BEING homeless is a Catch-22 situation. To be homeless is no crime. On the other hand, anyone in the forlorn condition of being homeless can be arrested for a variety of crimes, from trespassing to vagrancy.
In Miami, where a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union has been in the courts since 1988, a United States district judge has broken the vicious circle. According to Judge C. Clyde Atkins's ruling, Miami must provide two "safety zones" for its estimated population of 6,000 homeless. In these zones - near meal centers and health clinics - homeless persons cannot be arrested unless they are committing a crime beyond being homeless.
Furthermore, Miami police are prohibited from conducting in any part of the city those sweeps that hide the homeless when a sporting attraction, for example, is bringing tourists into town.
Some critics hesitate to agree with supporters who describe the ruling as "blazing the future path of homeless rights." They argue that Miami and other cities should take more positive and more permanent action to solve the plight of the homeless. But after years of looking the other way and practicing the politics of "not in my neighborhood you don," those who have homes have been forced at the least to examine their indifference and hypocrisy. A century ago, recognizing the Catch-22 of the homeless, th e French satirist Anatole France wrote, "The law, in its majestic fairness, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges."
"Safety zones" escape this legal dilemma by means of a makeshift. It is understandable that city officials should grumble about the cost of complying. But they must ask themselves: What is the cost of not complying, both to those whose lives are being wasted and those who are compelled to witness that waste as passersby? In the Miami ruling, there is a reminder to all cities of the short-term and long-term challenge of homelessness. New jobs and low-cost housing constitute the cheapest as well as the onl y satisfactory long-term answer. Until then, "safety zones" do the justice of acknowledging that citizens who live on the fringes also share basic rights.