Wednesday, October 04, 2006

We've Had Enough Of This Homeless Crap, Literally

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.

28 comments:

LeftWingCracker said...

OK then.

When the MPD is understaffed and fighting a losing war against gangbangers, crack dealers and users who rob people in order to get money for crack, this reads like whining for those of us who do not live downtown.

I do sympathize with the problem, I too have run into panhandlers who tried to become aggressive, and I don't mean to suggest that it's not a problem. No one wants alcoholics sleeping and crapping on one's front porch.

The fact remains is that we HAVE homeless, and it is going to be more of a problem than just shuffling them off to Midtown or East Memphis.

Given that MPD is underfunded and understaffed (and has gone through more directors that Spinal Tap has drummers), what are they supposed to do?

Who has the plan for alleviating the problem? THAT's what I want to see, because I realize that it's not a face anyone wants to see when they come to Memphis to visit, or if they live downtown.

It's just hard for people who don't live downtown, who face more daunting issues, to worry about drunks sleeping on Main Street.

Rant over; I await your response.

Smart City Consulting said...

leftwingcracker:

First, you've got to accept the argument that crime rates here result from MPD being understaffed. We have suspicions that it results more because the force is demoralized, unmotivated and poorly deployed.

And we see a direct correlation between the inability to deal with vagrants and everything else. It's a symptom of an under-performing city that it can't handle the issues that erode its quality of life. At the end of the day, we need to quit with the excuses and acknowledge that other cities, notably Mayor Franklin in Atlanta, seem perfectly capable of balancing multiple priorities at multiple levels, including ridding their cities of aggressive panhandling and vagrants.

And keep in mind the homeless (and as we have said the homeless and the vagrants are not synonymous) are not given a roadmap and only stay downtown. Try visiting Orange Mound around midnight and you'll find the same issue there.

We just refuse give excuses for somehow justifying the presence of vagrants that are undermining our quality of life and quality of place, and as cities who have cut their crime rate have shown, the battle almost always begins with these kinds of enforcement. The dots are easily connected, and these quality of life crimes are, if anything, a symptom of a disfunctioning law enforcement effort.

The problem is not simply that we have homeless. The problem is that we have a well-founded reputation for allowing them free rein of the city. That's why the numbers swell with the coming of warm weather every year, and why in a couple of weeks, they will travel to other climes. They come here because it's no secret that there is no real enforcement. Do you think that's also possibly why we have a flagrant crack trade, audacious gangbangers, etc? They've gotten the same message.

If there's any interest, we'd be glad to summarize the successful programs that have been undertaken in other cities that have largely resolved this problem.

It's awfully simplistic to act like this somehow is a downtown problem, because it isn't. And if it's not problematic, we'll send them to your front yard instead of ours. It's just endemic of all that's wrong in crime prevention in Memphis right now.

But as we said, the quality of life task force is a step in the right direction and clearly the officers on that force "get" it.

Smart City Consulting said...

One last thing: We know that your comment: "It's just hard for people who don't live downtown, who face more daunting issues, to worry about drunks sleeping on Main Street," wasn't meant to suggest that somehow all the folks downtown are fat cats. The owner of this business proudly moved downtown and reared her daughter here 25 years ago when there were probably 150 residents total. As a result, this opinion on the homeless is reached within a large frame of experience and personal equity.

LeftWingCracker said...

And I'm not suggesting that I live in the ghetto, either, but I can see it from here!

OK, if there is a problem in enforcement, why do you think that MPD is ignoring this situation? Given that Downtown has always been a priority for Mayor Herenton (one of the few things for which I can salute him), why has the MPD fallen down on the job?

What steps can be taken to get them to crack down?

Anonymous said...

The solution: Debtor prisons for all the poor. Yep, we have taken a trip back in time to the 16th century where being poor is a crime. Please understand that you are criminalizing a structural economic problem of our society. A sad thing for otherwise progressive folks to be doing. I guess this is but another example of the overwhelming ideological move to the ultra right which has taken place in the country over the past two decades.

Smart City Consulting said...

Attacking this problem, as shown in the cities that have succeeded with it, is about 1) ensuring that there are shelters for the homeless where they can be protected (after all, keep in mind that they too fall prey to some of the egregious street behavior) and treated if there are any complications from addictions, and 2) ensuring that law enforcement and social service workers get the homeless to these shelters and services. That's what's working in places like Philadelphia and why it can work here. The social service agencies are doing their jobs, but they need help in enforcement. The threadbare argument about debtors' prison is a distraction from the debate about real answers. The courts have largely ruled that homeless do have a right to sleep in public space, but only if there are no other options available. There are options available, and these are options that serve the needs of the homeless as well as responding to the concerns of folks like us who see the negative results.

Smart City Consulting said...

leftwingcracker: That's a question for the ages, and it's up there with, why doesn't the police fingerprint your stolen car after it's recovered? In not doing the simple things, MPD sends the message that does indeed encourage more of the behavior they are paid to prevent.

Anonymous said...

Just an FYI - the MPD does not have the manpower to fingerprint every stolen car in this city and besides if you have ever had anything fingerprinted you would know that that stuff does NOT come off. I know I do not want that black stuff on my leather seats or dash. It has nothing to do with the MPD not WANTING to do something but in the grand scheme of things when you have a limited number of people you have to decide which is more important -fingerprinting a crime scene at a homicide or a stolen car? The personal crime will win out over a property crime every time.

As to the homeless - there are plenty of shelters but the problem is the homeless don't want to play by the rules set by those shelters and so they choose to hang out on your doorstep or mine instead.

Smart City Consulting said...

It's just more than passing strange that other cities are able to do all of these things that we rationalize away here. How about giving me the choice of whether I'd like the fingerprints taken. We've paid for millions of dollars worth of fingerprinting technology, and we're missing a bet. In other cities, they've been able to track down the small percentage of people responsible for the large number of car thefts and significantly reduce the incidence of the crimes. As the car theft capital of the western world, this would go a long way in increasing public confidence that something can be done to affect crime.

Anonymous said...

I would love to know what those other cities are able to do and how their manpower, calls for service and crime rate stacks up to Memphis - care to share your list of cities?

As to having a choice - you can always request to have fingerprints taken - and if the officer refuses request to speak to a supervisor.

Smart City Consulting said...

Been there, done that. Three separate times of my car being stolen. They said they don't fingerprint cars. Pittsburgh and Seattle come quickly to mind.

Anonymous said...

Well looking at Seattle's current crime stats they have had 670 auto thefts so far this year compared to Memphis which has had 4,759 (which is actually about 16% down from last year at this time.) No wonder Memphis does not have time to fingerprint all those cars - they are too busy taking reports!

Smart City Consulting said...

Seattle had essentially the same number of car thefts as Memphis when the program started. We're a little suspicious of the number you cite, because it seems too dramatic, even though it would prove our point. Based on the three cars stolen here, I'll fill out the report and fax it in, if they'll just concentrate on the fingerprinting.

Anonymous said...

Which numbers seem "suspicious? The Seattle numbers came straight from their web site and the MPD numbers from the MPD.

Smart City Consulting said...

The Seattle numbers sound too favorable. It would mean that they would have reduced car thefts by 90% with the fingerprinting program, and even though we support that, it just doesn't seem possible. But then again, this rabbit trail is a ways from our original point, so we'll try to return to this car thefts subject again soon. There is a sense of impunity about car thefts that rivals any attitude by the guy camped out on our front steps.

gatesofmemphis said...

In 2005, Seattle had 9,563 motor vehicle thefts, Memphis had 8,304.

autoegocrat said...

As someone who spent a couple of the most bitter and humiliating years of my life as a homeless person, I feel like I need to weigh in here.

The approach to the homeless problem should be threefold:

1) Deal with the immediate problem You've covered this already, no need to repeat what you've said.

2) Give the homeless a way to get themselves out of the poverty trap When you've got no address, no phone number, no transportation, no toilet, in essence, nothing, you must rely on someone else to provide you with the basic things you need in order to put your life back together. I was fortunate enough to have a network of friends upon whom I could rely for these things, but even with that, it still took me two years to get back on my feet.

Shelters provide a roof over your head and sometimes a warm meal, but that only solves your problems for one night. Think of everything you need to have in order to get a job: you must have a mailing address, a phone, a reliable ride to work, a clean-shaven face, a decent set of clothes, and a haircut. If there are any services that already provide these things for Memphis' homeless, I wish someone had told me about them in 1998.

3) Manage the economy so that people don't fall between the cracks in the first place This is beyond the scope of the city mayor's office, but it must be mentioned as a part of the solution, otherwise the solution becomes another part of the problem. Our economy is rigged against the poor in favor of the rich. Being poor comes with its own set of expenses. It actually costs more money (relative to total income) to be poor than it does to be middle class.

I became homeless because I lost my job and my car at the same time, and my useless family refused to give me a lifeline (they're Republicans, go figure). I was just getting myself established as an adult and I had my feet knocked out from under me with no safety net. Our economy should be more forgiving of financial distress, and some provision must be made for people who are already in a precarious financial situation.

In the capitalist system, it takes money to make money, and a poor kid just leaving the nest has no capital with which to work. If a person could actually make a profit by the sweat of their brow, then people who are trying to get themselves established in life could meet some of the monstrous expenses attendant upon their life's start. But just ask any working stiff, labor jobs leave you with a deficit; forget about trying to buy a car on a laborer's wage.

I hope I can elaborate on this at length in the future, but that covers the broad strokes.

Anonymous said...

My bad on the Seattle numbers - I printed them out this morning and those numbers were for Year to Date JANUARY! Sorry for the confusion and for leading the rabbit down the wrong path. I do know the MPD numbers are good for this year. Keep up the great commentary.

Anonymous said...

"GIVE" me a lifeline?

What happened to "EARN" enough to
live on?

Think there will be a sweep of the
unwashed downtown now that THE fire of the decade is smoldering, and suspicions are already being made by the media that a 'break in' at the church started the whole thing?

WAKE UP CALL to Willie, ya think?

Smart City Consulting said...

Autoegocrat:
Great post and great insight. Thanks for sharing a really valuable insight into this issue. And we were thinking this morning that we need to be more careful in using homeless, vagrant and panhandler interchangeably. The truth is that the problem here is aggressive panhandling, random physical assaults and frequent assaults on quality of life. It's not about a mother with two small children living on the streets or young people whose lives have been capsized. When we talk, we're talking about the group of guys who seem to have taken up residence in places that deprive the rest of us of enjoyment, safety and peace of mind.

The cities that have addressed the homeless problem well have attacked it as a multi-dimensional problem that requires programs at all levels to be successful. As you point out, there's more than one factor that has to be addressed for a city to do what is best for the person and the place.

It's always troubling to hear about the safety net that was systematically unraveled by policies reflecting the far right drift in national policies. Some of these policies put the homeless on the streets and others have been passed that are barriers to their getting off the streets.

It's always about money, and the homeless aren't a profit center for the large corporate and individual contributors who shape national policy. Weapons, wars and prisons are always high on the agenda, because those are the high-profit areas for large corporate profits. If social services had developed as a corporate function rather than a nonprofit function, our national budget would look all together different.

At any rate, we are grateful for your insights, and we offer our blog when you decide to elaborate more, or we'll look forward to seeing further discussion of this subject on your blog.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Taking one more trip down the rabbit hole called fingerprinting I wanted to share this information from the Commander of the Crime Scene Unit.

I asked this question:

"Why doesn't the MPD fingerprint all stolen cars?"

Here is the response I received:

On any given day (except maybe Friday) on Bravo and Charlie shift, with no one off on benefit time or in school, we would have 6 officers to work the city to answer calls(not even 1 per Police Station), collect and tag evidence, process the vehicles connected with homicides, robberies, etc, prepare clear concise reports which must be completed by the end of tour or the next day, sketch the scenes when necessary and to make court appearances. With our civilian fingerprint tech out sick for surgery we are also responsible for processing any and all items needing chemical processing brought in by our officers as well as all of the bureaus and outside agencies. On the Alpha shift, with no one off, we have 4 officers, could possibly have 5 officers two days a week with the same responsibilities. (4 is our minimum complement working N,S,E, & W)

Most high profile or complex scenes requires two officers, however we’ve worked many with just one.

We are dependant upon the City Lot to shuttle the cars in and out of the Crime Scene building with the fork lift. We only have space for about 8 cars, if they don’t get moved we’re grid locked until they can be moved and others brought in. So our spaces are filled on a priority basis. You only have to look at the number of stolen vehicles recovered to see how this additional work would stall our ability to respond to calls.

Officers in the field are trained regularly to lift latent prints and are welcomed to do so, however we will then be saddled with the complaints from victims about the black powder in their car that simply cannot be completely removed. It is very unforgiving and gets all over everything, in the vents, etc. and transfers to your clothes long after it should be gone.

Sorry to get long winded, however the entire process cannot be explained in just a word without appearing lazy. The logistic problems to overcome and manpower expended will not produce the results that people anticipate. Dusting for prints in a car is hit or miss because of the varying surfaces and the many places that might have been touched by a suspect. When there is specific information about the ownership of items in a car that may be a suspect's we process those items. We’re working on the possibility of DNA collection but that is in the trial stages now and will have to be included in our training.

Anonymous said...

wont the DNA strands of most gang banging carjackers have just one branch though?

hmmmm

fearlessvk said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

While I agree 100% that I would like to see Memphis do more to address the homelessness problem, it makes me nervous when these calls are offered for the benefit of, and from the perspective of, well-heeled residents and tourists who don't like encountering the obvious negative externalities of homelessness, rather than from the perspective of trying to redeem the suffering of the impoverished. The original anonymous poster who made the comment about reinstating debtors prison has a point - I don't think you would want to do any such thing, but I do think the tone of the post treats a structural-economic problem as a gross personal failing which winds up offending the good people of Memphis.

These approaches - when the homeless are viewed not as suffering human beings but as unpleasant "quality of life" issues for everyone else - produce the kind of non-solutions that never appropriately address the underlying structural problems (which, I confess, are massive, and beyond the scope of a poor city like Memphis to address - what is needed is for homelessness and poverty to become serious issues on a national scale again, but as you rightly point out, our country's money-driven political system is not well-poised to give a crap about the homeless - they're not a very important financial or voting constituency, after all!)

I don't like the smell of urine much either, but I'm at a complete loss to figure out what you would have a homeless person do if they need to urinate and they have no access to indoor plumbing and it's the middle of the night. Like the rest of us, homeless people also have bodies, they can't just NOT have bodily funcitons until they're safely ensconsed in a shelter. So indeed, I have to agree with the earlier poster that complaining about the urine and feces not to point out how the city (to say nothing of our society as a whole) has failed its most vulnerable members, but rather to blame those members for making your downtown experience less pleasant, does indeed seem to flirt with criminalizing poverty itself.

Nothing here is to excuse obviously inappropriate, aggressive, and threatening paper such as breaking car windows, attacking people physically, panhandling in a particularly hostile manner, or, um, burning donw churches (!) All that behavior is completely unaceptable for anyone, of course. But the post seems to skirt a dangerous line between pointing out these unacceptable activities and objecting to the condition of homelessness as such for being a blemish on other peoples' experience of the city.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: Your stereotypes are showing. There's a whole river to urinate in if we're really looking for good places downtown. In fact, I would gladly provide a listing of sites that would work. That said, I emphasize that the problem is truly a problem of vagrants, not the homeless. The folks living on the streets of Memphis are largely addicts who have plenty of places to go for help. This isn't about this is right and that is wrong. Like most of life, it's about finding a balance that protects civil liberties for every one. If you don't mind urine and feces on your front steps, please forward your address so we can give them a ride to your place.

Anonymous said...

oh, please, can the last person get off his moral high horse? No one is dehumanizing these problem people, so why can't you see the problems they're causing - assaults, harassment, public health problems, and more. This isn't about a bunch of hippies peacefully sleeping on the streets.

Anonymous said...

A family friend's son is a social work student at UT Memphis and is currently doing field work with a Memphis non-profit that offers meals, a temporary safe place, referrals to area resources, and a change of clothes for homeless individuals.

Did you know that national statistics indicate only 1 in 4 homeless individuals has a drug or alcohol problem, contrary to the stereotypes most of us believe?

One man who visited recently was a high level chef until he developed early onset dementia and lost his job, his insurance, his home, his car, and his ability to provide for himself.

Another is homeless because of a stroke that left him unable to work, without insurance, etc., etc.

Several of the "regulars" are service veterans and it is TRULY a sad state of affairs when a person who has served overseas returns to this country only to end up dependent on homeless shelters for their most basic needs.

Yes, there are some of the homeless who have unwanted behaviors, but many of them are also mentally ill and, without medication to treat their illness and support to help them recover, there is little hope for them.

Cheers to the CIT unit of the MPD for doing what they can!

Complicated? Yes.
Difficult? Certainly.
Insurmountable? No.

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