his relative in disguise). Any moderately intelligent person walking by has some inkling of the staggering number of different possibilities that would render it impossible for him to be of much help, or any help, to that person, as well as the very real possibility of "enablement" if he simply hands out money. And then there is the legitimate concern about being attacked by someone you are trying to help. The problems are systemic, and there are no little flashing lights above people's heads saying, reliably, "If you give me money, I will use it in a wise and legitimate way" or "If you would stop and ask me about my situation, I could give you a concrete, do-able way in which you could make a significant and positive difference to my life."

An old friend of mine keeps bus/train tokens on hand to give out to beggars. Definitely better than cash, in most cases. What I do sometimes, when I notice a homeless man outside our local grocery, is buy a sub sandwich and coke for him. The problem with cash, of course, is that it may be converted into booze immediately. Gifts in kind are better.

I have a friend who tells a story of having food thrown at him when he bought it and gave it to a woman demanding cash.

The other thing is, if you look at the video, there is literally a _line_ of homeless people, in the midst of whom is the disguised relative. One wonders precisely what is being demanded: Were those who are "caught" by the video supposed to give to _each one_, or would they have received absolution from the allegation of heartlessness if they had given something to some but not others and had still missed the disguised relative?

Paul, I started talking to one homeless person who hung out between my office and my subway station. I would sometimes give him a dollar, sometimes a train fare-card, and sometimes take him to lunch. And sometimes nothing but a smile and a handshake. But usually I would at least greet him, and often stop for 2 minutes to talk - from which I learned that he was trying. Trying to get a job, trying to get mental health care, etc. Trying to make money honestly by selling cold water bottles in summer - and then shut down because he had no license. And often enough the train fare was more valuable to him than a lunch. At the same time, when I did take him to lunch, he would save half of it to share with the other people he hung out with. At one point he was trying to pass the GED, and I gave him some lessons in math to help.

But this man was probably among the most articulate 1% that I ran into. He made it easy to help out, because (a) he didn't insist that mostly what he needed was money, though obviously he did need that. (b) He didn't threaten or cajole or put on false looks of forlorn misery to attract attention, he just asked politely. (c) He was clearly trying to better his condition through his own efforts. (d) He admitted that he had had a drug problem, and was willing to talk about how he was overcoming it.

By far the majority of homeless people are not able to make us so easily able to help them - either they have mental illness that interferes with making clear what their needs really are, or they have substance abuse issues that are current, or they have emotional issues that make them abusive or dangerous or appear so. Or they simply have given up on trying to help themselves. Or any of 5 other problems.

I think there are ways of dealing with most people who are homeless to sort through their issues and get them into a home. I also think that some of these ways would be more do-able if the government would allow churches and families and small communities to take a more paternalistic stance with them, (though of course this is a matter for prudence). I blame the individualistic atomism of modern liberalism for a significant share of the problem (though not only that), and I would caution that there also seems to be certain operators of programs and services who DON'T WANT the problem to be solved, who actively desire their "constituency" of the homeless remain.

It's not so easy to push all this on families. Some people, perhaps because of their illness, perhaps not, are positively insufferable to live with. I don't mean annoying: I mean abusive. I've been there. And they'll never be able to function on their own economically. The only solution that works - or that worked in this case - is to put people like this on disability. Otherwise, they're just going to stay homeless or die.

Anon, I quite agree that a single family cannot do it all. What I envision is a family backed up by the assistance of 12 to 15 more families, along with access to mental health and therapy for some. And I am fine with 'putting people on disability" when that matches their actual condition, but again that"s not enough because they need a support structure of real live human beings who are on the spot and within touching distance every day if not all day. In my ideal solution, these groups of a dozen support families will be organized by churches, neighborhood associations, and other charitable groups - people who actually know the homeless person or at least his family - supported by town and county governmental services for the kinds of things a family cannot provide (information sharing, etc).

No doubt there will be some people who need to be in an institution, more than are currently there, but that should not be the first approach merely because this homeless person has no living relatives in town. Normally it should be his own family that takes point, and relatives, but then the neighborhood, the church, and so on where his family are should be the second line of defense. Which implies more cohesive communities than we typically see.

However, I would object to a person getting disability because nobody wants to take care of him because he is abusive, absent illness that mitigates his personal responsibility for that behavior. And that's another reason family and neighbors should be involved: sometimes they are more able to say when this guy is just lazy and abusive, and can be a guide to government disability (or other non-governmental insurance) for knowledge of the situation. Social support should not undermine personal responsibility.

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