City services: treating the homeless like abandoned cars

William Donald Schaefer

The other day, as I was walking to BART at the end of a workweek, I saw a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk. He looked abandoned, as if someone simply left him there and walked away. Seeing that abandoned man made me think about William Donald Schaefer, mayor of Baltimore for most of the 1970s and 1980s.

Baltimore in 1971, when Schaefer took office, was nearly as bad off as Detroit is today. Scars remained from the riots of 1968. White flight–middle class family fleeing the city for the suburbs–was in full swing. Crumbling buildings, empty school rooms, potholed roads, and abandoned cars pocked the city.

I didn’t live anywhere near Baltimore at the time. I was busy growing up and then attending college in Washington state. What I remember was reading an article about Schaefer in the early 1980s while I was in college. Schaefer had a passion for the nitty-gritty of public service. When he saw an abandoned car that needed removing, or a pothole that needed filling, he fired off a memo (or later in his tenure a mobile phone call) to the person responsible.

And Schaefer expected results. Heads would roll if that car wasn’t impounded by the end of the day. At times, he wouldn’t even tell city staffers where the car was.

(Baltimore Magazine has a great eulogy for Schaefer, who passed away in 2011.)

So the other day, when I saw that homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk by BART, I longed for a mayor with the drive of Schaefer and a passion for helping the homeless. If only there was a phone call someone could place and immediately dispatch people to come help.

A homeless person is not a pothole, I know. The problem of homelessness can’t be fixed by a two-man crew with some tools and construction materials. But both are an example of needed public services: paving or public health.

My recall of Schaefer that afternoon stemmed in part from the helplessness I feel when confronted with someone experiencing homelessness. If only I could be like Schaefer, pull my cell phone from pocket, and place a call to city workers who could come help.

Given our current economic times, making such a call seems like a pipe dream. Then again, many great products and services start off as pipe dreams.

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