Broken Windows and Broken People

It is against the law to feed the hungry on the streets of St. Louis. Hand a homeless man a PB&J and the police will ticket you. Kindness is illegal here.

I suppose the idea comes from the belief that the homeless are like stray dogs – if you feed them, they keep showing up at the back door. If you don’t, they go away.

It is more likely, though, that it comes from the policing theory called “the broken windows doctrine”, first described by the sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. To quote Wiki, “The theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.”

Chief Dotson, of the St. Louis P.D., is a proponent of broken windows policing, and directs his officers to enforce minor infractions vigorously. Apparently, this also applies to panhandling by the homeless, and handing out free food by the charitable: come down hard on the homeless and the charitable, and they will go elsewhere, maybe even to the point of “going straight”. Neighborhood life improved.

What the chief and people like him don’t get is that broken people are not broken windows…not like he thinks.

Most anyone who has worked with the homeless will tell you that homelessness is not a lifestyle choice of the lazy. Their homelessness is the result of mental illness and/or severe depression often mixed with a series of bad breaks. Treating them like stray dogs or petty vandals does nothing to solve the problem of homelessness. Criminalizing those who try to help them only exacerbates the problem further: it poisons the relationship between the police and the citizens.

We may have driven the homeless out of our neighborhoods so we don’t have to see them or think about them, but they are still somewhere, festering, hurting, and abandoned by their own government.

I have my own broken windows theory, and it comes from Jesus, who said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do to me.” The poor are broken windows; they aren’t the ones breaking windows.

Jesus did not treat the poor and homeless like stray dogs to be driven away. He did not treat them as petty criminals to force into conformity. He did not prosecute those who tried to show compassion and empathy to the poor among us. He treated them all like the children of God they are, and he taught us to do the same.

The enforcement of laws that punish the homeless is unethical. The creation of laws to punish the charitable is immoral. The city government must repeal the laws that punish its citizens for taking care of fellow citizens, and the police need to stop harassing both the poor and the charitable. I can’t imagine cops like doing it anyway. I know enough cops to know they probably cringe while doing it. Stop it now and let’s do something constructive, because this isn’t it.

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