Friday, October 24, 2008

Consult your conscience, not the law

The city of Colorado Springs has suspended its cleanup sweeps of homeless camps in order to “study the law” on their legality, according to a report in this morning’s Gazette. But do city officials really need to study the law, searching for technicalities, on an issue that’s really about “right” and “wrong”?

Colorado Springs will suspend publicly financed cleanups of homeless camps until the city can clarify legal and ethical issues surrounding the monthly sweeps, Mayor Lionel Rivera and other city leaders said Thursday.

Part of what's at issue: whether the city has the right to remove blankets, sleeping bags and
other belongings the homeless keep on public lands - and whether it's appropriate to exercise that right.

Even if the city is technically within its rights to confiscate and dispose of the property of the homeless, in its drive to beautify Colorado Springs, we all know that stealing from people, that confiscating their property, is wrong, even if they happen to be unattached to a mailing address and living under a bridge. People don’t surrender their property rights or other civil liberties when they take to the streets. And it’s doubly inhumane to snatch and destroy the few possessions they carry around with them, when they have so little else to cling to.

That the injustice of this situation didn’t dawn on city officials until the media began reporting on it, sparked by a Barry Noreen column in The Gazette -- kudos to Barry on that one -- and before the city was threatened with a civil rights lawsuit, shows a glaring blind spot on someone’s part.

That these injustices were done in the name of doing “good,” by a group that tasks itself with beautifying and cleaning-up Colorado Springs, shouldn’t be a surprise. Do-gooders frequently can also do ill, because they're so convinced that they’re doing the right thing that they don’t stop to question whether someone is being wronged in the process.

"If anything we do violates any laws, we welcome a court test to determine what should be done instead," Deborah Cunningham, executive director of Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful, told the Gazette. But do we really need a “court test” to come up with a better course of action – one that maintains public safety while also protecting the rights of the homeless? Do we really need a court order or judge to tell us how to proceed, or can we figure this out for ourselves?

Colorado Springs doesn’t need to study the law on this one. It needs to consult its conscience. And it appears that this process is underway, even if belatedly.


Anonymous said...

To what extent do you think these people are living on public property by choice? Would you have a different opinion if they were on private property? Would you have a different opinion if they were on public property near your house? I think the vast majority of "homeless" people choose to live the way they are rather than follow the rules that the rest of us do (get a job, show up at the job, pay your bills, etc.). If they are so incompetent that they can't care for themselves, then we need to care for them properly and not let them fall through the cracks. (Maybe get them jobs at investment banks.) Either way, I don't think people should be living in these conditions.

Sean Paige said...

That you for your post, anonymous. No one likes to see people living in the streets, either by necessity or choice, and I have no pat answer for how to solve that problem. Many of these people probably belong in institutions, where they can be cared for, but in the 1970s and 1980s we began de-institutionalizing people in a bow to civil libertarians, who argued that holding them against their will was unjust and unconstitutional. That's another example of do-gooders inadvertently doing people harm.

The point of the post is that the city doesn't have the right to take their property, what little they have, just because they are living under a bridge. Respecting those rights won't solve the homeless problem -- but it will help ensure that these poor souls aren't victimized at taxpayer expense.