Wednesday, January 24, 2007

And, we're here to help you!

The Indianapolis Star ran a story about a 93-year-old man, Thelmon Green. A veteran of World War II he had made a living as a handy man. He can’t collect Social Security as he worked his entire life in the underground economy -- not that he ever made that much money to begin with. And at his age he is able to work very much.

The newspaper told the story of how people in the neighborhood help this man.

People in the neighborhood -- many have known Green since they were children -- bring him food. They slip him fives and tens. They visit him. There are the Hall brothers, Philip and William, who bring him meals; there's Joe "Red" Long, the Red of Big Red Discount Towing, who gives Green not just a parking space but access to the bathroom, and an electrical outlet so Green can heat the van, listen to the radio and cook on a small electric stove; there's a Jehovah's Witness who comes by with Watchtower magazines -- "retired post office, helluva nice guy," Green says. Some charity is at work here, obviously, but it's more than that. "Mr. Green is just a good guy to be around," says Philip Hall, 57. "He says, 'The Good Master woke me up again today -- I'm doing great.' I learn from him. If you sit down and talk to him, you can learn a lot from that old codger."

With the help of the neighborhood Mr. Green was surviving. And he was happy. So he said. One of the businesses in the area had a broken down mini van on their lot and allowed him to live there. They ran an extension plug out to the van to run a space heater and a cooler for the food that people would bring Green. In the summer he’d fish.

And while not the lifestyle that most of us would want he liked it. He wanted to live on his own and without any income he truly relied on the kindness of strangers. But then these people aren’t strangers. Many of them have known Green since they were children. And they made sure he got by.

The Green story is sad but also heartening. He doesn’t have much but he has enough to survive -- after all he made it 93! He had a roof over his head, though not much of one. It was heated, he had friends and he had food. He had everything he wanted. Until someone from the government showed up to help him!

The evil cow is Sherly Crum, a petty bureaucrat from the Marion County Health Department who decided that Green has the right to be homeless and ought to exercise it. She had him evicted from the van because it didn’t have running water and electricity (the extension cord doesn’t count). Nor does it matter that just a few feet away are the bathroom facilities of Big Red Discount Towing which the owners happily made available to Green.

Readers of the Indianapolis Star are furious, if you go by the comments. One expressed my sentiments: “Crum you are a pig and may you rot in hell.” I’m not so sure I’d have been that nice myself! One woman addressed her remarks to the Crum-my people at the Health Department: “If this man is happy in his home, what business is it of yours?” Another: “He’s not hurting anyone. They should let the old man live how he’s happy.”

Another writer found the original story of a neighborhood helping one of it’s own touching but notes “now this guy gets the shaft”. Another: “Government at it’s best, the person who evicted him went home to a nice warm bed and put an old man out in the cold... What a shame... Did they drown any kittens that day also?” Or: “I hope Mrs. Crum finds herself in a tough situation one day that will make her realize she should stay out of people’s business that is not hurting one other soul on this earth.”

I didn’t read all the comments left with the Star, after all there are well over 300 of them. But I did read the last 40. And only one person seemed to think that the Crummy bureaucrat should have done what she did. And even they weren’t enthusiastic about it -- they just said she was doing her job.

Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Star, said the original story was “touching”. The journalist who wrote it said “It was a story of a guy living in a van happily, and a story of how a village can look after folks, as well as a bureaucracy.” (Actually, it turns out they looked after him better since they didn’t evict him into the cold!)

The paper says they never considered that the heavy hand of the “were here to help you” bureaucrats would step in and ruin this man’s life. They “thought of the many other people in Marion Country who are left to live in even worse situations. Surely, they reasoned, Green would be left alone.”

People came to Green’s defense. A former car dealer offered him a camper van but it was unknown whether that would satisfy the morons at the Health Department. A daughter who had been out of touch for 40 years heard the story and is back in touch. And the Star, stupidly in my view, wrote that “Thanks to all the attention, government promises to the indomitable Mr. Green should stand a better-than-average chance of being honored.”

Green doesn’t want to move. His wishes will be denied him. His own choice will be over rode by the bureaucracy that knows best. The publicity may mean he will end up better off. But that is not how it works for most people subjected to the help of Mrs. Crum and her kind.

Consider what would have happened without the accompanying publicity. An elderly man is living in a van happily. He seems to thrive for his age -- much better than most people his age. He’s evicted because there is no running water or electricity (ignoring that he does have electricity in fact and water a few feet away). Imagine no publicity at all. He’s evicted. He now can exercise his right to sleep in the outside cold with nothing to keep him warm -- no space heater, no cooler for his food, no shelter whatsoever.

Green would have discovered that the government was quite happy to tell him that either he have a shelter they approved of or no shelter at all. This is like forbidding someone food because what they have isn’t nutritious enough. Better they starve than eat junk! Better to be entirely homeless than to live in a van.

Remember the old joke about the three big lies: “Yes, I’ll respect you in the morning. The cheque is in the mail. And, I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” The worst of the lies is that last one. It does far more harm to people than the other two. Sheryl Crum wins our Moron of the Week award. And to quote a reader of the Indianapolis Star, may she rot in hell.

The bureaucrats were caught by the backlash and rushed off to put a spin on the move to make themselves look good. Apparently when their action became public they were flooded with phone calls. Collette Duvalle, a spokesmoron for the Health Department claimed: “It’s in the spirit of compassion from the health department that we’re working with Mr. Gree to make sure he is happy with whatever he decides to at the very end.” Duh! He was already happy until they stepped in. She claimed it was all a misunderstanding -- they never told Green he had to leave. Right! They claim that Green has lots of options but won’t reveal what they are because it might violate his “privacy”. Green says he just wants to be left alone.

The Health Department is not happy with the publicity. And one local television station reports they say “if Mr. Green chooses to live in his van the issue may be taken up by the city. Residing in a van or camper may violate zoning laws.” (Sleeping on the street doesn’t.) So it looks like the bureaucrats at Health are afraid of the bad publicity so they will pass the buck to another department to do the actual eviction! Ah, that government spirit of compassion.