The Homeless are like Bears

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CommonDreams.org

The Homeless are like Bears

And homeless near a thousand homes I stood, And near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.
-William Wordsworth, Guilt and Sorrow

Once again the homeless are in the news and, as always, the question is what to do with them. The solutions are not always obvious but the attempts can be described as nothing, if not creative and in many cases the National Park Service's treatment of bears offers guidance.

Those with long memories will recall the town in Florida that treated the homeless by following the example of Yellowstone National Park. Rangers in Yellowstone relocate unwanted bears far from where they are picked up hoping that once relocated they will not return to the places from which they have been taken. The Florida town picked up the homeless from tourist areas and moved them to outlying areas hoping that the relocated homeless would enjoy the fruits of their relocation even though none of the fruits included a home. I have been unable to determine how successful that program was. In all events, towns today continue to follow the example set by the rangers in Yellowstone.

According to Change.org, many communities have adopted rules that not only ban begging but ban furnishing food to the homeless, a practice followed in national parks with bears where feeding them is strictly forbidden. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an ordinance was adopted that prohibits sharing food with the homeless in public parks. In Phoenix zoning laws were invoked to shut down a church that was serving breakfast to the homeless and others. Gainesville, Florida restricts the number of people soup kitchens can serve even though the number is less than the facility can comfortably accommodate.

Miami is considering an ordinance that would require people who distribute food to the homeless to go through formal training instructing them on how to ensure the food they are serving is safe and how to clean up the mess left behind. Those serving food would also have to provide a portable restroom and on-site sink. That will eliminate those serving food from the backs of vehicles and in parks. Although neither bears nor the homeless are going to cease being nuisances as a result of these compassionate and enlightened approaches to the problems they each pose, it is at least a way of addressing the issue that may encourage the homeless to go and find a home.

Enlightened though those approaches are, none can hold a candle to the approach favored by a town that has been described in this space and elsewhere as a perfect town. Its residents are educated and compassionate and live in beautiful houses, many of which replaced tiny houses that people lived in before they realized how much nicer it was to live in very big houses. That town is in Colorado and its name is Boulder.

Like other affluent communities, Boulder's pristine quality and virtually perfect ambience is slightly tarnished by the presence of the homeless. Its council, in its wisdom, has devised a way of dealing with them that is far more creative than the limits on their feeding imposed by other communities. It has banned camping, something bears are permitted to do, so long as they are not in the vicinity of humans and campgrounds.

Most people think of camping as a pleasant adventure that families do with children on summer vacation. The wise rulers in Boulder, however, have come up with a definition that redefines "camping." "Camping" in Boulder does not require pitching a tent or cooking "smores" over a campfire. All that is required is that the person lie down on city property "with shelter." "Shelter" includes "any cover or protection from the elements other than clothing." Thus, a homeless person who lies down and places a blanket over him or herself or climbs into a sleeping bag has taken "shelter" and violated the ordinance and the offender can be ticketed and fined or jailed.

Boulder, like many communities, lacks sufficient adequate housing for the homeless. From October 15 through December 31, 2009, 333 homeless people were turned away from the homeless shelter because of lack of space. One of those people was David Madison. The temperature, when he was denied shelter was 11 degrees. Mr. Madison took himself to a public place, lay down and crawled into a sleeping bag in order to keep from freezing. He was ticketed and convicted of violating the camping ban. He is not the first to be ticketed.

Since Boulder is such a perfect place its police have little to do. Accordingly, they have had the time to issue tickets to those who violate the no camping ban and since 2006 have issued 1,650 tickets to homeless people who violated the "no-camping" ordinance.

There is a bright side to being homeless in Boulder. It is OK for its residents to offer them food.

Christopher Brauchli

Christopher Brauchli is a columnist and lawyer known nationally for his work. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Colorado School of Law where he served on the Board of Editors of the Rocky Mountain Law Review. He can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com

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