Wage war on poverty, not the homeless

Question for the day: How should we deal with the homeless?

Some say, let them be. They got themselves into their mess and they can pull themselves out of it. A friend of mine argues the more you do for the homeless, the more homeless you’re going to have. Homeless are attracted to free stuff, a free place to sleep, free food, free clothes. They live off the system. They like it that way.

There are those who say help them. They’re facing desperate times. Some are suffering from mental and physical illness. Nobody wants to be homeless. Certainly, we can afford to be generous to those who have the least.

Then, we have the Tom Brower method.

The Hawaii state legislator has come up with a — well, let’s call it unique — way to deal with homeless in Waikiki: Smash their shopping carts. That’s right. He walks his district and when he sees a shopping cart that the homeless use to carry their stuff, he disables it by smashing the wheels. Some carts, if it has a store label, he returns.

Rep. Brower goes further to make life difficult for the homeless by waking them up if, say, he sees them sleeping at a bus stop during the day time. “I’ll walk up and say, ‘Get your ass moving,’” he is quoted as saying.

While we know the homeless problem on Oahu is serious, with some saying they’ve reached their limit trying to help them, I’ve got to believe there’s a better solution to dealing with homeless than smashing their shopping carts, waking them up and telling them to move on. I guess this is the theory that if you make life tough for the homeless in one place, they’ll go somewhere else, or  they’ll decide they don’t like being homeless and get a job.

Let’s think about this. Homeless are people with little. No place to go. No family. No money. They’re homeless. Our solution can’t be to destroy property. It can’t be to wage a war on the homeless. How about we wage a war on poverty? How, exactly, does smashing shopping carts do anything toward alleviating homelessness? If they’re an eyesore in neighborhoods, sure, collect them, return them. No need for destruction.

Brower says reactions have been mostly positive in his strategy to address homelessness by seizing or destroying stolen shopping carts.

Really? Who could support the idea to address homelessness by taking a sledgehammer to a shopping cart?

Mental Health America of Hawaii director Marya Grambs says what Brower is doing is unconscionable. She tells the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that Brower is terrorizing people and modeling that it’s OK to commit violence.

Institute for Human Services director Connie Mitchell says Brower could incite street violence and people don’t believe they’re being respected.

I recommend people do what they can do for the homeless, rather than ignoring them or wishing they would go away. For years, until I moved from Idaho, a good friend and my sons collected donations, bought food and served breakfast at a homeless transitional center. Each winter, I cleared out closets and donated coats, boots and clothes, even tents and sleeping bags to help them survive Idaho’s winter. Much to my wife’s alarm, I even invited a homeless couple to spend the night at our house so they didn’t have to sleep out in a snowstorm.

My youngest son had an encounter with a homeless man who was in the alley outside our backyard back in Idaho. The man asked for food, which my son gave him.

But later, the man began yelling, swearing, so my son went out again to tell him he had to stop, there were kids around. The man was quiet for a bit, then he ended up knocking a trash can over, which prompted my son to go back out again. He made the man clear up the mess, then told him he had to leave. While I was proud of my son for standing strong, I warned him to be careful when dealing with homeless. They can be suffering from mental illness. They can be desperate. You don’t know what they might do.

“You handled it the right way,” I said. “But just be nice if you can. I think people respond better if you’re nice.”

My friend argues I’m making it worse by helping these people. More homeless will come, he says, and you can’t feed and cloth them all. They’ll steal from you, too. There will always be homeless, might as well just get used to it.

He’s right. We can’t feed them all. But we can feed some. We can make a difference for a few in a positive way. It’s not a solution to the growing homeless problem on Oahu, but perhaps it’s a start.

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