Thursday, July 03, 2008

A stretch of river XLIX: Cleaning up the neighborhood

I've noted before in this series that it's not entirely clear to me just who is responsible for the building and maintaining of the path that runs along the apartment complex side of the river: the city, or the complexes themselves. Whoever it is, has been behind in the "maintaining" part of the job, but that doesn't matter for this post, except indirectly. I've also noted before that street people like to congregate here when the weather is warmer. Aside from the usual concerns/complaints made about street people everywhere--and aside from that one fellow who struck a ninja-like pose in front of Scruffy, leading to a predictable result--I personally have no problem with their being there. In fact, this spring we'd begun to strike up friendly conversations with some of them. They seem to like Scruffy, that neighborhood goodwill ambassador.

Someone does have a problem with them, though, and that's what this post is about.

Once upon a time, the city tacitly tolerated the street people's presence here via providing waste receptacles from the parks department, placing them close to where people would congregate for the night. But for the past year, Someone--for convenience, we'll say "They"--has been waging a passive-aggressive battle with these folks. One morning, the waste receptacles were gone and in their place were some official-looking barricades erected at both ends of the apartment side of the river. These barricades have signage announcing that the "Bike Path" is now closed and that people not observing this will be considered in violation of the city's trespassing ordinance. It's not at all clear to me just what would constitute a violation: only bike-riders, or pedestrians, too? If it applies to pedestrians, then what about apartment residents who live within the area demarcated by the barricades who want to stroll along the path--are they, too, in violation of the ordinance? Whatever the case, I can't tell that the barricades have had any sort of effect at all. I still see the occasional bike-rider, but the path's disrepair and a section of steps that are not at all bike-friendly do much more to discourage riders. I finally decided that the signs were directed toward street people, many of whom have bikes and who ride them to the river when they come to stay for the night. But as I say, I didn't notice that the barricades changed much of anything. During this time, They have also cleared much of the bank of its undergrowth, thus making it less attractive to people who want to sleep in the bushes.

While I was away in Mobile, They acted again: They removed most of the benches and some of the other trash cans along the path. The benches are (or were) popular evening congregating and sleeping spots for street people, and the result is now that far fewer of them come to the river. There are some decks that look out on the river, and those remain places that people sleep on/under. So what will be next?, I wondered when I noted that the benches were gone. Will They remove the decks? Fence in the underside? Something more aggressive still?

Due to its location, this stretch of river is just going to attract street people and others who are down on their luck in various ways. It's on the edge of the central business district, across the street from the county jail. Stores that specialize in selling cheap liquor are here. There's an addiction-treatment facility just down the street. Churches in the neighborhood provide food and other aid to homeless and lower-income people. And let's face it: the river is more attractive than an alley. The city of course is perfectly within its rights--and has a responsibility--to appropriately regulate its citizens' behavior. I'm just not sure that passively-aggressively forcing people with few or no housing options to congregate "elsewhere" (read: NIMBY) actually solves anything, for anyone. The street people will find someplace else to congregate; eventually the property-owners will complain; the street people will be nudged out of that area to another Someplace Else, where they'll stay till those property-owners complain, and on it goes.

So, there you have it: fewer street people along our stretch of the Little Arkansas. They have partly succeeded in one version of cleaning up the neighborhood. Now: if They would just have a conversation with this complex's rent-paying residents, who seem intent on making a bigger mess of the grounds than the street people had ever made of the path . . .


R. Sherman said...

Most of the time, the people most affected by these sorts of regulations are not the ones causing the problem. Perhaps an outsider used the path to commit an assault or something so the path is closed, thereby injuring those who need/want it for other purposes.

I recall years ago, the son of a state legislator got drunk and fell off a cliff at one of state parks, which resulted in the legislature banning -- Rock Climbing in state parks, whose practitioners are some of the safest people around.


dd said...

r. sherman makes a good point. Either everyone suffers or they sweep it under the rug and pretend there isn't a problem.

A friend of mine worked for an agency that provided accommodations for homeless people. She would often ride in the organizations bus to some designated field in the middle of the night to herd these people to safe quarters when the weather turned to the extreme.

Years later she returned from a year long trip around the world and landed in Union Station in D.C... hours from where she worked in her youth. She was dragging her luggage across the station when she heard "Hi, Pam!" She looked over and it was a collective of some of the same faces she herded back home so many years ago.

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting, both of you.

I suppose, as I've continued to think about this post, that it's more accurate to characterize thinking about street people as a "dilemma" rather than as a "problem." My wish is that they be treated with dignity and respect . . . without presuming that I know "better" for all of them than they do.