Portland has joined cities across the nation in starting a citywide initiative with the stated goal of ending homelessness. Whether such a goal is realistic is up for debate, but who can deny that this initiative is founded on good intentions?
Yet, when we really take a look at the policies put forward under many of these initiatives, questions arise. Many of the laws pushed for in these initiatives don’t seem to help the homeless at all, and in fact hurt them in many ways.
It has become increasingly clear that cities are using initiatives like this in order to systematically remove the homeless from the public eye, all in the name of public safety and compassion. Portland has simply joined a long list of cities that have passed laws to make the homeless less visible and more easy to ignore.
Take the city of Philadelphia, for example. In his campaign to end homelessness, Mayor Michael Nutter announced a plan to limit donations of food from private charities to the poor, in the name of public safety.
Apparently, the mayor was worried that charities were giving out food in unsanitary conditions. The plan required all such charities to receive licenses, and prevented them from working in most parts of the city. The result was that these charities were unable to reach out to large portions of the city’s homeless population that they had previously been able to help.
Mayor Nutter’s statement that this was an issue of health and safety is tenuous at best. I can find no examples of any harm or illness caused by the food programs of various charities in Philadelphia, and Mayor Nutter offers no convincing evidence that such instances have taken place. There is simply no proof that the conditions in which these foods are prepared and delivered are unsanitary. It seems unlikely that this law is truly motivated out of a concern for public health.
The real motivation of Mayor Nutter is to move the homeless out of the public eye into a much less visible part of Philadelphia. Most of these charities operate out of the many public parks and spaces in the city, so the homeless tend to congregate in these highly visible areas. The mayor isn’t trying to alleviate the homeless situation; he’s trying to make it easier to ignore.
And now similar incentives are at work in Portland, where a new ordinance banning panhandling in street medians has taken effect. Like the law in Philadelphia, City Councilors have argued that this ordinance is about health and safety. City officials claim that the presence of panhandlers on the medians present a danger to themselves and to motorists. And yet, there is no evidence that any injuries have taken place due to panhandling on the medians. So what is the real motivation behind this ordinance?
Our city officials see the homeless as a blight on our beautiful city. Driving through the streets of Portland, one is faced with panhandlers on many medians, seeking aid. For a city whose economy is largely based on tourism, it hurts to have the ugly truth of homelessness so visible. The goal of Mayor Michael Brennan and his cronies is not to help the homeless, but to move them away from the most visible parts of our city. Although they’ll swear to the end that it will somehow help the homeless, the purpose of the ordinance is to make it easier for the people of Portland to forget about the homeless among us.
This ordinance and others like it constitute a war on the homeless, as cities across the country attempt to systematically remove the homeless from the public eye.
Nathaniel James Strout is a lifelong Portland resident, who attended college near Philadephia. He blogs about Maine politics from the libertarian perspective at thelibertylobster.com.