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What to do about vagrants?
[September 3, 2002]

By Nicholas Provenzo

Yesterday, I went for a evening walk along the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. As I made my way, I counted approximately 25-30 vagrants (and yes, I use the term "vagrants" deliberately) passed out on park benches, on steam grates, and rather curiously, piled in front of the offices of the Federal Trade Commission. I thought to myself how would I handle this issue if I were in local government. Here is my brainstorm:

First and foremost, no one has a right to pass out on the property of another. Private property means private property and an owner of property is within his rights to regulate how guests use that property. Like many jurisdictions, I'd enforce a no-loitering law that makes it a crime to loiter without the permission of a property owner.

When a vagrant is arrested for loitering, I'd want the judge hearing the case to determine if the individual is within his senses enough to sustain himself without violating the rights of others.  Panhandling is not a legitimate profession (unless perhaps you own the parcel of land you are panhandling from). Frankly, either a person is mentally capable of sustaining themselves, or they are not.

I envision that this proceeding would be a serious affair. Because most vagrants are either mentally incompetent, addicted to drugs, or have some impairment that impedes their ability to sustain themselves by productive work, it would be critical to determine the exact nature of the vagrant's individual situation.

In the case of the mentally incompetent, I think their violation of the property rights of others compels that they be treated as wards of the state. While they can not be held criminally responsible for their acts, their behavior suggests that they demand a supervised environment, such as a group home, or as appropriate, an asylum. To the degree that they are capable of productive activity, they should be compelled to provide it so as to defray the cost of their maintenance.

In the case of the drug addicted, I think their addition coupled with their violation of the property rights of others again compels that they be treated as wards of the state. I do not think that it is the job of the taxpayer to pay for their drug treatment however. This treatment demands the skills of competent professionals to help guide the recovery of the addict and such treatment does not come without cost. I think the addicts themselves should be held responsible to pay for their own recovery. As a condition of his eventual release, an addict should successfully complete therapy and if done at a government facility, repay the government for it. No one forced him to be an addict and he alone bears the responsibility, both moral and financial, for his recovery.

In the case of those honestly down on their luck, I think they should be held accountable for their acts against the rights of others but that their cases are properly the domain of private charity. Since I'm assuming I would be in government, I expect their would be at least some improvement in the number of wealth-generating opportunities available. Still, their would certainly be cases where people found themselves faced with hard times through no fault of their own (especially in the case of children whose parents are derelict in their responsibilities). That said, I don't think in the history of this country there has ever been a problem finding people who are willing to help others faced with hard times through no fault of their own. If I were a city mayor, I'd have no problem sitting on the board of groups dedicated to providing appropriate assistance to the innocent victims of poverty and I would have no qualms fundraising for such groups. It is not altruism to help the innocent.

I suspect though that there would be at least two groups that would oppose my plan. The first would be those who balk at the cost of institutionalizing the mentally incompetent and drug addicted. I argue that there is a cost any way the problem is handled; the question is where do we pay it? Do we turn our backs on the cost and injustice placed on property holders by the continued presence of vagrants with all their associated ills, or do we treat the matter as it should be treated—a criminal problem with special circumstances? I'd make sure to remind my critics that the rights of property owners are being violated and that the vagrant problem needs to be addressed just like any other criminal problem.

The second group I would expect to oppose my plan would be the so-called "homeless advocates" This group ranges from the people who give a drug-addled bum a dollar and think they are heroes for doing it it, to the professional "homeless" lobby who have made an industry excusing vagrants for their behavior. Since I don't consider vagrancy to be a social problem but a criminal one, it would be interesting to see how this group would receive my plan. The homeless advocates have a lot of inertia behind them, but I don't think it's too hard to convince someone that having a vagrant plop himself on your front lawn without an invitation is somewhat problematic.


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