Bad ideas, like horror movies, often seem to have sequels. Laid to rest in Bad Idea I, they pull the stake out of their hearts at the start of Bad Idea II and, as undead as ever, return to terrorizing the living. So with all the theories about homelessness that reason and experience seemed to have put to rest five or six years ago. Now that New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has declared plans to arrest the homeless who break quality-of-life laws and to take away the children of homeless mothers who won't comply with homeless shelter work requirements, homeless advocates, with a supporting cast that includes Senate hopeful Hillary Clinton and professional loudmouth Rosie O'Donnell, are spouting all the theories about homelessness that had seemed to be as discredited as the flat earth theory. Jesus was homeless, the First Lady tells us, with an equally shaky grasp on theology and sociology. The homeless, chime in the advocates, are victims of a cruel economy and society, who need housing, housing, housing. And Rudy Giuliani is just criminalizing misfortune.
We now know beyond a shadow of a doubtas indeed we have known since Andrew Cuomo's surprisingly candid 1992 study for then-mayor David Dinkinsthat at least 80 percent of the single homeless are drug abusers or drunks or both, and at least one third of them (and probably more) suffer from serious mental illness. The drunks and druggies are what we used to call bums, and they need not housingwhich is in this case just a public subsidy to vicebut instead the kind of public disapproval that tells them that this is not the right way to live and that they should get their lives in order. As for the mentally ill, they really are victimsof exactly the same civil-liberties advocates who once pushed for deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and now push for their right to starve and freeze to death on the streets, as if mental illness were a valid form of alternative consciousness, and the mentally ill were a species of flower children. This is cruelty, such as civilized nations generally haven't practiced since the eighteenth century. These homeless need a functioning mental health care system, composed of mandatory treatment laws and institutions like New York's Fountain House or various supported housing programs across the nation, as described by psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey in City Journal's last issue. If you just give them housing, they'll end up like the infamous Billie Boggs, the homeless person who, after the NYCLU cleaned her up and got her a gig speaking at Harvard about the need for housing, housing, housing, ended up raving back on Third Avenue and defecating on the streets once again.
Giuliani's program is only one step toward accomplishing what's needed, of course: it gives a push to the bums to clean up their act and to the mentally ill to seek treatment, or at least shelter. But if the homeless want to keep colonizing public spaces and sleeping on the street, you might ask, what's the harm to anyone but themselves? Part of the answer is Paris Drake, the lowlife who allegedly assaulted Nicole Barrett with a paving stone in November, causing serious brain injury. Some 40 percent of the homeless, like Drake, have criminal records, and some, like Drake, are dangerous. Leaving them undisturbed to panhandle aggressively or do their street hustles gives the message, as the Broken Windows theory of policing has it, that no one is in charge, and it emboldens them to move on to criminality. As for the mentally ill homeless, pretending that some of them are not dangerous results in innocent people being regularly pushed under subways.
But even if these homeless are not physically dangerous, their colonization of public space does harm. Up at the Riverside Drive sandbox where my children used to play, six or seven homeless have been encamped until the Giuliani crackdown, sleeping on the benches, smelling bad, and talking loudly about drugs when they are awake. As two-year-olds toddle toward them, I see parents' faces fill with horror: what kind of antibiotic-resistant strain of TB does this guy have? you can almost see them thinking. City parents, who have no play spaces of their own, need such public spaces, which are in effect their back yards, supported by their taxes. If these places become scary or squalid enough, that can be the last straw that drives such families to the suburbs. And that is how cities die.
New York is the only city on earth with a court-mandated right to shelter. At least by requiring work of those it shelters, the city reasserts the social contract and pushes people toward taking responsibility for their livesincluding the families it shelters, almost entirely welfare mothers and their children. But given the welfare system, what kind of mother can't keep a roof over her child's head and ends up in a shelter? And what kind of mother would refuse to do the work requirement in exchange for that shelter? Is the tiny proportion of mothers too dysfunctional to do that fit to take care of a child? Are you certain Rudy Giuliani's answer is the wrong one?