I haven’t written about our homeless friend lately, which is partly due to the fact that I don’t really know what he’s doing these days and partly because I haven’t been able to find the right words to use.
You may recall that we had been allowing him to use the church rest room. I thought this an eminently reasonable course of action, and I was proud of Pastor Mom for making the decision to do so. After all, if nature calls and you’re forced to duck behind a bush, you always run the risk of being arrested for indecent exposure or public lewdness. While the common law defense of necessity has allowed some homeless people to be exculpated of misdemeanor charges associated with peeing or sleeping in public, the majority of jurisdictions continue to refuse to recognize this defense.
Well, nothing lasts forever. We had to start locking the rest room after we learned that our insurance policy prohibited us from leaving it unattended. Although our homeless friend could no longer access the rest room at will, he would come to the door and ask for the key when he needed to use it. This worked fine for a while, until one day Pastor Mom happened to be in the rest room replacing supplies. When she opened the cabinet below the sink, she found a large sleeping bag stuffed in there, along with a long-bladed hunting knife.
Of course, we were horrified. This rest room is used by children and adults alike during church services. What if a little kid had found that knife?
We hadn’t seen our friend in more than a week, so Pastor Mom returned the sleeping bag and the knife to his family, who live just across the fence from the church. Our friend is estranged from his family for some of the same reasons that many homeless people no longer have any family members upon whom they can depend for help: Mental health issues, drugs, problems with the law.
For a while, our friend had lived with his mom and grandma. Then his grandmother, who owned the house, decided that he was no longer welcome. He spent many nights camping out on a corner of the lawn far from the house and close to the church fence. We tried to help by buying him some warm things, a new pair of shoes. When his grandmother died recently, our friend’s sister moved in with his mom. While they deigned to allow him indoors on the occasional cold night, most evenings he slept in his sister’s car. Then the car was sold and he was back outdoors again. The sister’s husband was released from jail and moved in with them. Another person simply was not wanted, particularly since our friend is prone to fits of rage replete with language that would singe the hairs off your head. He found that his family was good for the occasional meal but that his presence was not desired. He had burned his bridges.
I kept wondering why our friend doesn’t just walk the few blocks to the freeway, stick out his thumb and kick over the traces. Make a new life for himself in another state. Start over.
The answer is: It’s complicated. With the homeless, it always is.
For one thing, this community is all he knows. It’s what he is familiar with and, whatever his mental and emotional problems may be, he is not equipped to step out of his comfort zone. For another thing, our friend is on probation and has to report to his P.O. on a regular basis. Even this is a challenge, as we live in an outlying community situated several miles up the freeway from the county seat. He can take the bus if he has the fare. Most of the time, he doesn’t. Sometimes he begs it from us. Other times, he’ll hitch a ride or, if it’s not raining, he’ll just walk.
And it’s not just the scheduled meetings with his probation officer that pose transportation problems. He has to go into town for almost everything, from medical appointments to visiting the recycling center with his collection of cans and bottles to pick up a little cash. We’ve provided him with a ride on more than a few occasions.
Not long after we returned our friend’s knife and sleeping bag to his family, he came to our door asking to be let into the rest room. We had to tell him no. We asked him to think about what would have happened had a little kid found that knife.
“So am I supposed to pee on the lawn?” he asked.
Pastor Mom explained that this isn’t our problem. We had tried to help him repeatedly, even allowing him to sleep in the rest room some nights. But he had repaid us by violating our trust. Just as he did with this family, he had now burned his bridges with us.
Will our friend be arrested if he’s caught peeing behind a tree or in some dark corner? Sooner or later, he probably will be. Which won’t go well for him, particularly since he’s still on probation.
Most people have never heard of the common law defense of necessity, and for good reasons. For one, it’s a dirty little secret (like jury nullification) that the legal establishment doesn’t want you to know about. For another, it’s just not sexy. Unlike “affluenza” or “the Twinkie defense,” the defense of necessity is not a splashy media sensation used in ill-fated attempts to get wealthy defendants off in media circus murder trials. The bottom line, however, is that the defense of necessity is primarily used to help the homeless, and who cares about them?
In a nutshell, the common law defense of necessity states that, as members of the animal kingdom, humans lack control over basic bodily functions. Our bodies will eliminate the waste they produce, whether we have a rest room to use or not. After we stay awake for a certain amount of time, we will fall asleep regardless of whether we have a private place to do so. In other words, the homeless are physically incapable of adhering to the law no matter how much they may want to do so. In the end, the body will always win.
For the most part, the courts don’t recognize this defense because allowing the homeless to pee and sleep in public offends the sensibilities of moneyed homeowners, “the good citizens of our community.” After all, we don’t want our town smelling like Mumbai and the River Ganges.
These objections are cast in “nicer” terms, of course. There is a public health danger associated with public urination and defecation. (But it’s not unusual to find dog turds on public streets, sidewalks and lawns. Apparently, dogs aren’t expected to control their bodily functions, but humans, robots that we are, must.)
And then the big guns come out. The effects on children are cited, with the aim of horrifying the public. If a kid sees a guy peeing in public, she will be scarred for life! Think of the nightmares that will result from seeing a bare backside in the act of pooping! And, heavens, once the penis comes out of the pants, can sexual offenses be far behind?
So, yes, I do expect to see our friend’s name on the local police blotter before long. In the meantime, I hear he’s been alternating couch surfing with sleeping out of doors. I’m sure he makes use the rest rooms in local businesses to the extent that they let him get away with it.
Our homeless guy now claims that a friend has given him his dog. He stopped by with the dog on a leash one day. Later, he came by asking for a dollar to buy dog food. He said he has Food Stamps, but that the dog refuses to eat people food. We told him that the dog will share whatever he eats if it gets hungry enough. (We know that the dog is not his and is being fed elsewhere. We wonder what he really wanted the dollar for.)
Another day, our friend came by asking to use a phone. Last we knew, he was in possession of a pair of cell phones, but apparently he no longer has service. My wife allowed him to make a call on her phone. As he left, our friend instructed my wife to delete the number from her phone. I figure he was making contact with his drug dealer.
Then there was the day he came by asking for a dollar for cigarettes. We told him no, we don’t approve of smoking. He was upset, saying he should have lied about what he needed the money for.
A few days later, he came by asking for a dollar for gasoline to fill a neighbor’s weed whacker. He said he’d been hired to clean up the guy’s lawn but that he needed a little bit of gas to do it. He said he’d be paid the next day and would bring back the dollar.
We turned him down. We knew there was no weed whacker and no job.
A few days ago, I heard him again. It was a nice day and we had the door open. From across the fence, I heard the sounds of dogs yowling while the curses, arguments and yelling floated over on the breeze.