We Americans are given to quick, efficient and dramatic solutions to our problems. Our pioneer heritage includes the tradition of pitching in to help a neighbor in trouble -- a barn-raising after a fire, blankets and medicine for victims of natural disasters and Live Aid concerts for the starving. One immediate response to the shivering homeless: let the police pick them up and transport them, forcibly if necessary, to a shelter.
Our Constitution, however, places limitations on our ability to respond collectively through the mechanism of government. We have decided, and institutionalized in our Bill of Rights, that no one may be deprived of liberty without due process of law. Forcing citizens off the streets and into shelters is involuntary incarceration as certainly as jailing them, even if the motivation is benevolent.
Many of our street people refuse shelter because they are more afraid of the violence of the shelters than of the risk of freezing; others brave the elements as an essential part of continuing demonstrations, believing that their willingness to bear the danger conveys a sense of the importance of their statement. Are these crazy responses? We think not.
The danger inherent in attempting to survive such freezing weather on the streets of Washington impels us all to seek quick solutions to a discomfiting spectacle. New York Mayor Ed Koch has resorted to the quick sweep-the-streets method. Apparently this response is politically popular, but does Big Brother really know best?
Mayor Barry, on the other hand, has announced a program that, while humane, also recognizes the constitutional restrictions on government action. In the mayor's program, the homeless will be identified, and a team will attempt to persuade individuals to accept shelter and transportation to that shelter. If a homeless person refuses assistance, police will attempt to determine that person's ability to comprehend the danger. If the police believe the street person cannot recognize the danger, he may require medical evaluation. People who are determined to be a danger to themselves may thereupon be commited involuntarily. Street people who persuade either the police or the doctors of their mental competence have the right to be left alone. This entire procedure is consistent with existing judicial guidelines and contains legal protections, including counsel, for those who are committed.
This does not constitute merely a "bureaucratically clever way of keeping crazy people from freezing to death," as William Raspberry charged in his column Jan. 6. Indeed, it constitutes a response sensitive to both the human condition and the sanctity of the Constitution.