Homelessness was the subject of a task force recently established by the mayor and county board of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Its purpose was “to develop mechanisms and a philosophy of care that will break down the barriers to becoming ‘un-homeless,’ so that these people are given the opportunity to pursue stable and productive lives in this ‘America’s most livable city.'” Not surprisingly, the task force concluded in a report last summer that Tulsa could best help the homeless by receiving more state, local, and federal moneys for more social programs.

Most interesting are the vignettes of the homeless that the report highlighted. “Nathan” uses drugs, describes himself as “rebellious,” has been arrested for burglary, and says he is looking for work but would never accept a minimum-wage job. “Angel” could not “stand being around her husband and child anymore” and so “made a choice to leave and become homeless.” She smokes dope every day, takes speed three times a week, describes herself as “stubborn and rebellious,” and says “being homeless is OK.” “Foreman” abandoned his wife and four kids, sifts through garbage for food, and has spent 17 years in prison for shooting two police officers. “Alfred” chose to become homeless when he left his wife and kids because he “no longer wanted to be tied down” and discovered “he could make more money stealing.” He mugs indigent women for their food stamps and “finds himself thinking about hurting other people.”

It is safe to say that these are not examples of the noble and suffering souls depicted in TV docudramas who would return to their families, jobs, and homes if only evil society would show them some concern. As these profiles make clear, many of the homeless have willingly chosen to be homeless and chosen to steal, take drugs, and abandon their families for a life free of ties and responsibilities. Dan McMurry, the Middle Tennessee State University sociologist who researched the homeless by living amongst them for 18 months, concluded that “the homeless” are actually modern-day versions of the bums, winos, and derelicts of an earlier era, and Tulsa’s task force has simply reinforced this truth.

In fact, Tulsa’s task force does not have a clue how to “solve” the problem of homelessness. The ridiculous title of its report speaks volumes; “Commitment to Un-Homelessness.” Without knowing whether its commitment was to the reestablishment of the family, the care of the mentally ill, or even to the cleaning up of the streets, the only objective it could muster was the negative rendering of what it disliked: “un-homelessness.” Not exactly a well-defined purpose on which to base public policy.

In the short run, there is only one way to deal with homelessness, but it is a method unpalatable to fashionable tastes. Inoffensive bums who mind their own business, keep out of trouble, and stay out of the way can be ignored. Their decision to drop out of society should be respected, but it should not be subsidized by the state. However, those who harass the public, create health and safety hazards, and become an aesthetic drain on the community should be put into whatever facility is most appropriate—jail, a drug treatment center, a county work farm, or a mental institution.

In the current climate of opinion, this direct approach is unlikely. When New York mayor Edward Koch attempted to clean up the streets and institutionalize the mentally ill for the benefit of all New Yorkers, including the homeless, the ACLU declared a civil right to live on busy thoroughfares. One of Koch’s “captives,” an obviously deranged woman, was even invited to lecture at Harvard, while others gave the woman a job and a new set of clothes, all apparently to show that what the homeless merely needed were a “chance” and a “break.” Before 60 Minutes could even get this “success story” on the air, the woman had traded in civility for a return to her previous calling: defecating on the streets of Manhattan. (Perhaps this was a value judgment on New York, for which she ought to qualify for an NEA grant as a performance artist.)

There is, of course, no long-term answer to homelessness. There will always be drunkards, addicts, slackers, and the insane who will end up on the streets either by choice or circumstance. What advocates for the homeless actually despise is not the homelessness itself, but what homelessness mirrors about humanity’s darker side: about the incurability of human suffering and sin and the fatuousness of modernity’s promise of the perfectibility of man and his social institutions. We think it tragic that a society capable of placing a man on the moon is one incapable of curing homelessness; but what is tragic is our inability to see the inanity of the comparison.

Anyone who speaks honestly about this issue will be attacked as “insensitive.” Yet, the target of condemnation should rightly be the administrators and “experts” of the National Institute of Mental Health who inhumanely dumped interned patients onto the streets. Dr. Leonard Duhl, chief of planning at the National Institute of Mental Health in the 1960’s, was one of the architects of this policy, calling mental illness a “socially defined condition” that “must be conceived as a social problem.” Duhl and his colleagues saw hospitalization as the cause and not the cure of mental illness; it was society that was ill and not the patient, a message successfully marketed by drug guru Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Of the half-million patients in public mental hospitals in the early 1960’s, four out of five were released during the next decade. As clinical psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey wrote in Nowhere to Go: The Tragic Odyssey of the Homeless Mentally III, deinstitutionalization consisted of “dumping unprepared patients into unwilling and unready communities.”

The recommendations of Tulsa’s task force are counterproductive but not surprising, for they are the logical result of decades of deceit and misguided social policy that have harmed the very people purported to be helped. McMurphy may have stimulated Chief Broom’s escape, but the chief isn’t living happily ever after; he’s scrunched up in a ball and drooling on the street corner.