Property Watch

Many businesses in downtown Astoria post signs asking people to avoid loitering and other disruptive behavior.

When I finished reading the Property Watch story last week in The Daily Astorian (“Business leaders say Property Watch has worked well, but issues persist,” Jan. 11), I thought that the concept is 180 degrees wrong.

But after further reflection, I think it’s about 50 percent complete. Allowing police to monitor business properties after hours is certainly a tool in the community toolbox, but by no means the exclusive fix.

To my assessment of what’s right about Property Watch, there needs to be some way for those in a community who choose to play by the rules of the game to intervene when others who choose to live there, and don’t acknowledge the same rules, create problems. The rules to which I’m referring most are not the municipal rules and regulations, but rather the conventional social expectations and agreements like transacting with money, buying and renting property, and having more traditional forms of occupation (of course, the actual laws and rules matter too).

We make choices even in our non-choices. Some who conduct their lives outside the rules, yet live in the city, choose to treat the community they depend upon without integrity — it’s not okay to sleep on the doorstep of a business and leave waste there in the morning, for example. Some authority, some means, needs to be in place to work with anyone who wants it both ways. This already largely exists through law enforcement. Typical “crime” is another good example of the impacts of citizens, with or without homes, who want it both ways. Examining behaviors alone, however, does not address the underlying causes. In this way, Property Watch is definitely one form of what’s needed.

However, the program is incomplete because there are many people in the world who cannot play by the rules of the game, or who are hindered in the process. These people might have the best of intentions, solid dreams and partial progress, but due to a litany of reasons cannot play like everyone else. Even those who choose not to play (but still expect to be allowed “in”) often have years of causes and conditions that led to their present situation. Sociology is ripe with studies of the homeless, the addicted, and criminals in our country (if we choose to narrowly identify people based on these basic classifications alone) which show that trauma, abuse, neglect and difficult early life situations exist almost universally among them.

When we take action to address “non-players,” we have to remember that they are humans first. How would we want our own sons and daughters treated in their cities? I’d ask how we ourselves would want to be treated, but it’s too easy to imagine that “I,” as my present “me,” would never end up homeless. The fact is, there are homeless people. Whether we blame or bless them, these people exist. By posturing an entire community against this population, we’re turning our backs on obviously suffering humans — humans with 206 bones and a heartbeat, just like us.

And this is where the Watch’s basis strikes me as incomplete. So we don’t want the homeless people here, I get it (though our complaint is actually not with the people, but rather the impacts of some of their behavior). Where should they go, then? Zoom out for a moment and think about the next town they might reach and how that community will deal with them. Where is there a Great Homeless City where they will finally be allowed without complaint? Will you face a homeless person and tell them that the best option is for them to disappear? It is absolutely this community’s responsibility to look after its “playing” citizens, but looking away from human beings without offering a constructive alternative is not a solution. And it needs stating — it is also absolutely this community’s responsibility to look after all of its citizens (because, it turns out, that it’s in the “players’” best interest to do so).

Lastly, though the Astoria Warming Center is an excellent step in the right direction, it is not the ultimate solution either. The center is only open on select nights, during a narrow window of the year, in a residential neighborhood that distrusts its presence. Through integrative and honest-looking — truly seeing all others — we can dissolve the appearance of both sides and can most compassionately relate to all of the members who live in this community.

An actionable solution: what kind of place can we design in our community where homeless people can go on any night of the year? In the meantime, let’s put our money where our mouth is. If you’re concerned with any aspect of the homelessness issue, start a conversation about it with someone, volunteer for a shift at the warming center, or go meet a homeless person.

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