From the Providence Journal this morning:
People who live surrounded by squalor will act accordingly. It is no coincidence that the 300 block of Broad Street, Providence, is infested with people who panhandle, shoot heroin, drink until they drop and create an atmosphere of decay by their very presence.
We tolerate it. That we do so condones the behavior of the people who congregate there, and other places where it appears that society has given up. The rescue unit of the Providence Fire Department bears a lot of the brunt of the illusion of clean-up, gathering drunken men and women who have passed out on the sidewalk dozens of times a day, every day. Overdoses in area businesses’ restrooms are an everyday occurrence as well. People urinate on the street, throw their empty vodka bottles wherever they wish, drop Styrofoam food containers next to trash barrels rather than in them and appear to the untrained eye to be litter themselves.
Civilized society lets it go. We take the people who use Broad Street as their personal dumpster and playground to the hospital for detox when they have had their fill of alcohol, or observation until the heroin leaves their system and they re-congregate right where we found them, the 300 block of Broad Street. The police look the other way as we scrape them off the street and get them out of the public eye. I do not blame the police patrol officers: They follow orders. Still, I’m not quite sure what those orders are, but they cannot possibly be to let certain members of our society blatantly break the law, and then be treated with kid gloves by medical professionals.
Make no mistake, these people are breaking the law, and their ability to do so undermines everything that holds our society together. Tolerating discord and lawlessness from a certain segment of civilization while the rest are expected to uphold the laws of the land is a recipe for disaster. The total absence of respect toward the authorities and the citizens who fund and let the lawlessness continue unabated is exactly what we deserve for letting it begin in the first place. The toleration of disrespect condones it, lets it fester until not only those who have given up on themselves feel free to behave in a manner inconsistent with civilized norms, but also people teetering on the edge of respectability or despair lose their moral compass as well. Real progress needs to begin — and begin now — before it is too late. Central High School and Classical High School are right around the corner from the display of daily debauchery. The kids spend all day learning science, mathematics, civics and history, and then are led into the real world when the school bell rings, and they return to their real lives and daily routines. They trip over drunken people, share bus stops with addicts, dodge rescues sent to “treat and transport” the same intoxicated people who were transported in front of them on their way to school, and sift through the littered streets toward their way home.
The lessons with the most lasting impressions are not the ones taught in the safety of their classrooms. When it is considered okay to live on the streets, and act like an animal with no repercussions, eventually the desire to take responsibility disappears. We can beat them. We have to beat them, because it is not just themselves that are being destroyed, the very fabric of the city is at risk. Start small. Arrest the intoxicated people, if not where they dropped, then at the emergency room when they have sobered up, and have them spend the night in jail, and then the next day make sure that they are arraigned at court. Fine people for littering. Do it every time. When they do not pay their fines, issue a bench warrant and arrest them. Don’t let the junkies off the hook. Maintaining a narcotic nuisance means nothing to them, but keep arresting them, and continue to pursue the upper-level dealers. But in any case get the ones we can see off the streets, and the “upper-level” dealers will soon have nobody to sell to.
Litter. Drunks. Junkies. Graffiti. Clean that up and things will begin to improve, I guarantee it.
Michael Morse, of Warwick, is a captain in the Providence Fire Department’s rescue unit and the author of “Rescuing Providence” and “Responding.”