On February 11, an "intruder" was discovered in the parking garage of the downtown condo where I now live. Actually, I found him myself. I had to run a late night errand, unusual for me, and there he was, scruffy and dirty, hanging out near the elevator. I said to him, "are you lost?" and he answered that he was staying with a friend who lived in the building. It seemed fishy, but I was in too much of a hurry to concern myself with him. But when I returned two hours later I found him curled up in a stairwell, apparently sleeping. I notified the police but I didn't stay around for the outcome because it was 2:30 in the morning and I was exhausted from the night's events. It turned out that he had stolen a bicycle and also entered a number of unlocked cars, including mine. We know he was in my car because the police found my Volvo S70 owner's manual where he had been sleeping. Whether he used it as reading material or as a makeshift pillow I don't know.
Yesterday I was called by the police and told that perpetrator had been arrested. It seems that he was recorded on a surveillance camera (I didn't know we had one in the garage) and that his image was shown to the police who specialize in dealing with our city's population of transients. ("Transient" is the current term of art for people who have at various times called "homeless," "hobos," "bums," or "vagrants.") He was well known to the authorities and was picked up; he readily confessed to the crimes. I asked what was going to happen to him and whether there was any chance that he could rehabilitated. The police lady with whom I spoke said that he would be sent to jail for a few months and then be back on the street. "Sometimes we have someone who turns his life around, but this guy has a history and he's not going to change. He's been in the system for years. He had a place to live a while ago but preferred (her word) to be out on the street. Drugs and alcohol. The shelters require that the inhabitants be drug free and he can't stay clean."
Our fair city is popularly thought of as a mecca for transients. I don't know if it's so, but I know that we have a very visible population of transients. All the downtown public institutions, such as the library, are dense with them. When I walk the four blocks of the downtown mall, I'll be approached by 3-5 beggars. And there will also be knot of five or six scruffy people with backpacks and blankets on two or three different benches. The local merchants complain, and the transients are moved on, but they return.
I don't like the situation. I find it morally challenging. Do I give a man a dollar, even though I know that the city and the churches provide adequate food, and the money will go for contraband, or do I avert my eyes? If I avert my eyes, am I treating the guy or gal as a non-person But if I engage in even the slightest conversation, I feel that I am condoning a way of life of which I thoroughly disapprove. If it is my obligation to support the poor, am I obligated to support the liquor and drug habits of the transient population. How do I deaul with my occasional, inconstant, but sometimes very strong feeling of repulsion that I feel for the "houseless heads and unfed sides." Are we not all members of the human population, of the family of man? If I ignore these people, have I turned into a complacent, unsympathetic, hardened, unfeeling old bourgeois, a scrooge, mouthing, "are there no prisons are there no workhouses?"
I asked the police person, who has been dealing with the transient population for many years, if she had any ideas about what to do. She knew of a number of experiments in various cities which had some success, but all had ultimately failed.
She said, "Lock your car door. Lock your apartment."