A Duty to Save?

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.



11 thoughts on “A Duty to Save?

  1. Reopen the asylums. Get the nutters off the streets and away from society. It protects us and them. But this time, establish some oversight to lessen the abuses.

  2. You’ve posed an interesting question, and one i’m afraid I for one don’t have a perfect answer. I like to avoid government interventionism, but its clear things will be messy regardless of solution. The old asylum approach was subject to much abuse and were expensive to run, but dealing with lawsuits and cleaning up corpses (or treating the not-quite-dead) isn’t exactly cheap and pleasant either. Police rounding up the homeless and holding them someplace warm overnight isn’t exactly a problem-free solution, either, be it in terms of rights, cost, or practicality.

    On a tangent: Is it wrong that the title for the blog post made me think of Social Security, 401k’s, etc.?

  3. NO good answers here, but I would say that people ‘should’ be held accountable for their personal decisions. As usual, the media won’t ask the ‘hard’ questions of those individuals who refuse shelter. I’d also have to agree with McChuck, its time for the pendulum to swing back toward a real solution to managing the mentally unstable. Having dealt with one particular individual in NOVA for over a year, who would get ‘sent away’ for three weeks, then be back on the streets harassing women, including threatening to kill them. We’d see him acting out, call LEOs who would then pick him up, lather, rinse, repeat… sigh Sooner or later he IS going to kill some woman on one of his little outings…

      • If he is OK while medicated and supervised, then it is very, very hard to hold someone, at least until he commits a crime. Charles Krauthamer had an essay about the difficulties he faced when he was a practicing psychiatrist trying to have someone confined at least temporarily because they were a threat.

  4. Status quo is a mishmash of policy that offends everyone, and satisfies no coherent, reasonable theory of how things ‘ought to work’. There are really no easy answers, no simple solutions. Trying to find them can be nightmarish and heartbreaking.

    Consider the tradeoffs regarding handling those getting high on PCP, which can cause one to be a danger to oneself and others.

    1. Institutionalization. If they won’t check themselves in before they get high, keep them locked up where psych nurses can keep them alive with minimal wear and tear.
    2. Free range asylum. Close to what we have now, except with the police, it being impossible to have them function as psych nurses, not being held liable for fatalities.
    3. Exile. Give them drugs and let them kill themselves far, far away from where they would have access to other people.

    I tend to share a lot of evil remedies; partly because there are challenges and trade-offs that need attention, and partly because I get very angry.

  5. And that there were people who had good reasons for not wanting to go to the Salvation Army shelter and other options.

    Like what?

    I’m quite serious– I can think of things that would be a good reason to avoid them, but they’re all problems that would have to be fixed anyways, not a reason to ditch the whole thing. Risk of theft, risk of assault, and risk of arrest, basically.


    Basically: yes, we have a duty to save…and the insane being left on the street until they kill or seriously maim someone is a failure of that.

    We don’t have a duty to over-rule folks’ informed free will when it is only harming themselves; that’s assuming that we know the risks and trade-offs better than someone that isn’t working with an impacted ability to assess the situation. (insane asylums are for the insane, not the wrong; drunk tanks are for the drunk, not the wrong)

    We do have a duty to not enable destructive choices, especially not when it’s only for those who are going to be destroyed by it– so illegal camping, or trespassing and vandalizing folks’ properties, cannot be excused only for those who know there is a safe place to shelter but prefer to sleep on other folks’ land.

    Duties can’t be perfectly performed, sadly. We’re humans. But they’re goals.

    • Some of those refusing shelter had a lot of possessions they didn’t want to leave at the door. [Insert sermon here] Others have pets, usually large dogs, and the shelters do not allow animals other than service animals. Some of the “spokespeople” I’ve heard also argue that the mentally ill are abused by other homeless in the shelters and it is safer (!) for them on the street, or vice versa – I’ve heard it both ways.

      • The same spokespeople who insist that nothing ever goes wrong in the Jungle, I’d lay money… (Seattle’s most famous homeless camp.)

        I wish someone would start keeping track of the “spokespeople,” I suspect a lot of them are the predators.

        The property thing– assuming that it’s actually their property– sounds like a thing that would be awesome for volunteers to help with. I’m picturing a pretty basic lock-up where you roll stuff in and get a key…

  6. IRT Emily, I asked the LEOs that question after we overheard him describe in detail what he was going to do to one young lady. They told me the ALCU lawyers monitored the ‘facilities’ on a daily basis and apparently knew this guy. They couldn’t get a long term commitment due to his ‘stability’ when on his meds… sigh…

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