' Marianne M. Jennings
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Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 1999/ 5 Teves, 5760

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Drop-kicking the homeless

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- PARIS DRAKE, A HOMELESS MAN of the streets of New York, struck Nicole Barrett in the head with a brick in what the New York Times called a "random attack," as if to distinguish the more harmful premeditated brick lay-up.

Ms. Barrett recuperates in Bellevue Hospital from brain surgery, facing a speech impediment and other neurological damage. The rest of New York has divided itself along the homeless chasm: the compassionate noble led by their anointed Senator Clinton and the troglodytes headed by tough guy mayor Rudy Giuliani. To the former group, the homeless are the pitiful Okies in Grapes of Wrath. To the latter, these are belligerent bums on drugs who need an arrest to break their cycle of street living.

It is difficult to pinpoint when the homeless were romanticized into the pure in heart experiencing temporary setbacks from simple twists of fate. I stopped believing the so-called advocates for the homeless the Christmas they used Mary and Joseph as examples of the homeless wandering the streets of Bethlehem for a place to stay. Mary and Joseph had a lodging problem, not a lack of a home. Joseph was a man actually marrying a woman with child, he had a house in Nazareth and he was traveling to pay taxes rather significant distinctions from today's street dwellers.

Last week, a homeless advocate on Geraldo, whining about the Giuliani arrest of the homeless said, "It's a sad day in this country when someone cannot lay his head down on a street to sleep." Indeed.

There can be no progress on this issue without a reality check. Those who espouse compassion sound like Captain Kangaroo. The folks on the street are not Mr. Green Jeans with cash flow problems from a drought. These are dangerous souls. Mr. Drake, the alleged brick hurler, denies the brick toss vehemently and his Legal Aid Society lawyer accepts the word of his client, a man who punched a barber in 1998, kicked a guard at Rikers last December, has wielded a gun and knife at everyone from deli owners to passers-by, been arrested more than 2 dozen times and spent two decades in the legal system and on the streets of New York, most of it with drug dealers in the Bronx.

The vast majority of the homeless are dangerous because they are mentally ill. In 1955, there were 559,000 inmates in state mental hospitals.

By 1995, that number had dropped to 69,000 due to the development of antipsychotic drugs which moved that era's compassionate to release medicated patients into the community. A higher order required that the dysfunctional be mainstreamed, not cooped up in mental hospitals. The flaw in this post hoc ergo propter hocnotion was that these folks would take their medication.

They don't and the result is a "homeless" population that some estimates put at 90% psychotic. Further, 16% of the prison population is mentally ill with one-half of those being homeless at the time of their arrest. The sociological and psychiatric intellects of the 1950s sentenced the mentally ill to the streets and prison. Falling for the compassion argument on main streaming was a mistake. Falling for it again when the targets of compassion represent a danger to the community is irrational.

Giuliani's policy of arresting those who sleep on the streets and refuse shelter (note the option) is the first step in breaking the cycle of homelessness. His second step of requiring them to work in order to remain in a shelter is progress. Work will require a refresher course. One has to admire the Tinkerbell homeless advocates who envision direct placement into spread sheet training classes as a possibility. You can't drop kick bums from Herald Square to the bond- trading desks at Morgan Stanley. You may have to first walk them through taking medication on a regular basis, pass them through the alarm clock concepts, and help them report to the park to rake leaves for their shelter (judges have stayed this cruel and unusual Giuliani program for now) to build responsibility.

Much is made of the number of women and children among the homeless statistics. One questions the numbers but also the purity of women whose addictions make them comfortable hauling their children around city streets, resistant to arrest and change. These are not Rose of Sharon mothers struggling financially. These mothers make Oliver Twist's existence seem like the good ship Lollipop. Their children deserve foster homes where they will have lives without addictions but with regular food and shelter from responsible adults, something they have not witnessed in their young lives. Paris Drake grew up in a home where there was never a mother or a father and he migrated to the streets. If the cycle is not broken with firm Giuliani steps, the homeless problem is multi-generational.

The "homeless" are not helpless; they are savvy participants in the compassionate food, shelter and crime games that had no end until Giuliani. They most likely have a Tom Joad record. They may have "kil't two fellas." They are at least Artful Dodgers on crack or meth and they come bearing bricks.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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©1999, Marianne M. Jennings