William Raspberry

Death By Freezing - By Choice?

I suppose I shouldn't get annoyed with Ellen Thomas. After all, it's her life.

But it's also the lives of a lot of other people (I presume) less competent than she, and I confess that I was annoyed by her recent Close to Home piece in which she claimed on behalf of the homeless "street people" that they should be left in their cardboard shelters to freeze to death, if that's what they want.

Thomas (who, according to the note that appeared with the column last Sunday, "lives on the streets and is editor of the D.C. Home News, a newspaper written by the homeless") was taking issue with city council members who recommend that "street people" be taken to shelters—by force, if necessary—when the temperature falls below freezing.

I'm enough of a civil libertarian to harbor grave doubts about forcing people to do, for their own good, anything they clearly do not want to do, whether it's wearing seat belts and motorcycle crash helmets or coming in out of the cold.

But I'm also enough of a humanitarian to have qualms about allowing people to freeze to death on the streets because they prefer to live in cardboard boxes.

Sometimes the two feelings come into conflict. I believe that, as a general rule, we shouldn't force people to act against what they perceive as their own interests (so long as they don't hurt anybody else). But it doesn't follow that a 9-year-old who doesn't want to go to school should necessarily have his wishes honored. If he fears that his schoolmates would beat him up, or if his teachers abuse him, or if he is embarrassed because his clothes are rags, then we ought to move to address his fears. But if he just doesn't like school, that's not good enough for me.

I view some of the street-dwellers pretty much the way I view children, and, uneasy though it makes me, I don’t like the idea of letting them choose to freeze to death if it seems clear that they don't know that death is the likely result of their choice.

Thomas won't buy my competent/incompetent distraction. To her, the relevant distinction is between "insiders" and "outsiders."

'Some people," she wrote, mentioning council members David Clarke and John Wilson as examples, "are insiders recommending that outsiders be forced into shelters when the temperature dips below freezing. The outsiders wish the insiders wouldn't do that. They're already busy enough finding privacy, warmth, a place to stash their stuff while they work at an infinite variety of projects."

Though it clearly is not her intent, Thomas trivializes the really disturbing questions that confront us as a society. On what basis, for instance, are police officers and social workers to decide which street dwellers have made rational choices between freedom and warmth, and which are irrationally, perhaps unknowingly placing their lives in jeopardy? Is there any real difference between forcibly keeping such people in hospitals and locking them in jail? What, in short, is the reasonable, responsible and humane thing to do?

Thomas finds the answer easy. Leave them alone, she says, or if we are truly concerned about them have the city provide them lockers for their belongs, "public restrooms with washers, dryers and showers... open 24 hours a day," free bus transportation, and so on. I suppose, though she doesn't say so explicitly, that she would . . . as do most of us the provision of publicly run shelters.

But for those who won't use the facilities provided is it wrong to take emergency action to prevent their deaths from exposure?

It is immoral, as well as unconstitutional," says I Thomas, "to think the problem of homelessness will be solved by forcing people inside against their will."

But no one really imagines that removing "street people" from the bitter cold streets will "solve" the problem of homelessness. It does, however, solve the immediate problem of death by freezing.

It annoys me that the obviously bright Ellen Thomas seems not to notice the difference.