Winter on the Grates

IT seems ironic that when winter temperatures fall, sympathy for the homeless also dips. As the snows pile up to near-record heights, a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports that more and more cities are enacting and enforcing anti-vagrancy and anti-panhandling laws, paced in sternness by New York City, with a homeless population estimated at 86,000.

The New York Transit Authority is now distributing leaflets to subway patrons, reading: ``Ladies and gentlemen, panhandling on trains is against the law. Don't give to lawbreakers.''

San Francisco, noted for its social permissiveness, has been issuing thousands of citations to homeless persons ``intending to camp'' for the night.

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Many urban residents see the presence of the homeless as one more sign of a breakdown of public order, and some policing measures may be justified. But we must ask: Is homeless-bashing becoming a politically safe posture for city officials? The evidence suggests that, in fact, American hearts are deeply divided. There may be a narrowly negative response: Do not panhandle in my backyard. But at another level, the estimated 2 million homeless in this country arouse more compassion than condemnation.

A recent poll commissioned by Parade magazine found that more than three-quarters of the respondents felt ``sympathetic'' toward the homeless; roughly the same majority believes that the government should do more to help them. An astounding 36 percent said they could imagine themselves becoming homeless.

Undeniable nuisances at times, undeniable fellow citizens always, the homeless are sad indicators of the economy and alarming proof of the extent to which alcoholism and drug abuse have ravaged a generation. But for the passerby, stepping around them en route to or from a home, the homeless finally measure how the American family, how the American sense of community has frayed.

To get the homeless off the streets and back into the community, cities must become as ingenious with rehabilitation programs as they have become at prosecution by law. If Americans with a place to sleep can do no more than punish the homeless for being homeless, the system is failing everybody.

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