Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Karl Dean and the Homeless "Safety" Dance

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2008 at 7:53 PM

In this week’s cover story—"Outlawing the Poor"—Jeff Woods tells of the conflict between downtown Nashville’s homeless population and the newly arrived high-rise condo dwellers. In an address to the Young Professionals cohort of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce tonight, Mayor Karl Dean spent the better part of his speech rightly pointing out how tremendous the resurgence of downtown has been for all of Nashville and how he hopes such growth will continue. Then someone in the crowd asked him about his decision to allow the anti-panhandling measure to pass without his signature, despite his own law department saying it might have First Amendment issues. Mainly, they wanted to know whether his questionable decision might be “all connected” to his plans for a new convention center and the hope that tourist revenue might bolster Metro coffers. Dean responded by saying that the panhandling measure is a “compromise” worked out by the Metro Council and is constitutional. He also took issue with the implication that tourists and their dollars influenced his decision to let the bill pass. He indicated that his motivation for not stopping the measure was downtown residents who were “concerned for their safety.” While stressing that the city should treat its homeless with “humanity,” he pointed out that for downtown to prosper, “You must have the sense that you can go downtown and be safe.” He reminded the assembled that he’d gone to Columbia University in New York City during the ’70s and had seen what happened when a sense of safety was lost there. It seemed an odd comparison. Even with its significant homeless population, there is a galactic difference between downtown Nashville today—with its few bums asking for change or a smoke—and uptown Manhattan in the late 1970s, which was then engulfed in a heroin epidemic. Still, Dean probably said the word “safety” half-a-dozen times in his answer. While it’s unclear how much violent crime is the result of the homeless, many of the crimes that they are charged with—as our story points—out aren’t that scary.

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