[Hpn] SFGate: Belittling homeless degrades everyone

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Sunday, December 2, 2007 (SF Chronicle)
Belittling homeless degrades everyone
Alan Lew


   For as long as any can remember, San Francisco's response to the crisis of
homelessness has been characterized by a pervasive futility.
   Futility is what happens when we live by a delusion. Futility is the
product of an irrational and misdirected rage.
   For many years, the homeless have been the object of such rage in this
city - a rage one can clearly discern in many of the recent Chronicle
articles on the homeless. Not surprisingly, the policies born of this rage
- the "quality of life" ordinances enacted by the city and enforced by the
police - have been utterly futile.
   When we see the homeless on the streets of our city, failing and
vulnerable, we see our own failure and our own vulnerability, our own
guilt for failing to care for them.
   These are things we don't want to see. These are things that frighten and
shame us. So what do we do?
   We strike out at the victims.
   We call them names.
   We decry them for defecating in the streets and leaving needles in the
park, without bothering to ask ourselves what public policies brought them
to such a degraded position.
   And having properly demonized them in this way, we try desperately to get
rid of them, to get them out of sight.
   But because these impulses are so unconscious and so irrational, the
political initiatives they spawn invariably fail.
   Certainly the evidence of the past 14 years would suggest that the
aggressive enforcement of these "quality of life" ordinances has not only
been spiritually and morally futile, but a practical futility as well.
   San Francisco has just spent $7.8 million of taxpayers' money to issue
more than 46,000 citations to homeless people, in spite of the fact that
roughly 80 percent of all "quality of life" citations are eventually
dismissed.
   Why submit the homeless or the taxpayers to this degrading and wasteful
charade? Why should police officers waste their time issuing these
citations in the first place? Violent crimes are on the rise in San
Francisco, while our city is suffering a severe shortage of police
officers.
   Nevertheless, we continue to direct the police to issue thousands of
citations to the homeless for sleeping and excreting in public when they
have no place else to do these things.
   But above all, this policy of citing and arresting homeless people is a
spiritual catastrophe. We human beings are the bearers of the sacred -
each of us carries the image of the Divine with us into this world - and
when we strike out at the poor and try to drive them from the streets of
our city, when we call them names and represent them to ourselves as less
than human, when we cite and arrest them by the tens of thousands for
merely trying to exist, when we send police instead of caregivers, when we
enact and enforce policies that serve only to punish and harass the
innocent victims of our neglect, we drive the sacred from our city as
well, and this is something we simply can't afford to do. The spiritual
impoverishment we live in is great enough already.
   These policies are morally wrong, and spiritually disastrous, and like all
policies based on delusion and rage, they are futile - a great vanity, a
striving after the wind. They have never worked, and they never will.
   We know very well what will work: more housing, more public mental health
and substance abuse centers, more job training programs.
   Until we develop the public will to pay for these things (and yes, it will
mean higher taxes), the problem of homelessness will be with us with all
its disturbing effects. Harassing the victims and calling them names won't
solve anything. It will only serve to degrade them - and us.

   Rabbi Alan Lew is the founding director of Makor Or, a center for Jewish
meditation. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2007 SF Chronicle