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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 1999/1 Teves, 5760

Tony Snow

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Under siege by Gotham's limousine class -- NEW YORK MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI finds himself under siege by Gotham's limousine class because he wants the homeless to get 1) indoors and 2) gainfully employed. This has generated an outcry because it could lead society's dispossessed toward lives of independence and dignity -- which would make them unavailable for celebrity pity.

The mayor got moving after a homeless man named Parris Drake pounded a woman named Nicole Barrett over the head with a brick, nearly killing her. The two had never met; the victim just happened to stroll in the path of someone else's dementia.

Giuliani set out to coax the homeless off the streets and into shelters, hospitals or treatment facilities. -- and asked cops and social workers to take the lead.

Not so long ago, liberal activists would have deified anyone who did this. But now the mayor finds himself Public Enemy No. 1 for Rosie O'Donnell, Woody Harrelson and First Escapee Hillary Rodham Clinton, who told an audience that Jesus was homeless.

(The president's wife evidently forgot that Joseph and Mary had a home. Their government forced them out of it to make them pay taxes.)

Fittingly, the most devastating evidence against the first lady's position comes from her husband's administration. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has just released what it touts as the most exhaustive study ever of homelessness. It indicates that the vast majority of homeless folks have serious problems. An astonishing 86 percent admit to having suffered from alcohol, drug or mental-health problems during their lifetimes -- and 66 percent report such problems during the last month.

As for criminal records: "About half (49 percent) of homeless clients have spent five or more days in a city or county jail in their lifetime. ... Eighteen percent of clients have been in a state or federal prison, and 16 percent were held in juvenile detention at least once before reaching their 18th birthday. Altogether, 54 percent have some experience of incarceration."

A whopping majority (84 percent) are white -- and most, believe it or not, have health insurance. The study also boasts that 76 percent of homeless families improve their lot after getting a dose of help, while 60 percent of single homeless men and women get better.

With this in mind, consider Giuliani's record. In the five years since he took office, the number of people in New York's homeless shelters has dropped modestly -- from 5,600 families to 4,800 families and from 7,000 individuals to 6,700. City spending on the homeless meanwhile has increased.

In just the last year, the budget leaped nearly 10 percent, to $434 million. This doesn't count the hundreds of millions New York spends on hospitalization, health care, social services and the like.

The mayor's "work or else" policy -- which enacts a state law that takes effect next Monday -- is hardly brutal. He will evict the homeless from shelters if they don't get work within a month. But get this: He's offering job training, child care and transportation for all shelter residents, and if they can't find private-sector jobs, the city will find work for them.

Finally, consider the insinuation that cops are "arresting" the homeless and subjecting the wretches to an Abner Louima holiday. In the program's first two weeks, city workers reported 2,360 "contacts" with homeless men and women. Authorities whisked 86 to hospitals for treatment and 497 to shelters. Police issued summonses to 147 -- basically, telling them to move on. It jailed a relative handful who were wanted on outstanding warrants or were breaking the law at the time. A mayoral spokesman says police made arrests in 8.5 percent of the cases.

This isn't exactly Kristallnacht. The city actively rescued nearly four times as many people as it summoned -- and it may have saved some poor saps by removing them to jail. Let's face it, the longer most homeless remain on the streets, the worse for everyone.

The protesters seem primarily outraged that the police are involved, which is a weird reaction in an age when left-wingers are calling for more compassion among law-enforcement officers. But their central gripe is that Giuliani did what they never managed to pull off themselves -- at a time when he's thinking of challenging Mrs. Clinton for a U.S. Senate seat.

It is right and natural to feel compassion for those on the streets and honorable to help them. Our poorest in spirit are too often used as political props and too seldom honored as children of G-d. As if to drive the point home, limos and sedans are now cruising from posh suburbs to urban shelters, disgorging their passengers long enough to declaim into waiting cameras -- as if the solution to homelessness were prolonged exposure to cluelessness.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate