A Tea Party-Style Fix for Homelessness

A California mayor's plan amounts to shaming the homeless and hoping they go away.

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I believe l’ve found the next tea party rock star. Her name is Maryann Edwards. She’s the mayor of Temecula, California. And she has a plan to end homelessness.

I want to tell you about her plan, but before I do, let me tell you a little bit about the city over which Edwards presides. Temecula’s home to around 100,000 people. Median income is about $75,000 a year. If propane and port’s your thing, it’s got the Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival. If you prefer your rides a little closer to the ground, you can check out the Temecula Valley Polo Club. And if you’re looking for some higher education, you can head down to the Professional Golfers Career College. It’s right there on Ynez Road.

If Temecula doesn’t sound like a hotbed of homelessness to you, you’re right. According to one estimate, there are 80 people living in Temecula without homes. That’s about .08 percent of the total population. So what, you may ask, got Mayor Edwards fired up about homelessness? Maybe the nature of her plan offers a clue. Let’s take a look.

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Part one of the plan: Give the homeless a home in the local jail. Edwards wants to dispatch more cops to places where homeless people congregate, armed with more laws making panhandling illegal.

Second: Discourage the citizens of Temecula from giving homeless people money. The rationale: The homeless use the money they panhandle for drugs and alcohol, so you should stop giving it to them. 

As it happens, there’s no science to back up that assertion, and actual studies suggest the contrary, that in fact the money is used mainly for less offensive, if no less addictive things, like food. But one guesses the rationale for the policy is less important than its likely impact: If you rely on the money people give you, but people are discouraged from giving you money, you may be motivated to find a different place to ask people for money — say, a town other than Temecula.

If you wanted to summarize these two parts of the plan in one sentence it might be: Remove homeless people from places where I, citizen in good standing, may have the misfortune of encountering them. In other words, the problem as Edwards appears to conceive it seems to be less “how do we help people who have fallen on hard times find a home” and more “how do we prevent Temeculians who have a home from experiencing the hardship of having to lay eyes on someone who doesn’t.”

[SEE: Cartoons about the Republican Party]

Ah, but wait. There’s a third part of the plan. It’s stated aim is to provide “housing and services for people who live on the streets.” Now that sounds like we’re getting somewhere.

Except … when ThinkProgress asked Edwards to describe the mechanism by which her plan would connect people with housing, she said the effort would “rely on volunteers and charitable organizations, all of whom are funded through private donations,” rather than government. And when Nonprofit Quarterly noted that “a very affluent community, Temecula could probably do a lot more to help the city’s tiny homeless population out of its own taxpayer revenues,” Edwards’ response was revealing. She said that “homeless people panhandling on the off ramps are homeless by choice,” have “turned down” help “in favor of maintaining their homeless lifestyle,” and that while the goal is to provide the homeless with services to help them get on their feet, “at some point” the homeless “will be held accountable and may be asked to leave the program” at which point “they will receive nothing. NOTHING.” The all-caps are hers. And now we’re getting down to the nub of it.

At bottom, Edwards’s argument is that the homeless are undeserving of our help, so we shouldn't have to pay to provide them with aid and assistance. And that’s a line of reasoning that conservatives have used to undermine social programs for years. Think of Reagan and Gingich on welfare. Or the tea party on just about anything. Why do they do it? Because when your basic policy programs are as mean-spirited as this, you’ve got to do something to broaden their basic appeal. And if you're not willing to make your proposals more compassionate then you better make sure people believe the proposed recipients of aid aren't worthy of compassion. On that score, Edwards is off to a terrific start. Tea party stardom awaits.