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Treating the poor badly

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It probably shouldn't be a surprise that, in an age when cities are as interested in "economic development" and selling themselves to tourists as they are in providing basic services, it would be tempting to simply outlaw the poor. After all, homeless people can make a place look shabby, and they might scare other people away.

Las Vegas hasn't exactly outlawed the poor. It has made it clear, however, that they aren't wanted. A new ordinance there makes it illegal for anyone to give food to "the indigent" in a city park, either for free or for a small fee. The indigent are defined as people "a reasonable person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive" assistance. The penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail, or possibly both.

City officials say the idea is to keep charities and others from providing regular handouts in parks and other places that could subsequently become hangouts for the poor. That might lead to complaints about crime, litter and public intoxication, and that would be bad for business, not to mention property values.

But no matter how anyone tries to explain this away, it's simply a shabby way for a city to treat human beings. A lot of public officials probably don't want to admit it, but the poor are a part of their city. Many of them are the city's native sons and daughters, and a large percentage of them are mentally ill and in dire need of help. They probably could use a cold bottle of water on a hot day. Rather than trying to look perfect to outsiders, a city is most healthy when it tries to find constructive ways to deal with and help these people.

Which is not to say cities don't have legitimate public-safety issues involving the poor and homeless, or that cities shouldn't control the size of crowds that gather in parks. A fine line exists between people in legitimate need and riffraff who pose as needy in order to profit from people's kindness.

Several years ago, Salt Lake City tried a public campaign to discourage giving money to panhandlers. The concern was that many of them were not truly needy, and that they were taking resources away from soup kitchens and other legitimate providers, while also scaring shoppers. People were instead encouraged to give out slips of paper telling panhandlers where they could go for a free meal.

That campaign fell flat, mostly because people did not want to appear cruel or uncaring.

Maybe that's just the nature of folks around here. If so, Salt Lake City would be wise never to consider an ordinance such as the one in Las Vegas. Ultimately, it wouldn't even be good for economic development.