Regulating Homelessness

Well, some of America’s liberal Mayors sure are giving it the old college try. I was outraged to read in Bloomberg Businessweek this morning on the metro about Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (both liberal Democrats) efforts to crack down on private groups helping the homeless. Of course, what article about Mayors going nuts with regulations would be complete without a reference to New York Mayor Bloomberg?

This isn’t to say that liberals are the only bad guys here, it’s just that they are often the worst offenders. And let’s face it, there aren’t many conservative Mayors of big cities, where homelessness tends to be more prevalent.

For people who supposedly care so much about the impoverished, these Mayors have an odd way of showing it. Many liberals believe that government should regulate out of existence things they consider “bad” or “not good.” However, it would appear they are now pushing for regulations to extinguish privately run efforts to help the homeless. This is wrong.

The article does a very good job at painting a picture for readers: heartless elected officials versus caring activists. I think it misses a point that we’ll get to later: competition with government.

Some key takeaway facts from the article:

  • There are restrictions on sharing food in at least 23 towns and cities in the U.S.
  • New York City prohibits private donations of food to homeless shelters as part of a policy partly aimed at ensuring meals are nutritious.
  • Philadelphia’s mayor last week instructed the parks department to issue a regulation in 30 days banning outside feeding in all city parks, with exceptions for picnics and permitted events.
  • Houston this month considered making those who feed the homeless register, banning the storage or preparation of food in private homes and requiring that one person obtain food-safety training. Fines would have been as much as $2,000.

The article largely focuses on the Mayors’ supposed interest in the public good and public health. Clearly, these are two responsibilities of local government, I get that. But it’s hard not to conclude that these liberal mayors are using regulatory power to make feeding and helping the homeless both harder and more costly.

However, there aren’t many facts out there to support the need for such regulations. Typically, at least at the federal level, there is a cost benefit analysis completed and usually a written record of why the regulation is needed. Cities don’t always have those requirements, and can regulate willy nilly and at the arbitrary and capricious whims of the Mayor and the council.

There has not been a compelling argument made by proponents of these regulations, in my view, to justify them.

“It’s a red herring,” Randall Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer in Houston who has organized opposition to the city’s plans, said in an interview. “They can’t provide one example where someone got injured or sick. This is really a way to push homeless out of downtown.”

Public good? Really? All of these cities had (or sanctioned through permits) Occupy Wall Street protests. (Eventually, there was sort of an ad-hoc nationwide crackdown, but some are still there.)

Ask yourself this: what’s a greater public good — hippies and miscreants destroying public and privately owned property to demonstrate their lack of economic understanding, or neighbors getting together to help homeless neighbors? The choice is pretty clear to me.

I agree with Randall: It’s a red herring.

Competing with Government is a quick way to get regulated out of business.

I have a different theory:

These Mayors care more about control and money than they do the homeless.

I’m not saying these three Mayors don’t care about the homeless. Rather, I’m saying they care more about their city’s power and ability to get federal and State funds than they do the homeless. It’s not unreasonable to think that.

Combating homelessness is something the federal government (and State governments) devote a fair amount of money toHUD offers grants, HHS offers grants, the Education Department offers grants, the VA offers grants.

All of these grants have strings, and those strings (while attempting to prevent fraud or achieve certain goals) have costs that make the intended help less efficient. Costs that make private entities more efficient at helping the homeless.

It should come as no surprise that State and local politicians want to hamstring private entities in an effort to make the competition “fair” or biased in the government’s favor.

From McKinney-Vento to the HEARTH Act, the government has certainly devoted a lot of resources and bureaucrats to combat homelessness.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but put yourself in the Mayor’s chair for a second:

  • Private groups are raising funds and doing things to help the homeless.
  • This can diminish the needs of the homeless for government services, and thus, less of a need for federal grants and city employees administering those programs.
  • Patronage is not dead, and anybody who tells you otherwise is either uninformed or a liar.
  • Mayors love control, and doling out favors. After all, they’re politicians.

Helping the homeless is a noble goal, and I think it’s despicable that these mayors are using regulations under the guise of public good and public health to retard the ability of private groups to help the homeless when they’ve demonstrated practically no need for them.

I hope that readers will encourage their elected officials to stop pursuing policies to harm good people like Brian Jenkin’s efforts to help the poor.

Jenkins equates Mayor Nutter’s recent policy proposals as “an attack on the poor.” He is right. Maybe the etymology of Nutter’s last name is rooted in some historical and subliminal truth: He’s nuts. 

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