Clear the Sidewalks

Public officials should remove homeless people from sidewalks, parks, and other public property.  Physically remove them.  It’s their duty, and they have ignored that duty in many cities around the United States.  More about that later.

I grew up in what was a typical middle class, white collar, post-War American suburb, awash with baby boomers learning about the world.  Occasionally, when Bobby and others were playing in Billy’s front yard, a dispute would arise and an angry Billy would tell Bobby to “get off my property.”  Of course, Billy didn’t own the property, his father did, but Billy was heir to the lord of the manor, which we all believed was good enough under the circumstances.

Bobby would retreat resolutely to the sidewalk, and Billy would yell “get out of here!”

Bobby would stand his ground.   “You can’t make me!   This is public property!”

Bobby had him there.  We all knew families owned the houses and their yards, but the sidewalk and the street were public property.  Actually, my father had once explained in concepts I didn’t understand that although he owned the sidewalk, the town had some kind of rights that made it like the town owned it.  So, it wasn’t exactly public property, but it sort of was.

What we as kids really were talking about is one of the most important rights that is ascribed to ownership of property:  Exclusivity.  That is, the right to exclude other people from the use of the property.   Billy had the right, in our minds, to exclude Bobby, to banish him from the front yard.  Billy’s family owned the property, and the property would be occupied and used exclusively as Billy and his family directed, and in no other way.

The sidewalk, however, was a different story.  The sidewalk was public property, and Billy had no right to exclude Bobby from it.

And so we came to understand that Bobby, a member of the public, could do whatever he wanted on public property.  He could thumb his nose at us in Billy’s yard, he could yell, he could sing songs that we thought were stupid, he could say all manner of nasty things, and there was nothing Billy or any else could do about it.

Which brings me to homeless people on the sidewalks of, say, San Francisco.  It’s public property, so they can do whatever they want.  They can pitch tents, they can cook meals, they can sing songs, they can behave in all manner of nasty ways, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Well, no, they can’t do those things.  As kids we didn’t have it completely correct.  Public property does not exist for the purpose of any member of the public doing whatever they want.  It can’t possibly be that way, because that would mean that Billy and Bobby and you and I each would have the right to put a chair on the same particular place on the sidewalk, and that’s a physical impossibility.   Public property doesn’t ascribe rights to us individually.  Rather, what right we have is shared by all members of the public.  No person has the right to occupy public property to the detriment of the public in general.

Rather than thinking of the property as “public,” it’s better to recognize that all property is private, but some private property is owned by the public.  It’s better to think this because all property, private and public, has essentially the same rights ascribed to it.   In particular, the right of exclusivity is ascribed to all property.  The property owner has the right to exclude people from property, and in the case of public property, the government is the property owner.

The people authorized to act on behalf of the government of many cities have failed to exercise their cities’ power to exclude homeless people from the cities’ sidewalks.  Homeless people have no right to occupy that space semi-permanently, and if that occupation impairs the use and enjoyment of that space by the general public, then the cities must exercise the right of exclusivity and remove those people from the sidewalks.

Remove them?!?!?  Yes.  Harsh?  Well, I’ll admit it sounds harsh but really, how could it be any other way?  I can’t build a Burger King in the parking lot at Yosemite National Park.  Why can’t I do it?  It’s public property, isn’t it?  Yes, it is public property in much the same way the sidewalk is, and that’s the point.  I may be a member of the public, but that doesn’t give me the right to use public property any way I want.  Government decides how I may use it, in accordance with laws.

Granted, our public officials are hamstrung, because the laws against vagrancy aren’t as vital as they once were.  Still, if in the best traditions of civil disobedience, demonstrators occupy public property and refuse to disperse after time, then they are arrested.  (We all understood this in the 60s; stage a sit-in, make your point, and if you don’t leave, you’re arrested. We understood that the government had the right to remove us, because we didn’t have the right to stay there to the detriment of the public.) How can it be different for people who, for their own purposes, choose to take up residence on our sidewalks?

“But, but, but …,” some say.  Yes, most homeless people are more or less unable, at least currently, to maintain a place for themselves to sleep.  They suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, or they’ve been forced to leave their homes due to domestic issues, unemployment or other factors.  They deserve our sympathy, our compassion, and our help.  However, their circumstances, sympathy-engendering or not, do not give them the right to occupy public property to the detriment of the public.

We cannot maintain a civil society if we permit, if we enable, uncivil behavior.    Government leaders who fail to remove homeless people from city property are failing to exercise the right of exclusivity to the detriment of the community.

Harsh?  Yes, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise.

What to do about all those people I say must be removed from the sidewalks?  Where must they go?   How can they be helped?  Those are the important questions.

7 Replies to “Clear the Sidewalks”

  1. Mark – For a fellow I view – and always have viewed – as a thoughtful and civilized pragmatist and as an articulate writer, I am in a quandry as to how you could write the following:
    “We cannot maintain a civil society if we permit, if we enable,
    uncivil behavior. Government leaders who fail to remove
    homeless people from city property are failing to exercise the right
    of exclusivity to the detriment of the community. Harsh? Yes, but
    it’s hard to conclude otherwise.”

    Edmund Burke might have written this. I think your analysis fails because you don’t answer what you acknowledge is an ”important question” – that is, “where will they go?” There are, I believe, increasingly civilized answers to that question – and it is an unavoidable fact that Government cannot do as you urge them to do without an answer to ‘where will they go?’ Whether or not that answer is civilized or barbaric is an important question – but some answer is simply unavoidable.

    • Bill – I don’t think my analysis fails; I think the analysis is correct. And I think it applies equally to truckers blocking highways and bridges.

      Yes, there are other questions to be answered, but for this week the question was whether homeless people should be permitted to occupy our sidewalks. I believe the answer to that question is “no,” and as I said, I don’t see how it can be any other way.

  2. If the squatters are not obstructing or otherwise interfering with the legitimate right of the public to move safely and comfortably on the sidewalk, it’s hard for me to get worked up about insisting that government officials remove them as a matter of principle. City employees have more important things to do.

    On the other hand, if the squatters are impeding the reasonable use of the sidewalks, it’s a different matter. Until the underlying social problems are solved (BTW, I’m in favor) and/or we have temporary shelter available (also in favor), police can simply force the squatters to move. The homeless people will find the next best alternative place to be.

    Observation: I’ve spent quite a bit of time walking the Hartford sidewalks and have never been impeded by homeless people.

    • Paul –

      To your point about Hartford, you’re correct. Homeless people are not a significant problem, although for some, probably many, people, their presence is off-putting. One of my earlier essays gave the numbers – homeless people live in such numbers that they create a real disruption in 10 or 15 cities, five or six states. Hartford and Connecticut haven’t made those lists.

  3. Mark,

    Good piece of thinking, written clearly and persuasively. I think Bill’s reaction is predictable, but he asks questions that require answers, as do you, and answering them will be very hard. In the meantime, thank you for expressing the Law and Order position.

    • Bill –

      Thanks. The “Law and Order position” makes me sound like a zealot. I’d prefer the “Rule of Law position.” Many commentators suggest that the rule of law is at the core of any civil society, and it troubles me greatly that people in this country seem to be losing respect for this fundamental principle. I don’t like people occupying our sidewalks, I don’t like people demonstrating in the streets when a judicial verdict doesn’t go as they would have liked, I don’t like people blocking streets with trucks because they don’t like COVID laws, I don’t like people storming the Capitol to stop our government from functioning. If the rules are made through a reasonably fair process, it’s our duty to follow the rules. One of the rules is “don’t pitch you tent on the sidewalk.”

  4. Mark, thank you for your thought provoking piece. My over-riding thought is that your entire piece is rooted in the peculiar American notion of private personal real estate. I wonder out loud where your questions lead us if one starts from the proposition that all property at least starts out as God’s. The ‘60s song “Signs” comes to mind.
    Ultimately I think any reasonable response to your question needs to consider that the people you propose to remove are victims of the dark side of the society that allows some of us to prosper — and ask the question.
    Thanks for sharing your piece.

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