I know I’m going to get into trouble for this with the Big Guy. There’s bound to be some karmic backlash when you criticize Sister Mary Scullion, our local Mother Theresa. She’s been lionized in the press as a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised (she is.) She’s been popularized in music videos as a hero (she is that, too.) She’s been tagged as one of the most influential people in the world. (Ditto, again.) And as someone who was essentially raised by Mercy nuns for the better part of a decade and counts one particular nun as the reason she became a lawyer (hope you are keeping the angels in line, Sister Mary David!) I have immense respect for her as a human being.
That said, I couldn’t disagree more with Sister Mary’s op-ed this week in the Inquirer, which berated Councilman Frank DiCicco’s proposed legislation concerning the homeless. Like many of the bill’s critics, Scullion believes that it is more punitive than it needs to be to the extent that it allows police to deal with a homeless person without first contacting a social service agency, as currently mandated by law.
Sister Mary conjures an almost fascistic scenario where the government has the power to arrest vulnerable people on a whim when she makes the following type of claim:
The problems with DiCicco's bill, beyond its sheer inhumanity, are manifold. Frivolous citations would create legal problems for homeless people, hampering their efforts to get housing and services and break the cycle of homelessness. Violations of their basic rights could lead to costly litigation. And enforcement would waste precious city resources while forcing many homeless people out of Center City and into nearby neighborhoods, shifting the problem rather than solving it.
While I share the writer’s concerns about civil rights and possibly frivolous lawsuits (particularly in a city that already has more than it can handle footing the bill for the PHA and Boy Scout debacles,) I strongly disagree that there’s anything ‘inhumane’ about protecting the public from aggressive panhandlers, the mentally ill (who have no business threatening toddlers in strollers, as I saw the other day on Walnut Street,) or the slacker kids who have enough money to buy cigarettes but still want me to give them “a dollar for train fare.”
What really bothered me about the op-ed was Sister Mary’s proposed alternative solution:
And if there are genuine concerns about aggressive panhandling in Center City - which has more to do with addiction than homelessness - let's do what Philadelphians have done in the past: Get government, nonprofit, and business interests together to study the issue, understand what we're dealing with, and develop solutions that respond to the needs of people in difficult situations while enhancing the quality of life in Center City.
Really? Study the issue? As if it hasn’t been studied and discussed and mediated to death? As if we didn’t already know what we were dealing with? Just because someone suffers from an addiction does not-I repeat-does not give them the right to stand around on sidewalks and beg other people for money, yell obscenities at them or display other toxic behavior that makes those of us who don’t chase the dragon, so to speak, want to avoid Philadelphia like the plague.
And that’s assuming you can avoid the city. What if you live here, work here, or simply want to reclaim your birthplace without having to wade through sidewalks filled with what some call society’s forgotten and others call threats to our well-being? Does compassion mean we need to sacrifice the needs of the many to the demands of the toxic?
I’m sure Sister Mary will think I wasn’t paying close attention in religion class at Merion Mercy all those years ago, the one that taught me about loving my neighbor and doing unto others. But maybe, just maybe, I learned another important lesson.
God helps those that help themselves. And if they don’t want it?