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For Their Own Sake and for Ours, the Homeless Must Follow the Rules : Social services: California tightens environmental laws while accepting unsanitary and unregulated street camps.

<i> Vivian Rothstein is executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica. This article is excerpted from the November issue of the Boston Review. </i>

Am I the only one who sees the federal court decision requiring Miami to provide outdoor “safe zones” for homeless people as a defeat for human rights?

For the past 10 years, I have worked on the homeless issue, first as a local government staff member and now as the director of a social-service agency. In the early and mid-1980s, the work of homeless advocacy was to identify and argue for needed services that could help people lift themselves out of desperation. We also had to educate the public about the structural causes of homelessness (welfare and job cutbacks, reductions in federal support of affordable housing, lack of community facilities for the chronically mentally ill) to explain that this explosion of poverty was not simply personal failure on the part of the poor.

But as homelessness increased, services couldn’t keep pace with the demand and more people began living on the streets for longer periods of time. Now, most homeless advocacy is focused on a defense of the right of homeless people to live marginalized lives in the public areas of our cities.

The role of a social-service provider in working with an individual in distress is to truly believe in the person’s worth and dignity, despite their present circumstances, and to expect the person to be able to live up to their goals. Since we know that homelessness is not a healthy choice and would not feel comfortable if someone we loved were homeless, it’s important to reinforce a person’s belief in his or her ability to get off and stay off the streets.

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This is not always easy, given the conditions that are producing more homelessness. Nevertheless, to expect less for a person is to participate in their abandonment by the rest of society.

Santa Monica is currently enjoined from enforcing an ordinance requiring permits for outdoor-feeding programs that serve more than 35 people per site. The law was attacked by those who wanted to defend what they termed the First Amendment right of freedom of expression involved in feeding large numbers of people outdoors without regulation. This, despite the fact that indoor sites are available free. I still don’t understand what the principle to be defended was. Is eating outdoors a dignified way to provide services to the poor? Is it a helpful message to homeless people that they don’t have to come indoors to receive assistance? Or was it the desire of the food providers to have their charity performed in public, where it could be seen, that was at issue?

“Chester” is a personable, bright, 30ish, homeless man with sharp political insights about capitalism and the economic causes of homelessness and poverty. He attends community college off and on. I was once a guest on his monthly public-access television show, discussing the proposal to limit the size of outdoor-meals programs. He comes up with the $35 charge for taping each show by panhandling at the local mall. We meet occasionally to discuss city politics and police and local governments policies. Chester has been homeless for about eight years, although he recently moved in with a friend.

After each time we meet, I feel like I have copped out on Chester. He should get off the street, but I don’t confront him with that as a real friend would. I’m angry that he’s settled for this; he has such potential. And I truly am annoyed that Chester has chosen to live on the edge of society in a manner that makes me and anyone else with a heart and a place to sleep indoors feel guilty for our relative affluence.

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There are thousands of Chesters out there who have figured out how to live without homes, tapping into the few resources available to those on the margin of society. No matter how dramatically we change federal, state and local policies to create affordable housing and jobs, they will most likely never voluntarily come in out of the cold.

These Chesters are now called the “voluntarily homeless.” I don’t think they started out that way. Their homelessness began, I’m sure, like anyone else’s--due to a crisis in their lives brought on by a loss of job, of housing, of a significant relationship, problems with substance abuse, a health crisis. But as all people adapt to their conditions as a matter of survival, they have made peace with their homelessness. The Chesters represent a small portion of the homeless population, but their existence challenges us to figure out what we really believe about their life choices and about our social contract--as well as about our personal choices to survive economically and morally.

I feel tremendously torn about the Chesters. I respect their intelligence and courage, but deplore their clinging to a degraded lifestyle. When they become spokesmen for the homeless, I know they don’t represent most homeless people who, once they have gotten off the street, don’t even want to remember or tell others that they sank that low.

I am not convinced that it is either helpful for homeless people or “progressive” to support a permissive position regarding encampments, outdoor services and large congregations of homeless people in public areas. In California in particular, we are moving toward a bizarre regulatory climate in which controls on development and environmental standards are strongly supported by many of the same people who are urging acceptance of unsanitary, unregulated, unheated and unstructured outdoor living environments.

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While I am firmly against criminalizing homelessness and persecuting people because of their poverty, I also believe that how individuals respond to that poverty requires standards and limits. All people need structure in their lives. None of us can maintain integrity and morality without pressure from our human community. To exempt homeless people from healthy standards of living and socially useful modes of operating is to expect less from them as human beings than we expect of ourselves. That is ultimately disempowering, dishonest and socially destructive.

How we as a society address the homeless crisis really has to do with what level of civilization we aspire to, whether we will establish a bottom line of dignity and subsistence for all or move toward public encampments and displaced-persons camps in the public areas of our nation.


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