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Home > Culture and Society

Burger: Off

4 August 2006

Las Vegas, as a city, isn't big on self-denial. It sees quite a lot of money go merrily down the tubes one way or another. The cost of running all of its neon signs is roughly equivalent to the price of the lifelong compliance of three African dictators a day (it says here).

Also, roughly 87% of its homeless population were millionaires this time last week (we read somewhere that we made up). Sucks to be them even more as of this week, since the city council have made it an offence to give them food. Better watch where you drop that half-chewed burger, then, or you'll find yourself in a cell with a gaggle of suspiciously unfeminine hookers.

We're familiar enough with the old 'cruel to be kind' chestnut - we've got plenty of posters here insisting that it's better not to give money to beggars, but rather to a charity who will be able to do them more good. Fair enough, for the most part, although we sort of take issue with the whole 'oh, but they'll spend it on crack' angle - surely a) you can't get lofty and quid-pro-quo about your 20p, just because you're giving it up like the saint you are, and b) by giving them money for crack, you're probably saving an old lady from being mugged, and thus doing two good deeds in one. Most excellent.

But yes, hard as it can be to turn away from a pleading, pavement-bound individual and keep the change you don't really need to yourself, a bit of long-term thinking goes a long way. Still, the new Las Vegas ordinance seems pretty harsh. Money is one thing, but food is something else altogether. Giving food to a hungry person, surely, directly helps them in a way that has no societal side-effects.

According to the ordinance, however, giving out food does hurt both the homeless and the rest of the populace. It's aimed at getting rid of mobile soup kitchens from parks, because they 'attract the homeless' (go on, just say it, 'like flies to a big heapa shit') and make the parks unpleasant for others. Also, the mayor Oscar Goodman's perspective is that giving out just food, without drug counselling or other long-term help, is counterproductive.

So the rationale is that, denied handouts in one place, the homeless will be encouraged to trudge to a proper shelter where they can get more than a cup of soup. As to spontaneous individual efforts, it was pointed out after some council members fretted that a decent sort simply throwing a sub a hobo's way wouldn't incur a penalty. 'You'd technically be in violation,' said council bloke Steve Wolfson, 'but you wouldn't be cited... marshals will get specialised training on enforcement.' (Who coughed? Quiet at the back.)

This is all fine in theory, but taken as a whole with the other recent actions of the LVPD - notching up arrests of loitering homeless, and forcibly hospitalising more of the mentally illhomeless - it's slightly redolent of seafood. Take that 'you won't be cited for individual acts of generosity or charity' bit - that rather relies on the discretion and good judgement of the individual Vegas copper, who may have neither. Most citizens probably wouldn't want to take the chance of being pounced on, even for a ticking off rather than the full Tazer-roasting, just so a filthy tramp can get a bite. Not when they could just as easily chuck their leftovers in an all-you-can-eat circular buffet of choice for the discerning bum.

Then there's the attitude that all this suggests - the priority clearly isn't to help the homeless, but to help everyone else who has to put up with them being dirty and scary-looking. And thepolicy of denying someone something to force them to go elsewhere is both mean-spirited and ham-fisted. If you're homeless and have at least some of the attendant issues to deal with - addiction, psychosis, depression - and rely on a soup kitchen for food, and the soup kitchen suddenly closes, the interruption in your routine and removal of sustenance is more likely to throw you into a degree of confusion, than focus your mind on getting a more comprehensive service elsewhere.

There's no suggestion that the ordinance will run in tandem with increased efforts to help the homeless get off the streets (into somewhere other than chokey, that is) - it's all just done bydefault. This forces responsibility onto people who aren't in much of a state to handle it - who might have ended up homeless because of their inability to exert control over their lives to begin with.

Such artificial plonking of autonomy on the struggling, in a nation that infantilises its citizens even more than we do, might seem like an absurd counterbalance to not allowing adults to watch porn. And it is, but it is also just another form of nannying. It's sternly withholding what the council might as well be considering treats from what they seem to see as children. It's the only way they'll learn, see? But the canny Las Vegas toerag population will surely figure ways around the new rules. Knowing they'd be arrested anyway for loitering forlornly in parks where the food used to be, they'll literally take candy from babies, and then wait to be carted off to a warm cell for the night. Now that's social progression in action.

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