Commentary: Blocked intersections

A U.S. district court judge’s upholding of Oklahoma City’s anti-panhandling ordinance does not mean it should stay on the books.

click to enlarge Commentary: Blocked intersections
Nazarene Harris

On Dec. 19, U.S. district judge Joe Heaton ruled that Oklahoma City’s anti-panhandling ordinance is constitutional. The ordinance, as it was originally written, was designed to clear medians of individuals asking for money at OKC’s busy intersections, but after receiving pushback from organizations that work with the city’s homeless as well as a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) citing First Amendment rights, the ordinance was recast as a traffic safety measure because who can argue with that?

Certainly not The Oklahoman’s Editorial Board. On New Year’s Eve, the newspaper printed an opinion piece saying that “an Oklahoma City ordinance that outlawed panhandling from traffic medians always passed the common-sense test.”

No, it didn’t “always” pass such a test. It was retrofitted as a public safety issue after people with sufficient brain and heart pointed out that Oklahoma City was effectively trying to hide its homeless problem — or more to the point, hide from it.

The editorial writer went on to try to paint ACLU and other detractors as the truly heartless in this matter: “To shrug off the preventable injury or death of panhandlers is inhumane.”

So I decided to contact the City of Oklahoma City to find out if there were any documented incidents of panhandlers being injured while standing on medians. According to city spokesperson Kristy Yager, police do not identify victims as panhandlers or non-panhandlers when writing incident reports. So any reports of such incidents involving panhandlers are either anecdotal or apocryphal and are being cited to fit your anti-panhandling agenda.

Homelessness has always existed in America, whether it was during the Revolutionary War, when so many men were fighting for independence that the colonies’ agricultural economy largely depended on itinerant laborers to harvest crops; or the post-Civil War “great depression” that impacted former soldiers, who were wounded and often addicted to the opiates given to them during and after amputations. Homelessness became pandemic during the 1930s Great Depression, during which an estimated 1 in 20 Americans were homeless and many lived in shantytowns that were dubbed “Hoovervilles” because of the economic calamity that took place under the policies of President Herbert Hoover.

His successor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presided over the creation of the social safety net that kept so many people from slipping through society’s cracks. No system is ever perfect, but Roosevelt took us out of centuries in which society’s poorest were put in workhouses, resorted to crime or simply starved.

But in the 1980s, as President Ronald Reagan took office, society and government’s attitudes toward the homeless population took a hard turn. Still dealing with the post-Vietnam recession that caused interest rates to skyrocket, Reagan slashed government programs across the board, including programs benefitting the homeless. During his time in office, Reagan slashed the budget for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by 60 percent. Within that budget, monies set aside for subsidized housing were eviscerated by about 70 percent. Reagan suggested that churches and synagogues carry the burden that was sloughed off by the federal government, which is about as Marie Antoinette as one can get without the powdered wig and hoop skirt.

Yet Reagan appeared to have no self-awareness when it came to the role his administration had in the ballooning of the country’s homeless population. Two days before Christmas 1988, as he prepared for his final month in office, Reagan told ABC’s David Brinkley that homeless people were homeless by choice.

“They make it their own choice for staying out there,” Reagan said. “There are shelters in virtually every city, and shelters here, and those people still prefer out there on the grates or the lawn to going into one of those shelters.”

That was fundamentally false. That following year, I volunteered with the Salvation Army in San Francisco to help rescue elderly residents who were trapped in high-rise retirement homes after the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In addition, I helped serve hot lunches to people who were displaced by the 6.9 magnitude quake, and I quickly came to understand that a great number of them were homeless. We were told that shelters were packed before the earthquake and were stretched to point of breaking afterward.

No one wants to live that way. No one does it by choice. If you are a rugged individualist who prefers the open air, you become a forest ranger, not a sentient, entirely in-control individual who chooses to sleep on a grate of her or his own accord.

The Reagan solution of kicking the can down the road to the church steps far outlasted him. People who insist that Rudy Giuliani has gone completely bonkers in the Trump era suffer from blinkered recollection or short-term memory loss. In 1999, after two cases that year in which two people were attacked by former mental patients living on the street, Giuliani went into full fire-breather mode and suggested locking up the homeless.

‘’Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there,’’ said “America’s Mayor” during his weekly radio call-in show on Nov. 19, 1999. “Bedrooms are for sleeping.”

He was also quoted in The New York Times saying that the right to sleep on sidewalks “doesn’t exist anywhere” and “The founding fathers never put that in the Constitution.”

They did, however, put in the Foreign Emoluments Clause, but that does not seem to matter to Giuliani, who I guess is a strict constructionist except when he is not.

Not all people who panhandle are homeless, and not all homeless people panhandle. But the recently upheld Oklahoma City ordinance against panhandling disproportionately affects the city’s homeless or marginalized population. It is, at its heart, descended from a Giulianian notion that people society has not welcomed or provided help to should not be seen by the rest of us. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fortunately, Mayor David Holt is looking at facilities for Oklahoma City’s homeless population as a possible component of the upcoming Metropolitan Area Projects 4 (MAPS 4). As development continues on the west side of downtown, the homeless in that area are being pushed farther away from the important organizations that offer them support in that neighborhood. This would exceed the Oklahoma Standard that we, as a society, don’t always strive for as much as our reputation would suggest.

Beyond that, before the ACLU takes this case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Oklahoma City should vacate the ordinance and help the people in greatest need rather than trying to hide them.

George Lang is editor-in-chief of Oklahoma Gazette and began his career at Gazette in 1994. He is married to Laura Lang, which greatly improves his likeability. | Photo Nazarene Harris

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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