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Editor's note: Our last issue (December/January 1993-94) featured a series of articles "On Intervention" by Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Falk, Diane Orentlicher, and Carl Conetta, Charles Knight, and Robert Leavitt. Here we extend the discussion with responses from Thomas Harrison and Thomas G. Weiss.

Dear Editor:

The left's response to the destruction of Bosnia, its failure to rally in support of Bosnia's fight against aggression and genocide, has been shameful. I share Christopher Hitchens's anger over this failure, but to ascribe it to a kind of knee-jerk anti-interventionism is, I think, very wide of the mark indeed. On the contrary, there is growing sympathy on the left for intervention, and Hitchens's article is an example of this unfortunate phenomenon. Hitchens rightly deplores the fact that "no serious march or rally expressed any solidarity with the Bosnian cause." (The Campaign for Peace and Democracy has organized several demonstrations and public forums with precisely this theme, but they have been small.) There has been plenty of compassion for the sufferings of the Bosnian people, of course, but little interest in supporting the Bosnians' war of self defense. So the problem is that liberals and radicals decline politically to give this sort of solidarity, not that they fear solidarity might be misconstrued as a demand for intervention, as Hitchens oddly claims. Along with the mainstream press and the Bush and Clinton administrations, they have treated the conflict in Bosnia as a tribal civil war. This is the reason the call for lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia "stayed on the fringes of debate" -- not because demanding that Bosnia be allowed to defend itself "seemed to call upon the US government to act in some sense as a morally confident agent." After all, the reasoning goes, if it's just a bunch of mad tribes slaughtering one another, why help one more tribe to arm itself?

While the liberal and radical press have exhibited little sense of solidarity with the actual struggle of Bosnia against Serb and Croat aggression, they have been full of proposals for various forms of intervention, by Clinton or the UN, all of which are quite explicitly counterposed to the idea of lifting the arms embargo so that the Bosnian government and armed forces might have a chance of defeating the aggressors and rebuilding a multicultural society themselves. From the beginning of the war, the reigning assumption has been that Bosnians are, like all Balkan and perhaps all Eastern European peoples, basically incompetent. Their only hope lies in some sort of neo-colonial trusteeship or protectorate, under whose benevolent auspices they will receive instruction in the mysteries of self-government, democracy, and civilized behavior. In short, most progressives in this country, far from being paralyzed by a fear of somehow legitimizing intervention, are all too willing to believe that the US government and other western states, while not the ideal "moral agents" perhaps, are certainly preferable to the people on the ground.

Hitchens notes that there have been much more insistent and explicit calls for intervention from the European left. To call these demands "an echo of the great international campaign to defend the Spanish Republic between 1936 and 1939," however, is a bit misleading. It is of course true that "non-intervention" was the slogan under which British and French (and American) realpolitik allowed unhindered intervention by German and Italian fascism. But, to my knowledge, no one on the left advocated sending French and British troops to "save" Spain. Every radical in his or her right mind knew that the gentlemen who ruled those states could under no circumstances be entrusted with the job of defending Spanish democracy, since they were busily strangling the republican cause with their arms embargo (against "both sides," to be sure), thus deliberately interfering with the efforts of the Spanish people to win their freedom -- this was what the international left was trying to stop.

Today, in contrast, there is perhaps a little more sympathy in Europe for lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia than there is in this country, but not much. Instead, there is on the European left, and also among American progressives, a growing tendency to look toward great power "collective security," even through NATO, as a substitute for popular struggles. Whether in Bosnia, Somalia, or Haiti, the indigenous populations are quickly written off as incapable of achieving their own liberation. Through a process of circular reasoning, the handicaps that have been imposed on their struggles by imperial interference (Bosnia's military weakness due to the arms embargo, the Haitian people's helplessness in the face of the American-trained police and armed forces) are cited as the very reasons why only these self-same imperial powers can bring peace and human rights. The trouble is, they can't and they won't.

In Bosnia, the interventions that the United States and the other western powers have so far undertaken -- the arms embargo and the "peace talks" -- have been completely counterproductive. They have simply helped Serbian and Croatian aggression, because their purpose has been to bring about Bosnia's surrender as quickly as possible. If there is any hope for Bosnia, it lies in stopping these cruel interventions, not calling for new ones.

Thomas Harrison

Associate Director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (The Campaign has not taken a position on intervention in Bosnia.)

Dear Editor:

The search for order may be no less quixotic now than in the past as the struggle for decolonization and self-determination give way to ethnic, religious, and political fragmentation. Yet in light of genocide and the massive abuse of human rights in war zones around the world, should Pontius Pilate be the model for both the American and the international response? The fatalism and isolationism that flow from "On Intervention" are as distressing as the political situation that the essays describe. Noam Chomsky's sound-bites and invectives about Washington's historically evil foreign policy are easy enough to ignore. But similar conclusions also emanate from Dick Falk's contention that it is "nearly impossible to carry an intervention to political completion" in light of "the limits of military power in the post-colonial world." Presumably most readers will respond negatively to Conetta/Knight/Leavitt's rhetorical question, "Free Reign for the Sole Superpower?"

In contrast, Christopher Hitchens at least leaves open the possibility of US military action in support of legitimate humanitarian objectives, concluding that a purely non-interventionist position amounts to abstention from the foreign policy debate. And Diane Orentlicher's is the solitary voice in the wilderness calling for the United States to "provide clear-sighted leadership in defining appropriate occasions for humanitarian intervention -- notably including situations of genocide -- as well as situations warranting restraint."

Both supporters and critics of outside intervention must clarify the meaning of "intervention" and propose ways to ensure more congruence between Washington's decisions and humane values. Intervention is loosely and commonly understood as a spectrum of possible actions intended to alter internal affairs elsewhere and ranging from telephone calls to the dispatch of troops. However the term "intervention" should be reserved for economic and military sanctions authorized by Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Whatever one's views about the fairness of the preponderant role (some would say "leadership") for the permanent members of the Security Council, UN decision-making is the only available and sensible way to control unilateral intervention. While it is inevitable that major powers exercise their authority, it is not inevitable that they should subject themselves to some standard of international law and oversight.

Whether or not observers would prefer a different constitution for the world organization, a decision is legitimate when the Security Council authorizes coercion against governments and insurgents that resist the expressed international will. While many lament the absence of an independent UN military, the reality of the present military balance means that there can be no effective international enforcement for the forseeable future without a dominant American role.

Political pressures now point to what most of the contributors to "On Intervention" seem to prefer, namely paring back the US military and stopping those UN military efforts intended to alleviate suffering. But what is the alternative to international intervention in order to halt atrocities in Bosnia, give civil society a chance to take root in Somalia, or restore an elected government in Port-au-Prince?

In the future, preventive measures could forestall the spread of chaos. But here too, the military would be essential. In the long term, economic and social development may mitigate conflict; but effective prevention today and tomorrow would necessarily entail the physical deployment of well-armed troops. These soldiers would require contingency plans and reserve firepower for immediate retaliation, amounting to an advance authorization for Chapter VII.

The disasters looming behind ethnic conflict in much of the Third World and the former Soviet Union should catalyze clearer thinking on intervention than we have read.

Thomas G. Weiss

Brown University

Editor's note: Vivian Rothstein's "Is There
a Right to be Homeless?" (Boston Review, December/January 1993-94, and reprinted as an Op-Ed article in The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times) elicited a number of letters from our readers. Here, Harry Simon, Benjamin S.Waxman, Mark H. Sidran, and David Wagner respond to Rothstein.

Dear Editor:

In cities throughout America -- San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Santa Monica, Portland, and San Diego -- homeless individuals face arrest and incarceration for weeks or even months for sleeping, using sleeping bags and blankets, possessing property, or merely remaining in public spaces within our cities. R.D., a homeless resident of Atlanta, summarized the situation this way: "I know we don't wear the best of clothes. I know that we don't smell like the best of people. But we're still human. So why should we be arrested? Might as well just go ahead and throw us in the dog pound and lock the gate. Give us an extra two legs to walk around on, and put a collar around our neck." Last November, a federal district court judge declared illegal Miami's efforts to drive homeless persons from that city. In Pottinger v. City of Miami, Judge C. Clyde Atkins of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued a decision preventing the City of Miami from arresting and jailing homeless individuals for sleeping in public spaces in that city.

In reaching his decision, Judge Atkins recognized that the unavailability of low-income housing or alternative shelter to homeless persons means that they often "have no choice but to conduct involuntary, life-sustaining activities in public spaces. The harmless conduct for which they are arrested is inseparable from their involuntary condition of being homeless. Consequently, arresting homeless people for harmless acts they are forced to perform in public effectively punishes them for being homeless." Judge Atkins concluded that arresting and jailing homeless individuals for sleeping, sitting, or eating in public is cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the United States Constitution. And he required Miami to set aside certain "safe zones" where homeless persons could exist in public areas free from arrest as a result of their homeless status.

I was saddened to read Vivian Rothstein's article in which she labeled Judge Atkins's decision "a crushing defeat for human rights." Judge Atkins has rightly been criticized for the novel remedy he fashioned. The idea of creating "homeless zones" has been rejected by advocates for cities and homeless persons alike. But his basic conclusion is unassailable. It is wrong to arrest and jail homeless persons for eating, sleeping, or simply remaining on public land -- for harmless conduct they are compelled to pursue in public places.

Moreover, the Pottinger decision has had positive results for Miami's homeless population. Because city officials and the homeless plaintiffs found the safe zones proposed by Judge Atkins unacceptable, the City of Miami has now stopped arresting homeless persons for sleeping in public areas.

In addition, Pottinger has prompted the City of Miami to raise funds to aid its homeless population, a step the city had previously resisted. Soon after Judge Atkins issued his decision, the City of Miami began imposing a half-cent meal tax designed to raise several million dollars for the construction of shelters for the homeless.

Ms. Rothstein sees Judge Atkins's decision as "institutionaliz[ing] homelessness by permitting large numbers of people to live in sanctioned sub-standard conditions in the midst of our cities." As an attorney representing homeless persons in Santa Ana, California, I see things somewhat differently.

Earlier this year, I interviewed dozens of homeless persons cited under Santa Ana's anti-camping ordinance. These individuals face possible jail time for covering themselves with blankets and sleeping bags in public spaces. In defending people charged with such "crimes," I haven't sought to create a "right to be homeless." I am simply trying to assure that homeless individuals don't spend weeks or months in jail simply because they are homeless.

What would Ms. Rothstein ask me to do? Surely, I should not sit by passively while Santa Ana harasses and jails homeless persons for sleeping, possessing property, or merely remaining in public areas within the city. Santa Ana city officials have no right to "solve" the social problems they associate with homelessness by driving homeless residents of Santa Ana -- some of whom have lived here for decades -- to surrounding cities.

In defending Santa Ana's efforts to drive out its homeless population, the Orange County District Attorney recently cited a Los Angeles Times article by Ms. Rothstein (excerpted from her article in the Boston Review) for the proposition that "those who attempt to impede government efforts to keep the homeless from lodging in public areas are the ones who condemn the homeless to a life of despair."

Orange County has the second highest housing costs in the nation. California is suffering from a severe economic recession. Homeless adults are eligible for only $108 in general assistance benefits and there is a four year waiting list for available public housing in Orange County. The City of Santa Ana has approximately 3,000 homeless individuals and 332 available shelter beds. Not surprisingly, shelter providers in Santa Ana turn homeless persons away on a daily basis. They are subject to incarceration for unlawfully lodging in public areas. Where would Ms. Rothstein suggest that these homeless individuals go?

Until someone can answer that question, I will continue to fight city officials who seek to arrest and jail homeless persons for living in public areas. Court decisions that strike down such laws merely acknowledge that it is wrong for cities to criminalize homelessness. To characterize these decisions as a "crushing defeat for human rights" is utter nonsense.

Harry Simon

Staff Attorney, Legal Aid Society of Orange County

Dear Editor:

Is there a right to be homeless? Not necessarily. However, when a municipality criminalizes the public existence of involuntarily homeless people by systematically arresting them and destroying their belongings, it has violated fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution. In his 1992 decision, Federal Judge Atkins did little more than recognize these basic freedoms and liberties and provide the homeless a modicum of protection from this police brutality. Judge Atkins concluded that Miami's anti-homeless policy violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on punishment based on involuntary status. This doctrine prohibits punishing people for being drug addicts or alcoholics. It would undoubtedly bar the government from arresting people for being gay or having AIDS. Although Ms. Rothstein questions whether, as a matter of social policy, it is good to acknowledge homelessness as an involuntary condition, in Miami the uncontroverted expert testimony established this fact.

Judge Atkins held that Miami's strategy of seizing and destroying the property of the homeless violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures and Fifth Amendment protection from taking of private property without just compensation. These same laws protect us from having our cars confiscated when we are stopped for traffic offenses and from having our real estate appropriated, without compensation, when the government decides it serves the public best to run a highway through it.

Finally, Judge Atkins found that Miami's harassment of the homeless unjustifiably burdened their fundamental right to travel. This is the same law that prohibits states from erecting artificial barriers to migration such as denying public benefits for nonresidency. By enforcing its "zero tolerance" policy, Miami effectively forced its homeless out or constantly to be on the move. While Miami claimed its anti-homeless policy advanced legitimate goals (i.e. maintaining parks and public areas, promoting tourism, crime prevention, etc.), none was sufficiently tailored to justify such an oppressive course of action.

Some might say we should ignore these constitutional rights to rid our cities of the visible presence of the homeless. Ms. Rothstein might even argue this would serve their best interests. I suggest we cannot stand in judgment and tamper with the delicate balance struck by the Constitution between the rights of government and the individual. The Constitution has stood as the guardian of democracy and protector of the politically powerless for more than two centuries. If we neglect its boundaries today, they will be weakened tomorrow when a different majority seeks to oppress us.

Judge Atkins did not sentence homeless people to a life of marginalized existence in public places. Indeed, he specifically disclaimed the authority to remedy homelessness. Instead, he identified the Constitution's firm barrier against a city's oppressive campaign to cleanse its streets of this unwanted people. He put the pressure back where it belongs, on government and its constituents, to develop effective programs to combat homelessness while respecting individual rights.

Judge Atkins's plan has worked. Miami has begun attempting to address homelessness in a responsible, sensitive way. Sadly, it wasted five years defending its right to arrest homeless people for doing what they must in public. However, few would deny that the city never would have changed its ways had it not been taken to task in court.

Benjamin S. Waxman

Co-chair, Legal Panel, Miami Chapter of the ACLU

Plaintiffs' lawyer, Pottinger et al. v. City of Miami

Dear Editor:

Vivian Rothstein's "Is there a Right to be Homeless?" is right on the mark. Seattle and other cities around the country are struggling with the issue of homelessness as a challenge far more complex than merely economics of housing. They are recognizing that chronic drug and alcohol addiction and severe mental illness are major contributing factors for a majority of "street" people. Public policy at both the federal and local level is evolving into a more comprehensive strategy aimed at the complexities of the problem. Treatment, housing, and jobs are important components of that strategy, but so too is reasserting basic standards of civil behavior, not only to protect the community's interests, but because, as Rothstein eloquently states, it is in the interest of the street people themselves. While laws alone are not the solution, they are part of it. Maintaining the civility of our streets and the quality of urban life is vitally important for all of us. By setting standards and limits on behavior we help the addicted and mentally ill confront the reality of their afflictions and the need to come to grips with it, rather than enabling self-destructive behavior through denial and blame shifting. More broadly, increasing levels of misbehavior concentrated in certain urban districts cause the law abiding to withdraw from the streets not simply because they are offended, but because they feel threatened. Their withdrawal sets in motion a dangerous downward spiral of blight, decay, and crime of which the street people themselves are ultimately the most frequent victims. As the law abiding withdraw from an area, retail businesses are marginalized, causing many to fail or relocate. Vacant storefronts lead to graffiti, trash, the stench of urine in the doorway, and more misbehavior which causes more withdrawal. Criminal predators are drawn to such areas like moths to the light, and it is the homeless and the helpless who are likely to be preyed upon the most. The loss of productive economic activity in these areas not only destroys jobs, but reduces sales tax and other revenues that are vital to support the local government services which help people in need. Finally, both public and private charitable financial support for helping street people is undermined by the increasing association in the minds of many people of this population and misbehavior. The "advocates" and the media characterize the shift taking place as a "backlash" against the homeless, but it is more aptly characterized as a backlash against failed public policies, policies that have failed both street people and the community. The "advocates" invoke their ideological bogeymen of capitalism, "downtown business," and Reagan/Bush as the root problems while defending the "right" of chronic public inebriates to "self-medicate with alcohol" until they are ready for treatment. The truth is that both the right and the left have contributed to the crisis on our streets; the right through a Darwinian slashing of essential services and spending at just the time when the demographics of the "Boomers" bring the largest cohort in history of mentally ill and addicted to the streets, and the left by beating its dialectical drum about class victimization rather than acknowledging the role of individual responsibility and accountability in determining what happens to people.

If we are to succeed in addressing homelessness, we will have to be honest in assessing the nature and causes of the problem and commit to the comprehensive strategy necessary to doing something about it, from housing to treatment, jobs to law enforcement. I believe there is far more common ground in this regard than the shrill rhetoric and political theater of the "advocates" might suggest. Vivian Rothstein has made an important contribution to the debate with her thoughtful and gutsy piece.

Mark H. Sidran

Seattle City Attorney

Dear Editor:

I want to thank Vivian Rothstein for exemplifying the liberal view of homelessness. For as I argue in my book Checkerboard Square (based on several years of research and participant observation with homeless people in a New England city), neither liberals nor conservatives really understand the crisis of homelessness and poverty (and a host of other social problems). True, liberals and social service providers prefer the carrot to the stick: they urge rehabilitation, treatment, and shelter for the poor, rather than some of the more extreme repression of conservatives. But if street people and others refuse to do what "we" want them to do, the alternative becomes quite similar to the solutions of conservatives and much of the public; get rid of them! Having offered poor people so much (perhaps a referral to a degrading municipal shelter or a referral to counseling), how could a thinking, healthy person conceivably reject this heightened benevolence and stay on the streets?

The people like "Chester" in Ms. Rothstein's article (a bright, articulate homeless leader who apparently is not "coming in from the streets") frustrate service providers no end. They do so because they reveal that the crisis of homelessness and poverty in America is not only about the lack of affordable housing, social welfare cutbacks, and unemployment, but the failure of the institutions of society to work at all for an increasing number of people. This crisis is, yes, an economic crisis, but it is also a cultural crisis, a breakdown in family, community, and the very system of meanings in our society.

Several homeless people I met have posed some key questions: "Is it so much better to live alone in a rundown SRO room when I can be together with my street buddies?" or "Is a job at Burger King so great, when I can make more collecting cans or stripping copper off the books?" or "Why should I be humiliated staying at a shelter and being strip searched when I can stay in an abandoned building?" I think these questions don't even occur to Ms. Rothstein, or for that matter, to most of us in the middle class. Rather than seeing her clients as walking pathologies, Ms. Rothstein might benefit from listening to them and learning more about their struggle to survive.

Finally, Ms. Rothstein speaks of "standards and limits on acceptable behavior" with which the homeless must comply. The obvious question will be: "Whose standards and limits?" It is my guess that Ms. Rothstein probably supports freedom for the middle class to engage in alternative lifestyles and behaviors. She probably also has no trouble with a middle class kid hanging on the street corner or an average American coming home and having a drink. Yet when you are poor and hang out on the same street corner and (God forbid) maybe even have a drink to keep yourself warm, then our "standards and limits" are violated.

As a society we have stripped the very poor of virtually everything. Are their civil rights next?

David Wagner, Ph. D.

University of Southern Maine

Vivian Rothstein Responds:

The New York Times's forecast for southern Maine tonight is nine degrees below zero. So I don't buy Portland resident David Wagner's thesis that my middle class prejudices are what compel me to resist homelessness as an accommodation to poverty. Our predecessors thousands of years ago found caves, pitched tents and dug holes to preserve life itself for themselves and their families. Housing is part of our civilization; everyone needs it to survive. There are some who romanticize homelessness as freedom and liberation from social repression. But anyone who sees the consequences of long term homelessness knows that there is nothing romantic about what it does to a person's physical and mental health. Homelessness can be lethal. There is nothing radical about it.

The job of homeless advocates is to make it easier to get off the streets rather than simply easier to live on them. I applaud attorneys Harry Simon and Benjamin S. Waxman for protecting homeless people from brutality and harassment resulting from their homeless status. It is crucial that police departments and other city agencies not be given free rein to sweep homeless people from one locality to another. But the subsequent legal remedies concern me -- specifically, sanctioned encampments, outdoor services, and social isolation as solutions to the homeless crisis. (I was glad to hear that no one in Miami found the judge's remedy of "safe zones" acceptable -- neither homeless people nor city officials.)

Because people's lives are at stake, there are subtleties involved in homeless advocacy which I was hoping to illuminate in my article. My goal was to provoke the discussions which we need to move our society away from accepting permanent homelessness for thousands of Americans. Pressure to get off the streets cannot be allowed to be brutal and oppressive but neither can it be totally absent. If it is, we are acquiescing to the idea that homelessness is an acceptable solution to social and economic inequities in our society.

A key ingredient of any solution, of course, is affordable housing in all categories. In Southern California, at least, I don't think we'll be able to address the housing issue effectively without challenging the restrictions that make the construction of housing so prohibitively expensive. While our communities are increasingly conscious of protecting their pristine physical environments, the social environment of abject poverty in our parks is becoming an accepted part of the urban landscape.

As a homeless advocacy movement we have to think carefully about the solutions we put forward for solving this national crisis. The alternatives we present are no less than the vision of what we feel is possible and just in our society. With somewhat receptive federal leadership for the first time since the current homeless crisis began, we must think carefully about what we suggest those solutions are. 

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