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
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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