Don’t the homeless deserve to be treated with dignity? From this is born regulations to assure that safety net, because the homeless* are still human beings even if they smell bad and you really would prefer they stay out of sight or pee in their own homes (the ones they don’t have). How else can we assure that they be treated in the manner to which they’re entitled, according to people who have no faith in others, who see others as intrinsically malevolent and thus untrustworthy, if rules aren’t imposed.
And no one loves them some rules more than the well-intentioned. Rules assure that their dictates are carried out, their wishes are enforced by the means of benevolent force. And that force came down on Greg Schiller in Elgin, Illinois.
A man’s home may be his castle, but even castles are governed these days by zoning codes and other local ordinances. An Illinois man named Greg Schiller had that lesson reinforced after he opened his basement to homeless people, letting them sleep there overnight during the recent deep freeze that enveloped much of the country. No way, said city officials in Elgin, the Chicago suburb where he lives. They shut down Mr. Schiller’s “slumber parties,” as he has called them, on grounds that they violated a fistful of municipal regulations, among them ventilation and fire-safety requirements.
If you’re homeless, and it’s freezing outside, you might be more concerned about surviving the night than the rules imposed by the well-intended. And even the well-intended would agree, even though they will never grasp how they created the problem that now brings tears to their well-intended eyes.
This is a situation that has arisen in various jurisdictions from time to time, with inherent tensions between a human instinct that many people would deem admirable and government codes that many of the same people would regard as sensible. At some point, courts may have to determine which value can claim to promote the greater public good.
The New York Times is adorable when it ascribes virtues to courts they don’t possess. The legal question isn’t what promotes the greater public good, but whether the government has the authority to craft the rules demanded by the well-intended.**
That’s not how Elgin officials viewed it. To them, Mr. Schiller in effect had created a shelter of his own and blatantly flouted various ordinances, for instance by not having enough exits from the basement in case of a fire.
Surely, no one wants the homeless to suffocate in an unventilated basement, or burn in a fire without adequate egress. Surely, the government of Elgin has the authority to create a building code for their protection. And surely, Elgin officials were duty-bound to enforce these palliative rules that protected from homeless from everything but freezing to death.
So is a man’s home his castle? Schiller, like any decent person, sees “a little leeway, a little grace” as the safety valve between well-intended rules and freezing to death. But what then are the rules of the government as to where in your castle the homeless can sleep worth if they are ignored?
There are solutions to such dilemmas, though the courts aren’t the place to find them. They involve considering such issues as the homeless freezing when crafting the rules for their safety and dignity. But will the well-intended yet shallow control their urges to control other people’s conduct to allow for saving the lives of homeless people on a freezing night?
And if, despite Schiller’s best efforts, a fire broke out and the homeless he took in died, there would be a new call to regulate, plus punish at the end of a gun, anyone trying to save the life of a homeless person contrary to the rules. You want rules? You got rules. And with those rules will come frozen homeless people. But at least the heat is on at the New York Times, so they can feel terrible about the lack of mercy, of grace, their beloved rules caused to frozen homeless people.
*Yes, some homeless people are drug addicts, for whom you may have little empathy. But some are ordinary folks who, but for a couple of unfortunate twists of fate, could be you. And some are mentally ill, and don’t stand a chance of finding their way home. It really doesn’t matter, as they are all human beings, regardless of anything else.
**And don’t even consider feeding them with food prepared in a kitchen that hasn’t passed sanitary code inspections. Better they should eat from garbage cans, or starve, than eat food from unapproved kitchens.