If all politics is local, then surely all government is personal.
So, forgive us for being less than optimistic about throwing more than 600 new police officers at the city’s crime problems. We’re just waiting to see if the MPD can make the homeless guys quit sleeping on our front stoop and defecating on our front steps.
When we hear the call for more officers, we can’t resist asking ourselves, if the police can’t do anything about the homeless all over downtown, why in God’s name should we have any degree of confidence that it can tackle the really tough problems?
We admit that our cynicism springs from years of failure to get anything substantive done on this problem. And yet, hope springs eternal.
Under Foot And In Our Faces
In the past, complaints about the vagrants under foot and in our faces have been greeted frequently by shrugs from downtown and by new posters from the Center City Commission blaming the victim. Three weeks ago, City Council members Rickey Peete and Carol Chumney were notified about the latest problems, and Councilman Peete alerted the inspector over the downtown precinct to the problem.
And yet, this past weekend, residents in the historic and heavily foot-traveled block of Union Avenue between Front and Riverside were once again welcomed by three homeless men sleeping on the sidewalk, which apparently doubles as a bedroom and a bathroom.
While we had become somewhat (underline somewhat) accustomed to the urine smell that wafts into the office in the summer when the homeless take up residence in the alley behind our building, the sense that they can do whatever they want is evidenced in their faces and in their feces on the sidewalk that’s frequented all day by visitors walking to enjoy the panoramic views of the river. All in all, panhandlers have plied their trade with such impunity for so long that they feel invincible. They’re so brassy they’ll even hassle tourists with policemen in sight.
The Blame Game
Over the years, we’ve heard a litany of why nothing can be done – City Council permits for panhandling, downtown churches whose programs are magnets for vagrants, lackadaisical attitudes in Divisions 1-3 of our courts, a general lack of interest by MPD commanders, and on and on.
So, here’s the hopeful news. This past weekend’s call to the police department provoked the appearance of Officer Michael Berg, a member of the new Quality of Life Task Force at MPD. In several years of battling this aggravating problem, we’ve never met anyone in city blues who seemed as committed to actually solving the problem.
To top it off, the next day, Lt. Shemwell, his supervisor, also came by to follow up. More than anything, the purpose of his visit seemed to be to spread the message that there’s a new imperative to dealing with this problem at the police department. He updated us on the task force’s plans and said the officers assembled for the team understand the panhandlers’ impact to the quality of life for downtown residents and quality of the experience for downtown visitors.
Bad Gets Worse
In our various conversations with police officers this year, we’ve been told that downtown precinct officers believe that as many as 95 percent of the car windows smashed in the summer are done by panhandlers (who according to a recent analysis earn about $8 an hour). The problem has intensified this year as the behavior seems to have become more disruptive with some men breaking into cars as they leave church feeding sites and in attacks by a few delusional members of the group of people coming out of downtown buildings.
All in all, the task force is a good sign. Hopefully, it’s not just the result of a public relations plan, but intended to deal with a problem that gets more out of hand with each passing year. Officer Berg and Lt. Shemwell were convincing in their commitment, but ultimately, they will need the support of higher ups, and it’s no secret this has been a problem in the past.
In the meantime, we’re hedging our bets, circulating a memo asking people to photograph offenders and offending behavior, to call 545-COPS for an officer to be dispatched immediately and to leave a message at the downtown precinct at 525-9800.
Just Say Yes
The price of indifference is steep. It produces a downtown made inhospitable to residents, workers and tourists. We tried to be philosophical this year, but it’s just too hard when the problem takes up residence on the front steps.
So, don’t tell us in the posters canvassing our neighborhood that we should “say yes to charities that help the homeless and the needy.” We say yes to the charities but we also say yes to dealing the problem where it exists, in the alleys and sidewalks all over downtown.
The FAQs on the Center City Commission website clarifies behavior that is illegal. It is when profanity or abusive language is used to ask for money or in response to a refusal for money; it is illegal when done in a group of two or more people; it is illegal when it is perceived as a threat; it is illegal when done in a way that is intimidating or obstructs walkers or cars; it is illegal to assault someone or touch them while begging; and it is illegal to use false or misleading solicitations. There’s nothing mentioned about feces, but we assume that’s at least a health department violation.
So Why Can’t We?
Other cities are making progress with this issue — the Nashville police chief makes the battle against panhandling a priority for his force; Cincinnati conducts a quarterly census, passes laws against panhandling and removes camp sites; and other cities actively addressing this public nuisance include Little Rock, Atlanta, Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami Beach and Las Vegas.
The key in those cities’ success has been the buy-in by police departments which enforce the law and downtown development agencies that push for tougher enforcement.
In truth, this is a problem that we ought to be able to solve. The hard-core panhandlers downtown probably number about 100 people on the worst day. It just seems like more.
As for us, we’ll do whatever we can to help the homeless, but we would settle right now to get them off the front steps. If MPD can do this, maybe then we’ll have more confidence in its ability to do something to cut the climbing crime rate.