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Giuliani Gets a Bum Rap
December 7, 1999

By Heather Mac Donald

Hillary Clinton's first salvo as a declared Senate candidate shows her to be firmly wedded to the failed poverty politics of the past. Speaking before a crowd of mostly black clergy last week, Mrs. Clinton ripped into Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's new initiatives on homelessness, accusing him of "criminalizing" poverty and destroying families.

She couldn't have chosen a better issue with which to distinguish herself from Mr. Giuliani. The mayor has announced, heretically, that the able-bodied homeless should help themselves. He wants those shelter residents who can work in exchange for their benefits to do so. He also proposes that street vagrants who refuse the offer of shelter, and who persist in violating laws against blocking public space or harassing pedestrians, should be issued summonses.

New York's homeless advocates, now joined by Mrs. Clinton, have declared war on the mayor, and no wonder: His plans have a good chance of succeeding. Asking the homeless to take responsibility for themselves is a vital first step toward rehabilitation. The majority of the homeless spend their days in the pursuit of drugs or alcohol; regular duties could provide a lifeline out of that morass.

The advocates and Mrs. Clinton, however, need the homeless on the streets-- locked in their addictions and madness--to serve as symbols of society's heartlessness and the need for greater welfare spending. And nothing could be better designed to keep the homeless visible than New York's current homeless regime.

Thanks to nonstop litigation by so-called advocates for the poor, New York City must provide shelter to anyone who demands it--an obligation no other city or state faces. The city has asked nothing in return, not even abstention from violence or drug use.

Yet though the city must furnish housing, the homeless aren't required to use it; they colonize public spaces with impunity. The advocates have built an entire industry that enables the homeless to stay on the streets--several organizations deliver hot meals right to people's cardboard boxes--and they have fought every effort to push the severely mentally ill toward treatment.

The bill for this dependency-enabling machine is nearly $500 million a year. Yet Mrs. Clinton implies that the city is tight-fisted. This argument is a classic; it consists of ignoring existing welfare outlays and pretending that government heartlessly ignores the poor. Thus Mrs. Clinton predictably proposes housing and services for the homeless in a city that already provides more of those goods than anywhere else in the U.S.

It is no surprise that some shelter residents, accustomed to their no-strings-attached entitlement, are balking at Mr. Giuliani's new work rules. "I'd rather be out on the streets if you're going to tell me I've got restrictions on my [welfare] money," said a defiant Michael James, a resident of the Bellevue Men's Shelter, on NBC News several weeks ago.

But the streets should not be an option. Real street vagrants--not the ones who planned to camp out with the Rev. Al Sharpton last night to protest Mr. Giuliani's new policies--lose limbs to gangrene and the cold. They are constantly assaulted and robbed, usually by each other. The homeless are not all the gentle lambs that Mrs. Clinton--who compared them to baby Jesus--and her allies would have us think. Raymond Lawrence, a middle-aged alcoholic recently profiled in the New York Times, was so often beaten and robbed of his shoes by other homeless men that he lost toes on both feet to frostbite. Mrs. Clinton may claim it's compassionate to leave the homeless on the streets; Mr. Giuliani knows better.

Mr. Giuliani's biggest break with traditional poverty politics is in taking the public's interest into account as well. Street disorder puts everyone at risk. Paris Drake, the peripatetic ex-con just arrested for the brutal brick attack in November on a woman walking in midtown Manhattan, thrived in the chaos of New York's panhandlers. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 40% of the homeless are mentally ill, and few take their medication. Add to that untreated condition drug and alcohol abuse, and you have a prescription for violence.

The outreach industry, which tries to coax the homeless off the streets, has a miserable record. One midtown program spent $700,000 one year, yet managed to persuade only 15 people to stay overnight at its drop-in center and only two to accept permanent housing. The city can continue building housing indefinitely, but as long as its intended beneficiaries retain the right to refuse it and stay on the streets, many will.

In attacking Mr. Giuliani, Mrs. Clinton announced that the homeless problem needs a "real leader." We can assume she means someone like herself, someone content to keep the homeless in distress and an army of advocates and social workers in business. But the homeless do not need more government spending; they need, above all, self-discipline and structure. Mr. Giuliani's most dangerous violation of poverty dogma is nothing more than paying the homeless the basic courtesy of believing they can better themselves.

©1999 The Wall Street Journal

About Heather Mac Donald: articles, bio, and photo

 

 


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