Editorial: What next for city’s homeless?
The anti-panhandling ordinance enacted by the city council last week offers no answers to the problem of homelessness in Concord. The ordinance doesn’t even provide an answer to the problem of panhandling itself – and yet when it passed unanimously, it drew praise from all sides.
Rightly so. In fact, the careful, respectful interaction that brought about the ordinance shows the best way forward on the pressing questions presented by homelessness in the city this summer and the need for a comprehensive, longer-term approach.
The ordinance was drafted in response to legitimate concerns about panhandling outside plazas, along sidewalks and at intersections. Like some panhandlers, the first draft was too aggressive. The second draft was too broad. The third focused on specific behavior: forbidding anyone from exchanging items with people in cars on roads. It’s clear, it’s enforceable, it passed – and we hope it will send a broader message that leads to an overall decline in panhandling.
The ordinance won’t end the practice, though. It doesn’t prohibit anyone from standing on a sidewalk and holding a sign asking for money, and it shouldn’t. Whether that person is a panhandler, a political activist or a young athlete raising money at a team car wash, this is a matter of free speech. Nor, of course, can any ordinance alleviate the very real needs that drive some to beg for money.
So where to go from here?
City officials – from Mayor Jim Bouley to Police Chief John Duval to other members of the city council and administration – must persist in what has been a responsible approach to homelessness and the problems associated with it. Concord’s generosity – think of the Friendly Kitchen and the hundreds of volunteers who prepare the meals it serves – has likely led to an increase in the homeless population here. The state has failed to provide the support the city and others like it need, which, sadly, is just one failure among many.
But the sense of decency that characterizes Concord at its best must not flag in the face of these realities. The city, nonprofits and churches should consider placing and servicing port-a-potties and dumpsters near the latest places where clusters of homeless people have pitched their tents. Unless property owners object, the police should continue to leave those who abide by the law alone in their shelters. Whether the state steps up or not, in terms of supporting a supervised daytime center or the like, city leaders must do just that: lead.
In their drive to fight for the interests of the homeless, advocates must not lose sight of the need to work constructively toward compromises that balance everyone’s interests. Nor should they gloss over the problems that some homeless people inflict upon themselves or others, from alcohol and drug abuse to threatening and violent behavior. To do so will undermine the political support required to bring about change.
Lastly, we all need to resist the temptation to cast a blanket of judgment over the homeless, who are diverse in their capabilities, plights and character, as any population would be. What’s more, no one should demand or expect an easy, rapid or tidy resolution to homelessness. It is a condition as old as civilization itself – and how we respond to it here and now will be one measure of the community in which we live.