Friday, June 15, 2007

Decreasing the excess population

Spotty didn't read Ebenezer Katie's column from yesterday until this morning. It was a beauty, Spot supposes, in a sick sort of a way. It was about the evils of panhandling and its effect on good people. She picked an instance of an actual mugging--or assault or perhaps even attempted robbery as prosecutor types might call it--as an example of "aggressive panhandling." Katie is a specialist in this type of logic, boys and girls as you know: taking a small piece of evidence and through feats of legerdemain drawing the grandest of conclusions.

Spotty also discovered that the Wege had already taken Katie to task for the column and included a useful taxonomy of street people for Katie's benefit. Well done, Wege. Katie has again been properly humbled. Time to move on.

But you know Spotty better than that, don't you boys and girls? Right from the headline, you knew it would be a Katien classic:

The future of downtown threatened by beggars

Here's the lede:

Sam Grabarski, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, pulled his car into the parking lot behind the Shubert Theater on Hennepin Avenue several weeks ago. A man opened his door, grabbed him and demanded money. Grabarski shoved the man away and then followed him out of the parking lot to ensure that the aggressive panhandler accosted no one else.

Brazen conduct such as this is still rare in Minneapolis, says Grabarski. Increasingly, however, "livability" crimes, from panhandling to public urination. are undermining the quality of life in the city.

Spot isn't entirely sure, but he thinks "Grabarski" means "he who is pawed at" in some ancient eastern European tongue. Anyway, Katie admits that such "brazen conduct" is still rare in Minneapolis. But it makes a good, er, grabber to make it sound like panhandlers are a uniformly menacing bunch. A menace that decent folks should not have to countenance! Grabarski says that people don't come downtown and expect "to be the victim of a felony -- robbery, rape, murder." But when panhandlers do these things, rare as they are, they ought to be prosecuted. And we have plenty of laws to do it. But cracking down on panhandlers as a class of people is as Katie herself recognizes, a "livability" issue. She quotes one of the brown shirts employed by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani in the '90s to crack down on so-called livability crimes:

George Kelling, a criminologist and an architect of the miraculous plunge in New York City's crime rate in the 1990s, disagrees. Panhandling ordinances do not target economic status, but behavior, he says. Most poor people are law-abiding, he adds, and to link poverty with disorderly behavior perpetuates a "pernicious stereotype."

People who are homeless for economic reasons usually get help and leave the street quickly, explains Kelling. Panhandlers, on the other hand, are often chronic alcohol and drug abusers, or scam artists who commit other crimes. In the early 1990s, for example, New York City suffered from an epidemic of "squeegee men," who extorted money for washing windshields. Though often described as homeless, over 75 percent of them had addresses and over 50 percent had felony records, according to Kelling.

First, it is useful to note that the crime rate nation-wide plunged during the same period (remember, we had a Democratic president then!):

Giuliani claims that reported felonies decreased by 57 percent during his two terms in office (going from 8,259 to 3,556 felonies per week). How does this compare with other cities in the northeast?

The drop in crime nationwide during the first six years of Giuliani’s mayoralty was close to 40 percent, (Personal Crimes down from 318.9 to 198; Property Crimes down from 52.2 to 33.7).Moreover, the pattern of decreases in crime during the nineties has shown that the biggest decreases came disproportionately in the largest cities, especially those in the Northeast. Giuliani may have enough of an inflated ego to claim his influence over the crime drop nationwide, but criminologists and political commentators should be expected to have a more discerning eye. And that is just part of it.

The major disadvantage of the NCVS is that it does not break down the figures by geographical location so that it does not provide us with figures on New York City. For the Big Apple, we only have the much less accurate figures from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). These are the figures that Rudy quoted in his State of the City speech.

The UCR depends on both the victim’s willingness to report the crime to the police and the police department’s willingness to characterize the crime as a “felony” and add it to the list of offenses sent to the FBI. By putting police administrators under pressure to lower the numbers, substantial changes can be brought about.

For example, about 65 percent of all felonies are “grand larcenies.” If a theft is reported to the police and the value of the thing stolen is less than $500, then the offense is a misdemeanor and will not be reported to the FBI. The police themselves are in the position of having to determine what the fair market value of the stolen property is.

Likewise, the majority of violent felonies are called “aggravated assault.” While they are included in the UCR, simple assaults are not. A “simple assault” is one that either does not involve a “deadly weapon” or does not involve “serious” injury. Again, the arresting officer is often able to characterize the “deadliness” of the weapon or the “seriousness” of the assault to determine whether or not a felony is being reported to them. (Some prosecutors ask how many stitches it took to stop the bleeding in order to determine if a felony or misdemeanor was committed)

So now we see that busting panhandlers may not have so much to do with decreasing crime in New York as Katie thought!

Second, Kelling's statement that "[p]eople who are homeless for economic reasons usually get help and leave the street quickly," is just bilge water bullshit. Having a record--even just an arrest record, not one of conviction--or having been evicted for non-payment of rent, even once, can keep you from renting another place or getting a job. That's true of just about any kind of arrest or conviction--DUI or whatever. Drug or alcohol addiction disqualifies people (and their children) from virtually all publicly-assisted housing programs. A record or a habit undoubtedly has a high correlation with homelessness and panhandling.

These are people we have put in the discard pile, and Katie thinks it is so darn shabby of them to get off the pile and beg for some help, in public, no less. The issue is livability to Katie, but it is living to the panhandlers.

Here's the Minneapolis mayor's solution, described approvingly by Katie:

In Minneapolis, a recent survey confirmed that panhandlers often use donations to buy drugs and alcohol, says Ostrow. Giving to them might seem compassionate, he says, but it frequently just encourages self-destructive behavior. To provide a constructive alternative, Mayor R.T. Rybak will soon launch a "Give Real Change" campaign, which will encourage citizens to give -- not to panhandlers -- but to organizations that will address their real needs.

Great, but as Spot mentioned, most government and social service agencies aren't especially interested in this "hard to serve" group. What a euphemism!

A DL friend of Spot's says that he gives money to panhandlers once in a while to just affirm their humanity and give them something they want--even if the money is used for drugs or alcohol just to get through the day--because everybody deserves what they want once in a while. That is a great statement of empathy, boys and girls, with perception far beyond Katie's parsimony.

Much better, in Katie's opinion, that panhandlers just die and decrease the excess population. Humbug.

Note: Spot now read that the Minneapolis City Council did adopt the anti-panhandler ordinance. Rybak's initiative would have had a lot more credibility with Spot if it had been launched prior to urging the adopting of the ordinance.

No comments: