You Better Not Outlaw Living in Cars Unless You're Giving Out Houses

Homelessness is slowly declining nationwide, but it's rising in urban areas with a high cost of living. How are some of these areas responding to the needs of their homeless citizens? By making it illegal for them to live in their cars.

It does not seem commonsensical that it would be necessary to say this, but: homeless people are people. They are human people with very real and immediate needs, and helping to meet those needs should be a high priority of any local government—an entity which exists to address human needs. It is a cliche to say that "The homeless are just like you and me," but that cliche is especially true in expensive areas like Silicon Valley, where rents and costs of living have risen so high so fast that many "normal" people—low-income workers, people unexpectedly laid off or laid low with health issues, people living on fixed incomes—can, astonishingly quickly, find themselves unable to pay the bills and on the street. (And, sometimes, freezing to death.) It is just plain logical for people to sleep in their cars if they suddenly find themselves homeless. A car makes for a nicer bed than a park bench does.

A responsible thing for municipal governments to do when they find that many of their citizens are being forced to live in their cars is to devise a plan to house those citizens. An irresponsible and immoral thing to do is to pass a law threatening fines and jail time to anyone living in a car. The Wall Street Journal reports today on municipalities that have chosen to pursue the second option—most notably Los Angeles, which is facing a court challenge over its law, and several cities in posh Silicon Valley, which have decided that the proper response to skyrocketing rents and a lack of affordable housing and rising homelessness and an inadequate number of shelter beds is to make it a crime for anyone to live in a car.

Not to worry, though—here is one city is offering its homeless population instead:

In Palo Alto, police received dozens of complaints from residents near a community center where car dwellers were using the restrooms.

"The neighbors in the community, I think, wanted to be reasonable, but they didn't feel safe having their kids go to the center," said Claudia Keith, a spokeswoman for the city.

There are 15 emergency shelter beds and about 150 homeless in Palo Alto. A nonprofit center provides assistance and referrals. The city also has pledged $250,000 to address homeless issues.

So the municipal leaders of Palo Alto, California, in their infinite wisdom, has decided that an adequate solution to a situation in which the city has ten times more homeless people than shelter beds is to pledge a laughably minuscule amount of money to "homeless issues," and then outlaw living in cars. The city's elected officials are supported in their plan by the thoughtful Palo Alto homeowners who called the police on their fellow citizens for using public restrooms.

How dare homeless people sleep in their cars and use public restrooms? Why won't they think of the children?

We are not talking about neo-hippies who are homeless by choice. We are talking about people who are forced into homeless by economic circumstances. In one sense, it is good for a city to see people living in their cars and on the street, because it forces that city to face the problem at hand. It is good for homelessness to be visible, rather than invisible, because it then demands a response.

The proper response is "compassion." (You can look it up in the Bible!) The wrong response is "Go away, or go to jail. Either way, go to hell."

[Photo: AP]