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Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 1999 /30 Kislev, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Homeless deserve discriminating attention -- NEW YORK -- New York, New York, what a wonderful town. The Bronx is still up and the Bowery's down, but now the streets are clean. Pedestrians say "excuse me'' when they bump into you on the sidewalk. The sense of menace is gone.

Three days of walking the streets of downtown Manhattan and I encountered only four aggressive weirdos, beggars and/or homeless people. One was sleeping in a doorway, another in a cardboard box, one glassy-eyed bum was trying to sell me a small clay bowl he said he had hand-painted himself, and one punch-drunk kook on the subway was throwing his fists in the air against an imaginary foe, maybe protecting us from Mike Tyson.

Dozens of shops and restaurants display "Help Wanted'' signs in the window. Shoppers are everywhere buying Christmas presents and guards at doors of stores, both expensive and cheap, seemed to be enjoying their jobs.

So where are all the innocent homeless? At a rally on Union Square it sounded like they were all in jail. More than 1,000 people gathered to protest Mayor Rudy Giuiliani's sweep of the homeless from the streets. They accused him of abusing civil rights.

But Rudy takes issue. At a press conference in midtown Manhattan, in front of F.A.O. Schwarz, the famous toy store, the mayor accused reporters and opposing politicians of distorting his policies. "So far during the intense effort to try to deal with homelessness, we have approached 1,674 people as of Friday,'' he said. "Only 160 of those people have been arrested. ... So most of the people that are approached by the police who are homeless are taken to shelters, they are taken to hospitals, they are asked to move and they move.''

New York, in contrast to other cities, has guaranteed "a right to shelter'' for everyone for 20 years. No one argues against that. Homeless advocates are nevertheless furious that the mayor now wants to make the homeless work just like welfare recipients have to do, to pay for their bed and board.

Hillary Clinton, who mostly sees the streets from behind her limousine's tinted windows, calls the mayor Scrooge. But as an outsider, she has little personal knowledge of New York's homeless problem or how generous New York is to the homeless. The services are better than in most big cities.

How the homeless are treated will become part of the campaign debate. It's useful for the rest of us, too. About a third of the nation's homeless abuse drugs or booze. A quarter of them suffer from serious mental illness.

The New Yorkers I spoke to have no problem with asking the homeless to work, if they can, but they want the city to train them. Those who suffer addictions or from mental illness are not good candidates for any job.

Twenty-five years ago I edited a magazine for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and we often wrote about the new utopian approach to helping men and women in insane asylums, the current oxymoron to describe state mental institutions. The new policy was called "deinstitutionalization'' a multisyllabic mouthful whose aim was to provide a more humane life for the mentally ill in local communities. The "crazies'' left the hospital on the road to hell that was paved with good intentions.

The civil liberties lawyers supported this freedom. The fiscal bureaucrats wanted to save money spent in round-the-clock residential care. The doctors insisted the new miracle drugs would maintain sanity. Now we know that freedom for someone who can't take care of himself, who can't remember to take his "meds,'' can be dangerous to others as well as to himself, inside or outside a shelter.

Now everybody's looking for a poster boy for the homeless. The liberals want to show how "good'' they are for defending the homeless against having to work. Conservatives want to show everyone homeless criminals can hurt people. They're both right. Some of the homeless are incapable of working and some, such as the man who pushed a young woman in front of a moving subway train, do maim and kill.

But the homeless deserve discriminating attention. There's a lot of difference between the disorderly, the demented and the indigent. Criminals should go to jail. The mentally ill should be sent to a hospital or smaller well-staffed residential centers. The addicted require rehabilitation programs. The rest should work if they can.

No help can be forthcoming without such sorting out. Few people are homeless by choice. The "Help Wanted'' signs reflect many meanings.


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12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate