The New Callousness

Coalition on Homelessness, SF (
Mon, 27 Dec 1999 13:03:39 -0800

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The New Callousness
November 29, 1999
Arianna Huffington (with a forum for discussion)

Judge Judy, the doyenne of syndicated self-righteousness, solidified that
preeminence two weeks ago at a literary luncheon in Brisbane, Australia. On
tour to promote her new book, ``Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever,'' she
suggested that instead of attempting to control AIDS and hepatitis by
providing clean needles to drug addicts we should ``give them all dirty
needles and let them die.''

Instead of resulting in universal derision (and, even more justly, a
lightning bolt from the sky) this stunning proposal evoked cheers from her
fans in the audience. But it got not a mention from the U.S. press (indeed,
if it weren't for the people at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, I never
would have heard about it). Granted, Judge Judy isn't William Rehnquist,
but the sharp-tongued, dull-witted jurist's opinions -- doled out on her
top-rated TV show -- are heard by millions more people than the Chief

Worse, her views reflect a disturbing trend in our culture toward getting
the ``love'' out of tough love. Call it the New Callousness: turning an
indifferent shoulder to anyone -- drug addicts, the homeless, those behind
bars -- who hasn't had the good sense to become a bull-market rider. After
all, they're getting in the way of the Panglossian message that all is well
``in this best of all possible worlds.''

Evidence of this cold spot on the national heart is all around us. In New
York, Mayor Rudy (rhymes with Judge Judy) rang in the holiday season by
ordering the NYPD to step up its efforts to sweep the city's streets of
homeless people by arresting them for so-called ``quality-of-life'' crimes.
Declaring that the city has not been strict enough in rousting people ``who
don't belong there,'' Giuliani claimed that the right to sleep on the
streets ``doesn't exist anywhere. The founding fathers never put that in
the Constitution.'' He doesn't seem too keen on the homeless living in city
shelters either: He recently announced that anyone wanting to stay in one
would have to work or face expulsion -- mental illness or not.

Apparently, he prefers sending them to jail, where mental-health-unit beds
cost $91,000 annually. It costs $20,000 for a bed in a shelter and $12,000
for the supervised apartments that remain woefully underfunded, even though
they have proven the most effective in dealing with chronic homelessness.
``There were times,'' Mayor Rudy said, ``in which we romanticized this to
such an extent that we invited people to do it.'' Ah, yes, the romance of
sleeping under the stars in a cardboard box in the dead of winter.

Proving that heartlessness cuts across party lines, Willie Brown, San
Francisco's liberal mayor, is overseeing his own crackdown on the homeless
-- just in time for his upcoming runoff election against even-more-liberal
rival Tom Ammiano. Brown is clearly reveling in this rare chance to stake
out the ``conservative'' position in the race -- going so far as to arrest
homeless advocates for handing out soup and sandwiches to the poor.
``Advocate types claim I'm the most hostile'' to the homeless, said Brown.
``That's not true. I'm not the most generous. I'm not the most hostile. But
I am the most firm.'' Call Tony Bennett, it's time for a rewrite: ``I lost
my heart in San Francisco.''

In fact, more and more of our cities are using the police to enforce arcane
laws -- such as sanitation statutes that make it illegal to leave cardboard
boxes in a public place -- to get the homeless off the streets, including
many homeless veterans who risked their lives for their country.

In Los Angeles, Ted Hayes, who has devoted his life to working with the
homeless, calls the coast-to-coast crackdown ``status cleansing.'' ``For us
to turn to outlawing our homeless citizens,'' he told me, ``is a betrayal
of the promise of America -- `Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to
me.' Perhaps the Statue of Liberty should be turned around to face this

Transforming human beings into nuisances -- problems that must be
eradicated -- is a dangerous step along the deadly path of dehumanization.
It takes very little to end a life that has been stripped of its humanity.
Which is exactly what is happening in Denver, where this fall seven
homeless men have been bludgeoned to death, two of the victims beheaded.

Is this the logical endgame for a culture so intent on celebrating its
``winners'' that it has no room left for life's losers?


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