Homeless in Santa Monica

If you're homeless in Santa Monica, Calif., you no longer can sleep on the beach or bathe in a public fountain. If you try to sleep in a doorway along the city's popular Third Street Promenade, you could spend up to six months in jail or pay a $500 fine.

Switch to New York. If you're in need of money (and if a bill is signed into law as expected), you'll no longer be able to ask passersby for it in front of an automatic teller machine, or wash a car windshield for it at a stoplight. If you do, you could spend time in jail or pay a $100 fine.

Tough measures like these aren't new, but cities have begun a renewed crackdown on panhandlers and the homeless by more strictly enforcing old laws or writing new ones. On one level, this is understandable. Aggressive panhandling isn't only a nuisance, it can be frightening. Shopkeepers rightly complain about homeless people living outside their stores and interfering with business. And city officials worry - with reason - about the impact of panhandlers and the homeless on tourism.

But a city government has a responsibility to all its citizens, not just shoppers and shopkeepers. Simply moving the homeless elsewhere or arresting a panhandler won't make the problem go away.

Some cities have gone beyond the tough law-and-order approach, with good results. In Las Vegas, when police encounter a homeless person, a member of the department's "help team" is sent to talk to that individual to see what kind of assistance is needed. In Miami, a 1 percent tax on restaurant meals has meant, among other things, three new 500-bed shelters. In Seattle, a $58 million trust fund goes toward affordable housing.

As public pleas to "do something" get louder, however, getting tough is something many city officials feel they can do. Certain policing measures are justified. But cities should be as committed to rehabilitation measures as they are to punitive ones. Compassion, as well as orderliness, is a civic virtue.

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