(Feb. 16) When the National Park Service cleared 70 homeless people from a public square just blocks from the White House on Feb. 15, it was better late than never. It should not, however, have been so late.

Broader policy lessons, too, along with humanitarian concerns, were implicated here.

For months, the vagrants had been not just sleeping in McPherson Square but pitching tents and virtually taking over what historically had been a lovely downtown enclave. By the time the park service finally acted, it was responding to what it called “very serious concerns about growing threats to life, health, and safety.”

Well … of course. Public encampments without proper “facilities” are notoriously and almost unavoidably unsanitary. Add the fact that many (but certainly not all) homeless people suffer from mental impairment or illness and other pathologies, and it is obvious that mass collections of them are safe neither for themselves nor others. McPherson Square is in the middle of one of the busiest business districts in the nation’s capital. There’s no excuse for having allowed the situation to fester for so long.

None of which is to say that people encamped there deserve no sympathy. Of course they do. Many of them are prime examples of human suffering. That’s why governments and social service agencies should make priorities of mental health services, job placement, and other means of assistance, all with as little bureaucratic rigmarole as possible. The District of Columbia is not exactly hurting for cash, especially after receiving oodles of federal pandemic funds. Yet news reports say city government has been extremely slow in implementing a planned system of housing vouchers that could provide shelter for almost every homeless person in the city.

Then again, part of the equation needs to include not just carrots but sticks. What passes as leniency for troubled souls, in the name of compassion, can actually allow problems to metastasize for both the homeless and for all citizens who work or live nearby….. [The full column is here.]


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