At what point does society, be it the neighborhood watch or the municipal government, say “You made your decision, you take the consequences, even if they are lethal?” Or have we reached a point where people must be compelled to be sheltered? I ask because the question has come up several times, in municipal meetings and in urgent pleas on the news for sources of heat to keep people from freezing to death (or frostbite), people who do not want to go into official shelters.
Last week it reached 0F in Amarillo. And the two main shelters announced that they would not turn anyone away. But still, some people preferred not to go to either of the charitable institutions, for reasons the news interview did not ask about. Instead one of the homeless activists begged for people to bring heavy sleeping bags, propane heaters, heat-packs, Sterno and other fuels and stoves, anything to allow people to keep from dying in their tents and make-shift housing in the cold.
Last year, the city passed an ordinance making it a criminal offense (misd.) to sleep out on benches and in parks. the police could arrest the sleepers and take them to jail, or ticket them and take them to the closest open shelter. “Homeless rights activists” and “community activists” protested mightily, saying that this criminalized being down on your luck and out of work and shelter. And that there were people who had good reasons for not wanting to go to the Salvation Army shelter and other options. Eventually the ordinance was shelved.
So who has what right? Can society, the city, the county, anyone look at the people who choose to reject the shelter options, make note of their decision, and say, in effect, ‘Very well, you choose to stay out knowing that you might freeze to death or suffer injury. If you change your mind, fine, but you may take the consequences of your decision,” and then notify the next-of-kin or other contact people of those who did not survive the night? Or, because said next-of-kin or survivors, or those who lose fingers and toes and other things to the cold, can and will sue the city for not saving them, can the city compel the campers and shelter-makers to come in to warmth, be it a charitable institution’s facility or the county jail?
“Wait!” you cry, “What about those who are homeless because of mental illness and cannot make such a decision in the same way that rational adults could, weighing the available information and deciding to take the risk in exchange for freedom of lifestyle?” Should the city have the right, nay the duty, to compel them to shelter? Or is that too close to involuntary confinement and the “bad old days?” How can society protect but not compel them, keeping them safe to live in the reality they inhabit without confining or medicating those who choose not to be medicated or confined?
I have my thoughts, and what I would do, but I am not in civic government. I do know that I have strong feelings about being asked to save people from the consequences of their choices in such a way that they can continue a lifeway that will probably lead to death, after drawing on resources that other people could use and that come from society at large, from those who have chosen a settled, stable existence.