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Homelessness

Dead trees girdled by vandalism on C Street SW.  Picture taken on January 24, 2009 

A homeless man killed the trees in the pictures.   I saw him carving on them with a pocket knife a couple years back.   He moved on when I asked him about it, but he came back.   The police can't do anything about these kinds of incidents and they discourage citizens from even giving the miscreants a hard time.   I have not seen the guy around since I have been back from Iraq.   I hope he is gone for good, but maybe he is taking the winter off.   How many trees he killed all together I don’t know, nor do I have any clues on the motivation.  Maybe he was just bored.   Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.  There are dozens of dead trees about the right age in the neighborhood, but there are other possible causes.   

Dead trees on C St SW killed by vandalism

There are a lot fewer homeless around here than there used to be when I first moved to Washington.  I don’t know if they are gone or just gone someplace else.  There used to be a guy called Mitch Snyder, who ran a local homeless shelter. He deployed the homeless around the Washington area with the expressed purpose of making a kind of political statement.  I moved to Washington during the heyday of his activities, so I suppose some of my impression of the time was part of his street theater. 

I think it was back in 1999 when I was running near the Lincoln Memorial and noticed an unusual number of street people.   As I turned toward the Korean Memorial, I ran into a television production crew.  They were filming for a TV show called “West Wing,” with Martin Sheen playing President Jed Bartlet.  The guys lying around on the ground were ersatz homeless – i.e. actors. I watched the episode they were filming later in the season.   It was about the homeless in Washington. It was ironic that they had to hire their own homeless TV props to create the visual image they wanted.   Homelessness dropped a lot, and we have better responses than we did before, but it doesn't take very many homeless to make a problem.

There is a legitimate argument about rights. All citizens have the right to use public spaces, but the public has the right to expect each individual to behave in a reasonable way. A homeless man is both a victim and a perpetrator. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan commented, we defined deviancy down and learned to accept that people either w/o the ability or motivation to control their weird behavior could dominate our public spaces.  Bad behavior feeds on itself and engenders worse behavior. During the height of the homeless epidemic during the 1980s, many public parks were rendered unusable for ordinary citizens.  Kids couldn’t use the playgrounds.   A stroll in the park was like running a gauntlet of beggars.  When you lose public space, you lose public spirit and weaken the community.    

It is better now.  The homeless are fewer, but it is frustrating when one guy is responsible for thousands of dollars of slow release vandalism that deprives future generations of shade on hot summer days.  Sometimes we tolerate too much.


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