Last week’s controversy about a homeless camp at the Hamilton County Courthouse and the subsequent proposal to tax panhandlers reminded a history buff like me of Barry Goldwater.
For readers who aren’t familiar with Goldwater, he was yet another Republican senator from Arizona who was the GOP’s presidential candidate, this time in 1964.
Because Goldwater was a strident anti-communist who also supported states’ rights and wanted to abolish the United Nations, he scared many people who viewed him as a loose cannon that could make the Cold War go suddenly hot.
When Goldwater accepted his party’s presidential nomination, he famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Wrong.
Extremism in any form — even for a noble cause — almost always causes problems. When blinded by their beliefs and passion, people tend to put aside reason and do crazy things.
During the past two weeks, Cincinnati has seen an extremist attack from the political right on panhandlers and a self-defeating extremist reaction from the left defending indefensible behavior.
The situation began when homeless people started sleeping overnight near the Hamilton County Courthouse. Up to 30 people have started napping there, causing complaints because some also are urinating and defecating on the property.
Hoping to grab headlines in an election year, Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding proposed imposing a 2.1 percent tax on the money collected by panhandlers. Asking for money on the street amounts to commercial activity, Berding alleged, which he believed could legally be taxed.
Also, Berding wanted to license all panhandlers and require them to wear a standardized sign detailing how much the municipal budget allocates each year for social service agencies.
Berding said his proposal was a response to “aggressive panhandling.” Apparently, having people just say “no” to beggars who are overly pushy or mean is too much of a Libertarian solution.
We suspect what Berding really wanted to accomplish was hiding the problem of homelessness so he and like-minded people don’t have to be reminded of it.
In 2004, the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless ranked Cincinnati as the third-meanest city toward the homeless. The group said some cities try to criminalize homelessness to force homeless people off public spaces.
Two days after he proposed the panhandler tax, Berding chose right-wing shock-jock Bill Cunningham’s show on WLW (700 AM) to explain it.
The conversation between the pair took an odd path with Cunningham advocating that panhandlers and homeless people should be subjected to caning, paddling and being locked in stockades — all done publicly.
Cunningham: “Make their ass beet-red and they’ll get moving.”
Berding: “I think you’re really getting a good discussion going there, Bill.”
Cunningham: “Jeff, most people think like me.”
Berding: “... I can’t imagine the reaction if an elected official proposed what you suggested.”
Cunningham: “Get back to work, Jeff. You’re normal.”
Later that same day, however, Berding quietly dropped the proposal after the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio issued a statement promising a lawsuit.
“This is a transparent attempt to backdoor restrictions on the free speech rights of the poorest people in Cincinnati. Soliciting donations has time and again been classified as free speech, not as a business,” said Gary Daniels, the Ohio ACLU’s associate director.
No shit. It also was probably unenforceable, two points I’m sure Berding knew beforehand.
Just as Berding’s reaction was foolish, so too was the reaction from a staff member at the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.
Writing on a Homeless Coalition Web site, staffer Lynne Ausman stated that because there are bigger problems in the world we shouldn’t get upset if homeless people take a dump downtown.
“Frankly, we have bigger problems to worry about than people peeing and pooping near the courthouse,” Ausman writes. We can address it, she adds, “when we have enough affordable housing and permanent supportive housing to meet the need. When we have enough living wage employment available so no one is unwillingly unemployed. When we have the ability to prevent homelessness.”
The world has never been perfect and never will be. Citing other problems doesn’t justify dysfunctional behavior by people with mental health or substance abuse issues. What the blasé attitude does accomplish, though, is giving people who are already inclined to ignore the problem a further excuse to be uncaring.
Ausman states the only available public restrooms downtown close at 7 p.m. and the lack of facilities is the real culprit. The Homeless Coalition has looked into buying a portable toilet, but they cost $85. I bet someone will donate $85 to the Coalition if they give the Port-a-Potty a home on their property.
Meanwhile, if using the restroom is no big deal, I suggest the Coalition keep its 12th Street offices in Over-the-Rhine open overnight so those facilities are accessible.
All the brouhaha over panhandlers did inspire one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a while.
Jason Haap and Justin Jeffre, bloggers who operate The Cincinnati Beacon Web site, want a new law that would require all City Council members to wear a city-issued name badge whenever conducting public business. The badge would include their names, the amount they raised during their campaign and how much that equals per vote.
“We deserve to know the difference between the ideas coming from the big-money candidate who raised a quarter of a million for his seat or from someone with less ties to special interests,” Jeffre said.
It’s unclear if Haap and Jeffre might consider amending their proposal to include public canings of City Council members. But we can hope.
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