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Hagerstown to outlaw curb camping

November 20, 2007

When did all the romance go out of living in your car? We used to celebrate these hobos of the highways - the Dumpster-on-wheels station wagon with wood on the sides packed with garbage bags of laundry, a battered guitar, four inches of cheeseburger wrappers on the floor. With any luck, a small dog. If you had a driver's license, you had a house.

Pity that Norman Rockwell isn't around to capture the scene. Because car-dwellers could use a little good press these days, especially now that Hagerstown City Hall wants to make this time-honored practice illegal.

Police say complaints about people living in their cars has increased, but since there's no law against it, there is little that can be done. So the city will consider an ordinance that will subject the practice to a $250 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

So, basically, this makes it illegal to be destitute.

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That'll fix the problem.

"What, there's a fine for living out of my car? Oh, OK, I guess I'll just have to get a nice house in the country with a white picket fence and window boxes full of geraniums."

I'm remotely curious how the city thinks that people who have lost their jobs and their homes and are paying for gas by selling aluminum cans are going to scrape together $250. If they had that, they wouldn't be living in their cars in the first place, I presume.

Unless this is a lifestyle decision. It's not too far removed from camping in my view, and people pay a lot of money to do that. Living in your vehicle has all the recreation of camping - without the bears.

I also admire government's ability to stick it to people who are down on their luck. Like if you have a taillight on the fritz and can't afford to get it fixed - instead of giving you a $6 bulb, the government fines you $100, money it obviously knows you don't have, because if you did, you would have gotten the light fixed yourself.

And this is $100 that poor people desperately need, so they can pay to get their car up to Maryland emission standards. The system is designed so people with no money have to pay more money.

The council was careful to specify that the new law will apply to people "living" out of their cars and not "sleeping" in their cars. This, the news story says, "would ensure motorists wouldn't be cited if they were waiting on someone and innocently fell asleep."

Whew, glad they made that distinction. Police were dangerously close to having to arrest about 700 husbands out in the parking lot at Prime Outlets.

It does give the actual, living-in-car crowd an out, though.

"Why, yes, officer, I confess that I am living out of my car, but I am living out of it in West Virginia. I just drove to Hagerstown this morning, where I innocently fell asleep as I was waiting for my ship to come in."

There are some other defenses, as well. Prevention is the best medicine, and when I was a broke college student and went on vacation, I would save on hotels by simply waiting until dark and then parking my van smack in the front row of a used car lot. It worked like a charm.

The other defense that always works is to bring up the Constitution.

I think society's propensity to fine people living in cars and such is conditioned on the fact that we don't like highly visible, public reminders that there are desperately poor people living among us.

We like you to keep your poverty inside, where we won't see it and feel guilty about it - and maybe, heaven forbid, feel as if we have to do something about it.

So for all you guys out there whose Mazda 6 is your Motel 6, here's an idea. Tell the judge you are not living out of your car, specifically, you are merely exercising your First Amendment rights to protest the poverty in which you currently find yourself.

Don't homeless advocates in Hagerstown sleep out one night out of the year in City Park to "raise awareness?" There you go. You can be "Homeless Advocates, Mobile Unit."

/i>Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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