[Hpn] SELECTIVE COMPASSION
William Charles Tinker
Sun, 11 Sep 2005 21:05:44 -0400
By Eileen McNamara, Globe Columnist | September 11, 2005
The front page contrast could not have been more clear: Above the fold, the
state of Massachusetts was embracing evacuees from the rooftops over New
Orleans, below the fold it was evicting squatters from underneath the
bridges of Boston.
Compassion for the homeless sure has a short, selective shelf life in these
parts. We are back in Ronald Reagan country, reserving our empathy for the
''deserving poor" and the ''truly needy."
When does the clock start ticking for the victims of Hurricane Katrina? When
the complimentary ''Welcome to Cape Cod" beach pails packed with
travel-sized toiletries are empty? When it becomes clear that the needs of
the traumatized extend beyond a warm meal, a clean cot, and a change of
clothes? When an angry or disheartened guest at Camp Edwards has too much to
drink and picks a fight?
Will Governor Mitt Romney decide then that the displaced are not getting
''back up on their feet" fast enough, that they are starting to look a
little too much like our own homegrown poor? As the putative candidate for
the 2008 Republican presidential nomination so memorably explained to my
colleague, Brian McGrory, the difference between helping Hurricane Katrina's
victims and the more than 600,000 people who live in poverty in
Massachusetts is the difference between providing temporary charity and
encouraging ''a permanent lifestyle of dependency."
So, when will Camp Edwards begin to look too permanent to the governor,
whose budget priorities lean more toward tax cuts than social services? When
sandals give way to snow boots? When some Louisianans decide to stay on Cape
Cod, a spit of sand with even fewer units of affordable housing than
Even before the exhausted evacuees deplaned at Otis Air National Guard Base,
the purveyors of poison on talk radio were stirring the pot. Howie Carr
wanted to know whether crack dealers would be accepting the debit cards
issued to evacuees by disaster relief workers. Jay Severin wanted to know
how long Cape Cod's academically accomplished children -- read that white
and middle class -- would have to share classroom space with less capable
students from what he called ''a very different inner-city culture" -- read
that black and poor.
The vitriolic callers who chimed in with comparable complaints are the
counterpoint to the generous volunteers who rushed to the Cape to offer
their time and their care to victims of the worst natural disaster in
It is worth remembering that the munificence for which the American people
are well known is of a particular type. We write individual checks for
famine relief in response to heart-wrenching pictures of starving children
in sub-Saharan Africa but we tolerate a government with an annual foreign
aid appropriation that is the smallest percentage of gross domestic product
of all industrial democracies.
We prefer our victims blameless and grateful. Our empathy does not extend to
the airlifted alcoholic or sex offender who reminds us too much of the local
panhandler who sleeps under the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge. We infuse the
trash bags that hold the salvaged belongings of Louisianans with the valor
of survival; we dispatch the State Police to clear away the paltry, devalued
possessions of the homeless encamped under the bridge.
It had to be done, says City Councilor Michael Ross; when these people get
drunk and rowdy, they urinate in public; they commit sexual assaults. Some
of the complaints came from local college students, afraid to venture near
the bridge or the underpass at Charlesgate East. He did not say whether they
have a similar, well-placed aversion to the campus football game, fraternity
gathering, and competitive games of Bombed or Beer Pong that sometimes
produce the same results.
No one knows when the hurricane evacuees might be able to return to
Louisiana. No such mystery surrounds the homeless displaced from their
encampment under the Mass. Ave. bridge. They were back setting up
housekeeping less than 24 hours after the sweep.
Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at