copyright 1997 Bob Darby
On Labor Day I met City Councilmember
Vern McCarty at a picnic, and when he asked for my vote, I said
no. As he walked away, I told him that the Urban Camping Ordinance
he helped pass persecutes the homeless. McCarty turned around
and announced that as a former Presbyterian Minister, he was
sure that this Ordinance fights crime and does not hurt homeless
people. After all, he said, the Ordinance targets only a few
"homeless profile" people who are conspicuously inclined
to rest and sleep in public parks; such outlaws are clearly
unworthy of the Reverend Vern McCarty's Christian love. When
"urban campers" recline in a park, to sleep or to rest,
Vern's Ordinance makes them criminals; and when these same "campers"
do no more than place their backpacks beside them on the ground,
they are "storing personal property," and that's a
crime, too. Taking such liberties as these can put a "camper"
in jail for up to a year.
Meanwhile, "leisure profile" people lie
down, sleep, and "store" their expensive toys in public
parks all over Atlanta. Not one of these has ever been arrested
for violating the Urban Camping Ordinance, although they are
doing exactly the same things for which "homeless profile"
people are jailed every day. Former Preacher Vern McCarty's
use of the term "homeless profile" trades human dignity
for a cynical psychologist's stereotype; and to call this mean
little law the "Urban Camping Ordinance" trivializes
the desperate suffering of totally destitute people who are forced
to hide to lay down their heads and sleep. (Matthew 8: 20).
Homeless people are not the deadbeats and criminals the
City Council would have us believe. Many work full-time for
labor pools, making only minimum wage; others earn a little
more, but it is almost impossible to afford Atlanta rents while
making six dollars an hour or less. Substantially raising the
minimum wage is a necessary step towards eliminating homelessness,
and lack of affordable housing is universally agreed to be the
single greatest cause for homelessness. But paying minimum
wage workers liveable wages might mean that maximum income people
could afford only one Mercedes in their garages instead of two.
Many of the homeless are unable to work because of injuries
or illness. Viet Nam and Persian Gulf War veterans, victims
of AIDS and other diseases, the deinstitutionalized mentally
ill, and those with addictive diseases: these are the homeless
throwaway people. Poorly funded and overcrowded mental hospitals
routinely dump their overflow patients directly only the streets;
and as many as a million mentally ill people are homeless because
helping them costs too much. The homeless mentally ill are hounded
by the police to jail, back to the mental hospitals, and finally
back to the streets again. Too sick to find shelter or food,
they often freeze, starve, or die at the hands of street criminals;
and homeless people who are addicted to alcohol or illegal drugs
must likewise live under this same threat of death by public
neglect. Our mentally ill and substance-addicted citizens need
expensive medical care and rehabilitation to be rescued, but
since they fit the City Council's shameful "homeless profile,"
about the only treatment they can expect is incarceration. Cops
and jails are cheaper than doctors and hospitals, and besides,
"urban campers" never vote.
Around the clock, thousands of Atlantans find themselves
with no place to sleep. The Task Force for the Homeless estimates
that while there are at least 15,000 homeless in Atlanta, there
are only 3,000 legal shelter beds. The Urban Camping Ordinance
has made it a crime for most of the homeless to sleep anywhere
and anytime in this city. The homeless must sleep somewhere:
if not in the parks, in abandoned buildings, in the woods, or
in broken-down cars. Just imagine the Rev. Vern McCarty making
deals with the money-changers and the High Priest in Jerusalem
at the time of the Last Supper! He and the other hypocrites
(Matthew 23: 27) might have bagged a famous gang of "urban
campers" in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 36-46).
But the cops missed their chance, and nabbed only the homeless
Shame on those who scheme to make the homeless unwelcome
everywhere in Atlanta. Shame on the City Council for pandering
to downtown business interests. And shame on Vern McCarty, the
Preacher turned politician, for choosing selfish ambition over
doing the right thing as an elected public servant for the City
of Atlanta. (Matthew 6: 24).
BOB DARBY is a co-founder of Atlanta Food
Not Bombs, and is a former theological student back