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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 ringleader.
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