Bureaucracy Kills: Catholic Shelter Housing ‘Too Many’ Homeless People

HOMELESS-WINTER-2There is libertarianism — with its debatable scope and definitions and borders — and then there is parody libertarianism, that is, the one where every business person is dubbed heroic, no matter how cronyistic they may be, and of course, where the Little Guy is squashed daily beneath the mighty, faceless feet of Making Money because no one cares; and so Government is Necessary.

Apropos of that inaccurate impression, those on the moderate left — the guiltiest when it comes to repeating it as gospel —  should consider the following story.

The Mayor’s office of Green Bay, Wisconsin recently sent Catholic homeless shelter St. John the Evangelist a letter that says by allowing “too many people to stay at its overnight shelter” St. John is violating the terms of their building permit (they debate this).

The reason for the shelter’s sudden upswing in homeless people might just be that it’s December and December is cold. In fact, the shelter is only open in cold weather and is intended to be an emergency location for people who don’t have anywhere else to go. Nevertheless, as reported in this local Fox affiliate, the charity’s building is permitted to house 64 people, and 64 people it shall house and no more.

Last week, the city sent St. John’s officials a letter saying they had five days to comply with its conditional use permit capacity of 64 overnight residents. According to the city, the shelter has been over its capacity every night in December, reaching as high as 86 people one night last week.

“When we grant a conditional use permit to someone, we expect them to hold up their end of the deal and they clearly aren’t,” said Jim Schmitt, Green Bay’s mayor.

“As far as we’re concerned the operational plan allows us to go to 84,” said Reilly.

Green Bay’s assistant attorney says that doesn’t matter because the shelter’s operational plan isn’t the same as the 64 beds on its city permit.

“They cannot put an operating plan together that violates the CUP,” said Jim Mueller, an assistant city attorney for Green Bay.

“We need to take care of the people who are going to be coming to the shelter tomorrow night in the middle of the snowstorm,” said Reilly.

That could cost the shelter $681. The city plans to start issuing a fine of that amount each night the shelter goes over capacity.

Neither the news reports nor the actual letter from the mayor’s office detail any witnessed overcrowding or unsafe circumstances, only that the numbers are not matching up in the way that they must (and that some local residents have complained about “drinking and loitering”).

It is not an exaggeration to say that this shelter could be saving the lives of homeless people this winter and by extension  the mayor could be killing people by preventing them from being helped by a willing charity.

Furthermore, the idea that the mayor of the city can and should make sure these fines occur is based on three assumptions:

1) That the people who are at the shelter every day and can actually gauge how much space is available do not know as well as the mayor does, or as well as the previously written mandates says.

2) That even if the shelter is uncomfortable, even bordering on dangerously overcrowded, that the alternative of potentially freezing to death is better and that the homeless individuals cannot decide for themselves whether or not to stay at the voluntarily-offered shelter, and or whether they would prefer to brave a night in the cold.

And 3) Since the city council and the city planning commission could permit the shelter to house more people if they decide, they also have the legitimacy to decide such matters. Even though, according to the Fox story, they won’t meet until next year, thereby making the shelter choose now between losing money to fines or turning away people seeking shelter.

All of these assumptions are authoritarian,condescending, bureaucratic,  and downright dangerous. They have nothing to do with helping the poor and downtrodden. Perhaps the fourth, worst assumption of all is simply that “rules are rules” no matter anyone’s good intentions.

Quite simply, advocates for the state can have it both ways. Private charity can never feed all the hungry or mend the sick, they say, so we simply must have government. What’s that? You don’t have the proper papers for giving out that food? Sorry.

The New Deal arguably began the demise of mutual aid societies and other voluntary charities and social securities and the Great Society mostly finished the job. The current common attitude about charity  is beautifully summed up by the late, great Harry Browne who said, “Government is good at one thing: It knows how to break your legs, hand you a crutch, and say, “See, if it weren’t for the government, you wouldn’t be able to walk.”

And the Green Bay story is not unique. How about New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s restriction on food donations to the homeless (at government-run shelters) because calorie and salt counts could not be ascertained? How about the anarchist group Food, Not Bombs blocked from feeding the homeless in Orlando, with their members even jailed? How about Philadelphia’s ban on feeding the homeless in public? How about the loophole for the Green Bay Mayor’s legitimized pushiness, the very existence of zoning laws?

Hell, how about every time a small business owner, or a food truck driver, or a taxi driver cannot start a business due to the artificially high cost of entry into that market? What have we lost if those individuals become dependent on the state instead of becoming entrepreneurs?

In spite of all this, individuals do keep on, demonstrated beautifully by this quote from the Green Bay shelter’s deacon, Tim Reilly: “The obstacles [the mayor] may put in front of us are secondary to taking care of those who need shelter. This is what it means to be Christian.”

Still, even when wearing a minarchist or moderate hat, or even pro-government hat, these kinds of robotic restrictions on kindness are infuriating. Again, people who believe in a some kindly welfare state shouldn’t even support red tape like this; what they do instead is ignore it and excuse it and incidents like the above mentioned.  And by not even letting the private sector compete fairly with government, to see who might win, the latter aptly demonstrates that it’s not just a coercive institution, but a damned cheat as well.