A version of this was originally published on Christine Flowers' blog, the Flowers Show (www.philly.com/
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 Teresa.
She's lionized as a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised (and she is). She's been in music videos as a hero. (She's that, too.) Been tagged as one of the most influential people in the world. And as someone who was essentially raised by Mercy nuns for the better part of a decade and counts one of them as the reason she became a lawyer (hope you're 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 it's more punitive than it needs to be in that it lets police deal with a homeless person without first contacting a social-service agency, as mandated by law.
Sister Mary conjures up an almost fascistic scenario where the government has the power to arrest vulnerable people on a whim when she writes:
"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 her concerns about civil rights and possibly frivolous lawsuits, 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 was Sister Mary's proposed alternative:
"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 give him the right to beg for money from people while yelling obscenities at them or displaying other toxic behavior that makes those of us who don't chase the dragon, so to speak, want to avoid parts of Center City like the plague.
And that assumes you have a choice.
What if you live or work here, or simply want to visit without having to wade through sidewalks filled with people who can be a threat to our well-being? Does compassion mean we need to sacrifice the needs of the many to the demands of the toxic few?
I'm sure Sister Mary will think I wasn't paying 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 who help themselves. And if they don't want it? Call the police, and then let them do their job.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. Email