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Dogs are 'acceptable' downtown, but homeless aren't? Well, yes

June 22, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

What do dogs and the homeless have in common? Each has landed a Hagerstown City Councilman in a pot of hot water this month, and since public opinion overwhelmingly holds that the councilmen are fundamentally wrong, that naturally leaves it to me to argue that they are fundamentally right.

Councilman Lew Metzner put his name right up there with known kitten-slaughterers when he proclaimed that a homeless shelter in the heart of downtown was "unacceptable."

But a cry is going up from the warm-hearted people of the county, who make two accurate points. First, it should be our social obligation to care for those who are weak or downtrodden. Second, the homeless naturally gravitate to the city center, so that's where - absent a homeless-person shuttle service - a facility is needed to get these folks out of the weather.

Personally, I agree with all three points: We should provide a basic safety net to care for the disadvantaged, and the services must be accessible to them. And a shelter right in the middle of the downtown is unacceptable.

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Certainly you can get a homeless man out of the cold without giving him oceanfront property. The goal should be for the downtown to be a center for commerce. This means shops, restaurants, theaters and professional services. There is nothing about a homeless shelter that fits in with this model.

Metzner is not being heartless, he is just being practical. There is nothing inhumane about a shelter a quarter of a mile to a mile outside of the business district. A mile is a 20-minute walk, or a five-minute bike ride.

But should you feel guilty if you do not wish to rub elbows with urban nomads? Should you feel bad for secretly wanting to shove them off to an unseen neighborhood where the plights of the downtrodden will be easier to ignore?

It's a complicated question, because the homeless represent a complicated demographic. Not all, are sympathetic figures who are struggling with all their might for a break and a chance to get back on their feet.

There are scofflaws, there are addicts, there are shiftless drifters and there are mentally diseased who wouldn't take a cottage in the Hamptons for free. Some will panhandle, some will not bathe, some will be loud and cause disturbances.

The homeless have rights, but so do merchants who have dedicated their lives and livelihoods to downtown Hagerstown. And so do customers who, if they are hassled, will take their business elsewhere. Hagerstown is trying to foster an arts and entertainment district that will attract well-heeled individuals both locally and from the metro areas.

If that happens, the downtown thrives, property values go up, tax receipts increase and the city has more discretionary revenue to spend on, among other things, facilities for the homeless.

Ah well, on to lighter things, specifically Kristin "Scooby Doo" Aleshire and his dogs of renown. Aleshire got a citizen tongue-lashing - and many have said deservedly so - for walking pets in City Park, where ostensibly no pets are allowed.

Apparently there was a proposed ordinance against walking dogs in the park but it was never officially adopted, leaving the park with a more informal "rule" against dogs which police say can't be enforced with any sort of ticket or threat of jail (imagine doing time on one count of accessory to being a dog).

Yes, there is nothing I hate worse - except maybe for investment-bank stock analysts - than politicians who believe that the rules don't apply to them. Yes, Aleshire is a councilman and he should be setting an example and all that.

But what if it's a patently dumb rule?

We've legislated smoking and dogs out of just about every public domain - unlike Europe where you can walk into any cafe and see three or four dogs either asleep or smoking under their owners' tables.

We should be doing everything we can to encourage people out into our parks to breathe the fresh air, and walking a dog is about as normal an outdoor activity as there is. If the dog is well-trained or on a leash and you tidy up after it, what's the big deal?

Call me an anarchist if you must, but I applaud Aleshire, as a public figure, bringing this issue to the forefront through his, uh, civil disobedience. Instead of smacking him with a newspaper and saying "bad councilman" perhaps the city should see this as part of a bigger issue - the need for spots in the city to walk dogs.

The city wants to be homeowner-friendly. But the more times you say "Don't" the less friendly you appear. When I lived downtown with dogs, a major problem was a lack of spots for dog walking and the lack of designated "no leash zones" for Frisbee tossing.

Not thinking it was against the law, I routinely walked the dogs in City Park. No one ever said anything, until a co-worker mentioned he believed it to be illegal.

I thought about it deeply and formulated a three word response: "Is that so?" And continued to walk the dogs in the park.

So not only can I sympathize with Aleshire, I am certainly no better. Of course we all (wink) frown on a public official who flies in the face of the authority he is sworn to uphold. But for my money, Aleshire is barking up the right tree.

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