The Homeless Are Ill Served by Advocates
Let bums sell the Daily News.

The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, November 14, 1990

The Coalition for the Homeless is fuming at the New York Daily News. At issue is not the tabloid's editorial policies or coverage of homeless issues, but that it is offering homeless people an opportunity to earn money by hawking the paper.

Many New York newsstands have stopped selling the News in response to threats from striking union workers, so the paper has had to resort to other distribution methods. The News denies that it's singling out homeless people in its recruitment, but it has reportedly posted employment notices in homeless shelters. In some cases, salesmen are being given the papers and allowed to keep all the proceeds.

But rather than praising the beleaguered newspaper for offering the down-and-out an alternative to panhandling, Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, is quoted as accusing it of the "lowest form of exploitation possible."

There is a legitimate concern here: that the homeless people who sell the News may be vulnerable to union violence. But if that's what Ms. Brosnahan is concerned about, she should be demanding better police protection of the homeless, who are vulnerable to violence anyway--witness the Halloween attack on several homeless men by a Harlem youth gang.

Instead, she is calling on the city's Human Resources Administration to bar the News from recruiting in municipal shelters. She likens the News to "crooked vocational schools" and even mobsters.

This is old hat for Ms. Brosnahan. A year ago, she emerged as one of the most strident critics of Street News, the New York-based newspaper published by a nonprofit organization and sold by the homeless. There is plenty to criticize about Street News, plagued by scandal and employee turnover because of the erratic leadership of its founder and executive director, Hutchinson Persons. Mr. Persons and his organization are under investigation by the New York state attorney general's office for allegations that reportedly include fund-raising fraud, misappropriation of funds and insurance fraud.

But Ms. Brosnahan complains about Street News for the wrong reasons: "Mr. Persons is just simply using the cheapest available form of labor to peddle his goods," she told ABC-TV.

Opposition to "cheap labor" is a recurring theme among homeless advocates. But what other sort of labor are the homeless going to provide? Few are qualified for white-collar jobs, and many have no work experience whatsoever. And even for low-level jobs, employers are understandably reluctant to hire from a population that includes a high percentage of drug addicts and the mentally ill.

Thus, for those homeless who are able to work, the best alternative is unskilled entrepreneurial labor, particularly sales, for which they are already well-qualified. After all, what is the difference between a panhandler and a salesman, except that the latter earns money by giving something of value in exchange?

Yet there are often legal obstacles to entrepreneurial opportunities for the homeless. In Washington, D.C., for example, a man named Ego Brown set up a shoeshine stand on a sidewalk. Demand for his services was so high that he expanded his operation by hiring the homeless. Some 25 homeless people were employed by Mr. Brown at various times until he was shut down by District of Columbia officials enforcing a Jim Crow-era law barring "bootblack stands on public space."

Mr. Brown is back in business now, thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Landmark Center for Civil Rights. But Clint Bolick, the center's director and Mr. Brown's lawyer, says he received no support from liberal homeless advocacy groups.

The Coalition for the Homeless's anti-free-market bias ill serves its constituents. Efforts to keep labor costs artificially high hurt the most marginal members of the work force, who have the hardest time selling their labor at inflated prices.

Economists have long made this point regarding the minimum wage. They note that every time it goes up, so does unemployment among young black males. This is said to be an unintended consequence of the minimum wage--but in the Daily News controversy the minimum wage is being invoked with the intent of keeping the homeless out of the work force.

The State Labor Department is investigating whether homeless vendors are News employees or independent contractors. If they are found to be employees (and it "appears likely" that they will be, according to a Labor Department spokeswoman--though newspaper vendors have never been considered employees before), they will be entitled to $3.80 an hour. If this happens, the News will be less inclined to offer work to the homeless, and, more disturbingly, a precedent will be set that may scuttle future efforts to offer entrepreneurial opportunities to the down-and-out.

In fact, the minimum wage has already been used against a traditional charity, the Salvation Army. In early September, the U.S. Labor Department demanded that the organization pay the minimum wage to residents of its shelters, who are given room, board, pocket money and spiritual counseling but are required to help with cooking or the moving of donated furniture and clothes. By the end of that month, in the face of harsh criticism, the Labor Department backed down, saying it would find a way to let the Salvation Army continue its century-old practices.

Free enterprise may not be a panacea for the homeless. Many need treatment for mental disorders or drug addiction before they can be expected to work productively. But it is the best hope of those who are homeless simply because they're down on their luck. Siding with the unions and other supporters of economic regulation may establish the liberal credentials of homeless advocates. But it's disastrous for the homeless, who can compete in the work force only if the market is free.

Next article: The Avant-Garde Laughs--at Last (New York City Tribune, Dec. 11)

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