For the benefit of those you who might not have attended the URA’s Homeless Summit, I thought I’d provide a brief summary. Boy, did you miss a good one.
If you've never heard of it, the URA is the Urban Residents Association. I’ll avoid too much editorializing, but in short, it’s a group of downtown residents: “urban pioneers," if you will. Ahem. (If you're curious, actual editorializing can be found here.)
So they called this meeting to discuss "the homeless problem," I guess, and organized a panel of various people to complain to. Persons of Note in attendance: from the Metro Council we had Erik Cole and Erica Gilmore, Commander Jason Reinbold of the central precinct, and Jeannie Alexander of The Contributor. Mike Jameson was also there, though not on the panel. Police Chief Steve Anderson answered a few questions at the beginning of the meeting as well, before taking off.
So, yeah. The meeting. Phew. I have a reputation for being decorous and fair-minded, so I will choose my words here delicately and with as much tact as I can muster: the Urban Residents Association contains some of the most self-absorbed, embarrassingly ignorant proto-fascist whiners I've ever encountered in my life. It may sound like aimless name-calling, but don’t fret: if pressed, I guarantee you I can defend every one of those very carefully chosen adjectives with evidence and quotations. Believe me.
In the smothering heat of the Downtown Partnership’s groundfloor office, I endured an endless torrent of idiocy that made me start to wonder if Judgment Day had come early and I had been left behind in my own personal manifestation of hell. Within the span of an hour, I heard:
• Proposals to “round up” homeless/vagrants/panhandlers into buses and ship them out of town, made without any apparent jest or humor. (This one is a recurring theme.)
• Comparisons of feeding the homeless to feeding pigeons/rats (and complementary proposals to eliminate public feeding licenses altogether).
* A pointed question to Jeannie Alexander of The Contributor, asking, “Do you have any idea how much your presence disgusts us?”
* Vague/nonspecific calls to criminalize things, including selling stuff, panhandling, merely existing, etc. (“Why can’t we just arrest them all?” is how I’d paraphrase the sentiment.)
There was yelling, eye-rolling, sighing — the whole nine yards. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as golden a quote as I did a few years ago (“Homeless people don’t have rights, homeowners do, and it’s time we started acting on them”), although the charming author of that gem was in attendance.
Seriously, though, by hearing the testimony delivered in this room, you’d think that Church Street Park was the playground of the devil, spat forth from hell itself. Some sort of MadMaxian no-mans-land where no one is safe from the ravages of the roaming panhandlers. (Alternate analogy for you Nashville history buffs: You’d think it was some modern incarnation of hell’s half-acre itself!)
I have to give credit to the members of the panel, who not only endured a full 30-45 minutes of aggressive questions, complaints and accusations before getting a chance to respond, but they also responded intelligently and with poise. Commander Reinbold reminded everyone that it is, in fact, unconstitutional (and perhaps undesirable, you might say!) to round up free citizens into vans and disappear them, and that despite the unsavory aspects of panhandling, there are larger issues of free speech and assembly to consider. He also opined, quite accurately, that the issue of panhandling and vagrancy is one that cannot be “arrested away."
Erik Cole adeptly defended the need for coordinated services (social work, housing, etc) for a long-term solution, and Commander Reinbold and Jeannie Alexander both defended The Contributor’s success story thus far, citing the number (which escapes me at the moment) of people placed in housing as a direct result of their program. Jeannie concluded with an impassioned plea to consider that panhandlers are actual human beings. The fact that anyone needs reminding of this is sad, but kudos to her for doing it.
The police department, the council, and the Mayor’s office are all obviously committed to demonstrating a willingness to hear community feedback. But frankly, I don’t understand why they are even bothering with the URA at this point. They’re saints for doing it, but when they are having to remind people of the unconstitutionality of rounding people up in vans, you have to wonder why they're even bothering. The URA bears little influence that I can identify (maybe more than I’d like to imagine with the Downtown Partnership), and they have a reputation at this point for being little other than a vehicle for petulant whining about “the homeless problem."
If the URA wants to be taken seriously, and perhaps make a difference, they need to jettison the morons they keep giving a voice to — and find an agenda that involves more than complaining.