Someone crawled through the window of my Capitol Hill apartment about mid-day recently, went through the drawers in my bedroom and took probably $15 in change, mostly nickels and dimes; took a few not-very-valuable silver coins, a portable CD player and a couple dozen CDs; then fled, apparently after being interrupted.
It is a tremendous aggravation and inconvenience. Yet, I can't help feeling sorry for whoever has let their life sink to sneak thievery and skulking. How horrible their life must be.
The young cop who came to take my statement said it was probably "street urchins" from Broadway who would take the proceeds of the crime to go buy drugs. I have little experience in these matters, and maybe he is right, but his pat explanation carried the cynical bias one expects from cops after a few years on the job.
My vision of the person who violated my private space is less the Beagle Boys, the unrepentant criminal gang endlessly intent on looting Uncle Scrooge McDuck's money bin, than Smeagol, the dissipated outcast of the Lord of the Rings who is condemned by forces he neither controls nor understands to scrabble for survival in a hostile environment.
So it is with the young people who flee their homes looking for freedom and find themselves trapped in lives on the streets so sordid as to defy the imaginations of good, middle-class burghers. It is an easy answer to say these people should be rounded up and punished, or at least sent packing away from our neighborhoods. Make them live somewhere, anywhere, that they will not be able to prey on and discomfort honest folk. Of course, there are no places like that.
Quite honestly, I cannot imagine a harsher punishment than the lives these people live. No court would be allowed to inflict such misery on a person. We see them here on the Hill, often around grocery stores, cadging quarters and dollar bills from passersby, often cold and wet, always claiming hunger, while we pass by without making eye contact, suspecting that they will not use the money they beg for food but for alcohol or other drugs. We think the thoughts of that other Scrooge, of Dickens' "Christmas Carol," when he is asked to help the poor. Scrooge responds, "Are there no prisons? No poor houses?"
Yes, there are prisons and they are bulging with inmates. No, there are no poor houses, unless you want to count the shelters that exist for the homeless. Shelter residents are only allowed in the shelters at night and must wander the streets during the day without direction.
Why can't they get jobs? If you have a job you may not realize it, but jobs are scarce, especially jobs that do not involve French fries or pizza. Scarce especially for people who look as though they have been living on the streets.
We have money to spend on moon bases. We have money to wage war in the Middle East freeing the oppressed people of Iraq. We have money to mount a war on terrorism to keep our people safe, but what are we keeping the "street urchins" safe from? We don't have money to keep them safe from hunger, or safe from cold, or safe from the need for drugs. What money there was for the poorest among us has been turned to more important uses.
So now, like Tom Ridge's mission at the Department of Homeland Security, I have to think about making my apartment into a fortress where I can hide behind my shutters and keep out wrongdoers and miscreants. I have to be suspicious of every footstep on the porch, every stranger on the street. One of the biggest problems with that is, if I do that it is me who is in prison, isn't it?
Well I won't do it. I am going to be free and meet the world and interact with it without fearing every bump and shadow and beggar. If I decline to give money to the street people, then the least I can do is look them in the eye when I say no. If the only thing I can do to help the so-called "street urchins" is to show them how free people live, then that is what I will do. And I will vote. And I will look for candidates who have ideas about how to relieve the oppression of the most vulnerable among us. But there aren't many candidates out there willing to take on that kind of war on oppression.
Freelance witer Korte Brueckmann lives on Capitol Hill and can be reached at email@example.com