Indy a mean city for the homeless

Steve Hammer

Steve Hammer's Blog

There's a homeless guy who works on Pennsylvania Street before and after sporting events downtown. He actually has a pretty good spiel going and he makes a decent living with his story.

The first time he told it to me, I bit on it. He said he was a dairy farmer from Bedford and that his truck had been towed by Delaware and South. It cost him $200, all the cash he had, to get it back but now he was stranded.

It'd take about 10 gallons of diesel fuel to get back home, he said, which he had to do by 4 a.m. because his cows would need milking by then. He didn't know anybody in town and the future of his farm depended on me.

I figured the story was bull, but he was very persuasive and so he got a five from me, as well as my business card so he could mail me payment when he got back home.

The next time I was downtown, I saw him again.

"Never made it back to Bedford, eh?" I laughed.

"You'd be surprised how well that story works," he said. "I apologize." He even offered me my $5 back.

"Nah," I said. "Keep the cash. George Bush doesn't lie half as well as you do, and he takes out a third of my check every two weeks. I actually believed you for a minute. When Bush talks, I know he's lying."

"That's true," he said. "At least I'm honest about not being honest."

"Besides," I said, "the gates of hell have opened and we're in the middle of it. That five bucks is the least of my worries. I may have to consult you about a good story myself someday."

"Better hurry, man, if you want to panhandle," the guy said. "The cops are trying to run us all out of business. It's a crime to be homeless in this town. I keep from getting arrested because of my story. If I say I need money for gas, it's not considered panhandling."

I figured that was just more homeless-dude bluster, until I read a news story over the weekend. The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released a study last week on the 20 "meanest" cities regarding the homeless.

Sarasota, Fla., which passed three laws banning "lodging outdoors" for homeless people, was No. 1 on the list. Other cities have passed restrictive ordinances, taking homelessness from being a social issue to a criminal issue.

Indianapolis ranks among the worst in terms of restrictive laws aimed at homeless people. Our panhandling statute, which an appeals court upheld, prohibits panhandling at night and forbids "aggressive panhandling" at any time. Meanwhile, our safety net of shelters isn't enough to handle all the homeless people, nor are there available jobs.

So it's come to this. Being poor and being down on your luck is now punishable by law.

All across the country, police, business leaders and mayors are working together to sweep the homeless people off the streets and into jail. Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, it's easier to label them as criminals and pretend they don't exist.

The problem has gotten worse in the last five years, since the current administration came into power. The homeless are under attack like never before by the establishment, which has been emboldened by the middle finger given the poor by the president and vice president, and enriched by the tax cuts given large corporations.

According to the report, "Over the course of the year, 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness. The number of people living on the streets threatens to grow as thousands of people are now homeless as a result of Hurricane Katrina. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as of late November, approximately 50,000 hurricane evacuees remained in hotels and motels awaiting alternative housing options."

City ordinances are being used as tools to criminalize being poor. In some cities, the establishment of "detainment camps" for homeless people is being debated.

All of this reinforces one point. The divide between the haves and the have-nots is growing at an exponentially faster rate than ever before. The campaign by this administration to abolish the middle class is working well.

Anti-homeless measures not only violate the U.S. Constitution, but also many international human-rights treaties we've signed. Has this country, at long last, lost all decency and humanity?

We may as well go all the way and execute the unwanted poor. It's the logical next step in a system that outlaws activities such as sleeping in public. Maybe enslavement will work, although there is that pesky Constitution standing in its way.

Martin King, were he alive today, would be sickened at what's happened to our cities and to the nation's poorest people. Criminalizing homelessness, fighting civil rights, denying poor people their rights. Nothing has changed in the 38 years since King's death.

If we are to salvage the American dream, we must start with a little compassion. That five bucks I spent on the homeless dude and his cow story was money well spent, because it opened my eyes to the reality of our times.

Be rich or die. That's the new American dream.


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