January 25, 2007

Random Drug Test Brouhaha

I hate being really busy. Sometimes I want to write about something but don’t really have the time. Dear reader, many of you may be able to write really quickly, clearly and succinctly, but I find it to be very hard work. So sometimes I have to skimp. Because sometimes I want to post something timely and i don’t have the time to do it justice.

That said, I really felt the need to post about Keri’s show on WSAR on Thursday. It was an interesting situation, with her regular callers calling in and disagreeing with her while longtime critics were phoning in their support.

Why? Because seemingly fed up with the the violent problems in Fall River’s housing projects, and triggered by the recent story about a successful multi-state drug trafficking bust (“Operation Ragdoll”) based in Fall River, Keri suggested that a possible solution might be to randomly test people in federally funded housing for illegal drug use. If you fail a drug test, you can’t live in the housing. You’ll be tested once a year, maybe twice. The time will be random.

I can’t fully cover the subject here briefly. First, my not-fully-formed opinion.

The problem with both drugs and violence in the projects and elsewhere in Fall River is a worsening one. It is in the news a lot lately, yet it is not new, nor should it be any surprise. Only the blind or ignorant could have not seen this coming. Fall River’s (and Bristol County’s) leadership has failed to stop this problem from worsening. Whatever has been tried has failed.

New suggestions are needed. And new discussions. Without ideas and discussion, we’re left with more of the same failure.

To the specific suggestion itself: I don’t know if it is a good idea or not. When I first heard Keri make the suggestion I thought “Interesting suggestion, but I don’t think I’m in favor of it.”

Then I listened to the callers who vehemently opposed the suggestion. I have to say, it’s been a long time since I’ve heard such horrible, horrible reasoning. It wasn’t until about 2.5 hours passed before I even heard anyone give her a halfway reasonably formed argument in opposition to this idea. I was completely appalled at the liberal callers who I usually agree with, and other voices that I did not recognize. I heard red herrings, changing the subject, irrelevant points, bad analogies… it was a complete mess. (And that’s ignoring the ad hominem attacks)

After about 10 minutes of listening to Keri’s show, I am now leaning towards agreeing with the idea. The arguments were embarrassingly bad. Keri didn’t break a sweat; nobody seemed able to respond to her challenges with a straight answer or ask her any stumper questions.

If I had time, I’d try to recount everything I heard. Instead, you’re going to get some cheap bullet-pointed commentary of my own (not what I heard on the radio) so I can pop this out and then get some sleep.

For The Random Drug Testing Idea

These are some things I might have said had I been sitting next to Keri and arguing for the idea. I thought of these while listening to the earlier part of the show, and i missed some of the later show, so excuse me if I am repeating what others already said.

  • If you were living in the projects and you had a choice between submitting to a drug test or living next to drug dealers and abusers, which would you choose? (To be fair, I am assuming this is not a false choice. But since none of her callers effectively attacked the practicality of the program, the success seemed to be assumed. Arguments all appeared to be on other grounds.) (A caller did call in later with this exact argument, and Keri actually alluded to this argument earlier in the show as well, but a caller was trying to talk over her.)
  • If the government is providing housing, doesn’t it become the government’s responsibility to go to extra measures to ensure that it is safe housing — that it is not creating a haven for criminal activity?
  • If it is cheaper to put housing like this into Fall River, as has been done on the past, and move people from out of town into this housing, increasing the burden on the city, doesn’t the government have some responsibility in ensuring that it is not importing customers for the drug trade; effectively transplanting crime into the city?
  • Responding to the bad analogy of profiling Muslims on an airplane: Everyone who chooses to get on an airplane chooses to submit to certain security rules. As long as those rules are applying to everyone (i.e. nobody can carry on a water bottle) there is no problem. It’s an equitable rule. The same applies to the housing. If you choose to live in federal housing, and the rules apply to everyone, then it is an equitable rule in that sense. (Keri may have actually said this)

Critical Of The Random Drug Testing Idea:

I didn’t actually hear much constructive criticism of the idea, just attacks. If its a bad idea, it won’t stand up to criticism, but good questions need to be asked and that’s where the arguments need to be. Maybe there are good answers to some of the questions, maybe not.

  • How can you practically make sure you’re testing the people who are actually living in the projects?
  • What do you do if a child in a family is found using. Do you test the children, or just the person whose name is on the papers? How young do you test?
  • If this program is successful, what are the practical consequences? An increase in homelessness? What do you do with the new population of homeless drug addicts?
  • Is the program at all politically viable?
  • Is this testing a sort of unreasonable search, and therefore unconstitutional because of the fourth amendment? Even if you agree to be in the housing, do people have a right to deny the government access to their body as some sort of human right?
  • To rebut the “I’m paying for it” taxpayer canard, tax money is not your money or my money once we give it to the government. You don’t pay taxes for services, you pay taxes because you want a stable society in which you can thrive. To provide that environment, the government has certain expenses. Because you enjoy the fruits of a stable society, you bear a burden of taxes. The conservative need to call tax money “my money” feeds the fiction that you are owed something. It’s a canard that leads to all sorts of bad arguments like “my tax money paid for this F-18, so I want a ride in it!”

Conclusion

I agree that the drug problem is a huge contributing factor to the area’s troubles. And I applaud Keri for a few hours of riveting radio (her phone lines were certainly on fire). I am hoping that your callers were merely caught off guard by the position you took and I hope they come back with some good arguments on Friday. I hope they regroup and we hear both Pro and Con with their thinking caps on. I’m still on the fence, because not only is the devil in the details of a plan like this, there are possible legal problems that would need to be explored by someone with far more knowledge than I have.

Maybe those who remain flabbergasted at the suggestion have their own radical ideas that they want to throw out there. Throw them out and shoot them down if necessary. I’m not the type of person who prefers hand wringing to a discussion with even the most wild and dangerous suggestions. We’re all adults, presumably. We can ruminate and then discard if necessary. Fear of tipping over the apple carts has kept the bad apples in with the good ones for far too long. Living away from the projects, I don’t pay the price. Those poor families in the line of fire are the ones who suffer, in a world of our own design.

Posted by James at January 25, 2007 10:41 PM
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Comments

I understand that drugs are a huge problem in public housing and I feel the same frustration that Keri does but random testing just isn’t going to solve the problem because it targets users and not dealers.

A better strategy is needed to help keep drug dealers out of public housing, more security, anonymous hotlines, and stricter, tougher sentencing for drug dealers who deal within the proximity of public housing, similar to what is in place for dealing near schools.

To the matter of drug users, random testing is just not going to catch enough people to justify its use. Instead, the renter or member of the renter’s household who is a known drug users should be offered the opportunity to enter a drug treatment program with mandatory testing. If the person refuses to enter such a program then the household would be evicted which is currently allowable in public housing under the 1998 Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

Posted by: Lefty at January 26, 2007 3:24 AM

The problem with random drug testing is it targets the drug users and not the drug dealers.

More effort needs to put into ridding projects of drug dealers, better security, anonymous hotlines, and new laws with severe penalties for dealing drugs within or near a housing project are all measures that need to be looked into.

As for curbing drug use in housing projects, a known drug user in a project household should be offered the chance to enter into a drug program with a mandatory testing requirement, failure to do so would result in the housing authority to initiate eviction proceedings against the household, something that is already allowable under the 1998 Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

Posted by: Lefty at January 26, 2007 3:38 AM

Thanks for the useful details!

I don't think such an idea (certainly not alone) would stop all the problems. And I think I did hear one caller complain that the idea didn't target dealers.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on the callers -- maybe people need time to think about these things. I have more time to be reflective on a blog. And I didn't call in. (Honestly, 3-6 are some of the busiest hours in my day). However, some of the criticisms of random drug testing seemed so obvious to me I really did expect to hear more substantive opposition.

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 7:56 AM

Yes, we also need to target the drug dealers -- but the reason the drug dealers are present in public housing is because THAT is where the customers seem to congregate. No customers -- no dealers. There's a reason why there aren't drug dealers on every corner up in the Highlands.

We've done the beefed up security thing. We've got the anonymous hotlines. None of it is helping. We need to do more.

I'm glad you thought it was interesting James. I was kind of surprised at the level of attack yesterday -- even by some of my pals. They were downright angry with me! LOL!

Posted by: Keri at January 26, 2007 9:02 AM

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment.

Forgive me if this is a stretched analogy, but this seems not unlike the "war on terror" where people are all too quick to give up their (or other people's) liberty in exchange for perceived safety or a perceived solution to the problem.

It would be easy for me to suggest a solution to the problem which presumes all people living in federally subsidized housing are guilty until presumed innocent and should be subjected to random drug testing when I wouldn't be be subjected to the same rule of law.

Neither would those who are legitimately part of the problem, but live in private housing in some of the worst neighborhoods in our cities.

But this net does catch poor, law abiding people, who are simply living in subsidized housing because they have few other choices. (I don't think anyone chooses to live in "the projects.")

Why should people who have done nothing wrong other than be poor be considered guilty until proven innocent? Would people be willing to sacrifice some liberty if you told them it would give them safer neighborhoods? Sure - some would. Should they have to? (Especially when we aren't asking the same thing of ourselves?)

This is definitely a problem that we need to solve. I can't say that I'm comfortable with this as a solution though.

Posted by: Jim at January 26, 2007 9:40 AM

"are guilty until presumed innocent" should read "proven innocent"

Posted by: Jim at January 26, 2007 9:43 AM

Let me play devil's advocate to your advocate. :) Because, truly, I think this is an interesting question to argue.

The people most affected by this problem are the law abiding citizens who live in the projects. Not me. For them, it is not merely a philosophical question. Assuming this was an effective policy, if you lived next to a dealer whose clients were the other people who lived around you, would you rather pee in a cup or keep the status quo? I'm saying that I would rather pee in a cup.

The question is, are we giving up essential liberty when we agree to be drug tested?

The fact is, we do have rules that curtail some freedoms in some cases where the need is considered dire. If we were to dismiss the idea out of hand on those grounds we would also dismiss the CORI checks that are already in place:

Public housing authorities check the CORIs of people who apply for housing. If you are applying for public housing, a Section 8 voucher, or a Massachusetts Rental Housing Voucher, a housing authority or regional nonprofit housing agency is allowed to get a CORI report on all members of your household who are 17 years or older. They are also allowed to get CORI on people who are younger than 17 who have been tried as adults.

Is that not, similarly, treating these people like sex offenders, by your standard?

Should we abolish CORI checks in public housing, and in fact abolish sex offender registration because it is treating the innocent as guilty? (sex offenders have served their time before they are released. In the eyes of the law, they are innocent of any new crime, though they carry a criminal record.)

http://www.masslegalhelp.org/cori/housing-and-cori-article#applying

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 9:59 AM

James, you mention your friend's show a lot. Is it available online or as a podcast?

Posted by: leslie at January 26, 2007 10:26 AM

No, but I promised to help her get a podcast going in December and (apologies, Keri) I haven't had time to stop by the station and work through the details with her.

Once it is available, I will definitely announce it.

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 10:57 AM

I blogged about Charlotte, North Carolina's "Transitional Family" program. It's an interesting concept that provides better housing for those motivated to improve, fail to meet your obligation and you get moved back to less desirable housing.

It's a concept that I think is well worth looking into.

http://aviewfrombattleshipcove.blogspot.com/2007/01/15-year-old-boysand-public-housing.html

Posted by: Lefty at January 26, 2007 11:31 AM
The people most affected by this problem are the law abiding citizens who live in the projects. Not me. For them, it is not merely a philosophical question. Assuming this was an effective policy, if you lived next to a dealer whose clients were the other people who lived around you, would you rather pee in a cup or keep the status quo? I'm saying that I would rather pee in a cup.

If those were the only available options, sure. My argument is that we shouldn't ask them to have to make that choice. I don't think there is an easy answer. Making them the victim twice, once for being poor and having to live amongst the crime, and once again for having to prove their innocence, seems like the wrong solution.

The fact is, we do have rules that curtail some freedoms in some cases where the need is considered dire. If we were to dismiss the idea out of hand on those grounds we would also dismiss the CORI checks that are already in place:

I think this is different. You are looking at someone past criminal record as an indicator in making a decision. (Whether it is an appropriate indicator or not could be a debate of its own.)

If the drug testing program were to institute random tests for everyone living in subsidized housing, we go from "you've done this in the past, and might do it again" to "you might be guilty because of where you live and/or your economic status, so pee in this cup and prove you are not."

Should we abolish CORI checks in public housing, and in fact abolish sex offender registration because it is treating the innocent as guilty? (sex offenders have served their time before they are released. In the eyes of the law, they are innocent of any new crime, though they carry a criminal record.)

That's an interesting question. Actually, I think it is two questions ;-).

CORI checks use past acts as an indicator for future ones. I don't have the statistic handy to make an argument one way or the other, so let's give the policy the benefit of the doubt here. (I can come up with personal anecdotes which would argue both sides of the argument, but anecdotes are only as good as far as they will get you.)

The sex offender registry is also an interesting question. Would I want to know if there was a sex offender in my neighborhood so I could take appropriate precautions? Absolutely. (This is again a case where we are using prior acts as an indicator, not randomly requiring people otherwise thought to be innocent to prove their innocence.)

Is the sex offender registry a successful public policy? That's a much tougher question whose answer depends upon the terms in which the question is phrased. Surely an interesting conversation, but probably separate from the context of the current question.

Posted by: Jim at January 26, 2007 11:33 AM

Hm. I think it does fall into the "unreasonable search" category. And the "Muslims on the airplane" (MOTA, simply because I like the acronym) comparison is an inapt one, yes. But let's consider that a "reasonable search" includes probable cause: reason to believe that the subject of the search is more likely than the typical person to possess what you're searching for. We can argue that everyone in the projects is more likely than the average Massachusettan ("Chewie" henceforth, for brevity).

But should we measure "reasonable" against the universe of Chewies, or the universe of Projectiles. I'd argue that we have probable cause to search a Projectile only if we have reason to think he's more likely to have drugs than other Projectiles are... not just more likely than other Chewies, or other Murkins, or whatever.

Any comparison to airport security fails in that flying on an airplane is a nonce thing, and we consider that it's reasonable to establish a sort of "blanket warrant" for searches there. Living in the projects is one's daily life. No judge would agree that innocent people should be subject to random searches in their homes.

Consider the question not of telling them they have to submit to searches of their bodies, but that they have to submit to searches of their apartments. If the police come into your home, search it, and find drugs... the result of that search — and and other evidence derived from it — is excluded (can't be used against you).

Why should searching your urine be any different?

Posted by: Barry Leiba at January 26, 2007 12:22 PM

I think that is the difference right there. From a naive standpoint (the only one I can muster on short notice and while distracted) "a home is a castle." And your body is, similarly, something to which we assume certain protections.

"No judge would agree that innocent people should be subject to random searches in their homes." - I think you're right. The important point being the "their homes" part. IMH(and inexpert)O.

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 12:44 PM

I don't think most residents of public housing have a lot of affordable alternatives, so I don't care for the "choosing to live there" argument any more than I care for the "they're poor because they want to be poor" argument.

I still don't see the benefit of the drug testing. So, you'll kick them out of their housing. Do you think that threat means anything to an addict? Do you think they'll stop using once you kick them out? Are you prepared to pay for rehab on all of these people? Where will that money come from? This is not a trivial question. It's hard enough to fund these programs as it is.

And do you expect them to tell you which low-ranking wiseguy sold them their stuff? (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that it is desirable to know who the dealers are.) Are you going to get the users' cooperation if they think their families will be harmed in retaliation?

Pragmatic concerns aside, I'm not in favor of the government picking on a single economic class for any reason. I would find this proposal slightly less offensive if EVERYONE were subject to random tests, not just the poor, with the stakes being something other than losing the roof over their heads. (But still extremely offensive.)

I also think it's a bad idea to give the government (whether it's a Clinton government or a Bush government) the power to do anything to anyone without probable cause, whether they're rich (and perhaps better able to defend themselves in court if, by some strange happenstance, their tests are mishandled or misinterpreted) or poor. Having a certain address should not, in itself, constitute probable cause.

Do I have a "better" solution? No. Does that mean that this one merits consideration? No, unless I can figure out how random testing of residents would solve any problems. I don't even know if it's legal. I do know, however, that the prosecution of drug dealers in Bristol County has been a joke over the last few years. The cops have continued to put dealers in jail only to see them released a few months later, thanks to our previous DA's inability to put these people away for any meaningful amount of time. Let's see if more effective prosecution will make a difference.

Posted by: Julie at January 26, 2007 1:02 PM

What a nightmare situation--one that no politician will want to touch with a 10-foot pole. But this must be addressed. People are dying.

Jim said:

“… this seems not unlike the ‘war on terror’ where people are all too quick to give up their (or other people's) liberty in exchange for perceived safety or a perceived solution to the problem.”

I thought the same thing, thinking of the tired old statement “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.” Always a bad policy. However, I disagreed with his next thought:

“It would be easy for me to suggest a solution to the problem which presumes all people living in federally subsidized housing are guilty until presumed innocent and should be subjected to random drug testing when I wouldn't be subjected to the same rule of law.”

It is not a case of presuming all these people are guilty. Rather, the analogy is really like living with one’s parents. “When you’re under my roof, you will abide by my rules.” (Yes, this is something we were told, verbatim.)

The government does not have to provide housing, but it does, and it’s the government’s to administer as they wish. Your parents don’t have to let you keep living at home, they can kick your tushie out if you break the house rules.

It’s like working for a company. Each company has a Code of Conduct, or similar guidelines. All employees know they are expected to behave within certain parameters or they risk being fired.

Look. No decision is going to make everyone happy, and some proposed solutions will make us all squrm a bit. However—and I don’t want to come across as saying the ends justify the means—if the program(s) enacted mean people with few choices can sleep at night and not worry about their kids ending up addicted to [insert drug here] or shot to death, well, then, maybe when we look back in 10 years, we’ll wonder why we waited so long. Whatever is decided, there have to be safegards in place so people aren’t abused or harrassed, but then again, they already are—by the dealers.

Posted by: Patti M. at January 26, 2007 1:22 PM

I agree that the justice system is a large part of the problem we're seeing, but back to the drug check:

So, should we stop with the CORI check, then? I still find the "economic class" criticism to be off-base, since we're talking about applying this to people in public housing, not just choosing an economic class. Yes, being poor and being in public housing strongly correlate, but we're talking about a criteria for application, like the CORI check. It's something you agree to.

I find the legal and pragmatic problems much more compelling than any "moral" problems which seem to cause offense.

We apply other restrictions to people in public housing. Yet, those restrictions aren't offensive?

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 1:23 PM

I didn't know people in public housing were subject to a CORI check.

The drug-testing idea offends me, as it offends many others, because it seems to revoke personal freedoms and target the poor. But I also am doubtful about its effectiveness, and I'm upset with a program that penalizes the poor and the users, and not the drug-dealing higher-ups.

I feel like the illegal drug issue needs to be dealt with in two ways: remove suppliers (I realize that our government tries to do that and so far it's been impossible), and improve the lives of the impoverished so they don't become users. Don't drug test them -- give them jobs. Give them free rehab, counseling, and support. There's too little of this.

Posted by: Maggie at January 26, 2007 1:43 PM

I agree with you on the jobs and the rehab, but how is that achieved?

You've got to be sober/straight to get and keep a job (backing up even farther, you've got to be sober/straight to get the education required to get and keep a job).

Tacking on to what Julie said about a junkie not really caring about being evicted, a junkie doesn't think he or she a) has a problem b)needs/wants to go into rehab.

So. How do we identify those who need to get into rehab if they want to stay in public housing until they can get better, get a job, and get out?

Here's another thought. Public housing should be seen as a transition, not a destination. Yet, for some families, it's where they've lived for a couple of generations. Has anyone thought of a "term limit" for living in public housing?

Just throwing it out there.

Posted by: Patti M. at January 26, 2007 1:54 PM

James said:

Yes, being poor and being in public housing strongly correlate, but we're talking about a criteria for application, like the CORI check. It's something you agree to.

When you're left with few choices to put a roof over your family's head, you'll agree to things that you find disagreeable because there is no other viable option. That people may or may not be willing to agree to such stipulations doesn't make them right.

Patti wrote:

The government does not have to provide housing, but it does, and it’s the government’s to administer as they wish.

The government can't do as it wishes. It is bound by the rule of law and the constitution. The government can and should be held to a higher standard.

I don't think the ends justify the means when the create new problems. This is definitely a problem that needs to be solved. But this isn't the solution, because while I don't want to live in a word where this sort of violence is a de-facto part of many people's lives, neither do I want to live in a police state where it is acceptable for the government to impose these sorts of restrictions as it wishes.

Choosing one or the other is taking the easy way out. Sometimes hard problems require hard solutions.

Julie's question is important - what happens when you are found to be non-compliant? If we don't have a good answer, then we aren't solving the problem.

Posted by: Jim at January 26, 2007 2:00 PM
Has anyone thought of a "term limit" for living in public housing?

I'm not an expert on this subject, but I'd be surprised if it didn't come up in the context of welfare reform - another topic that could spawn a many months long conversation.

Posted by: Jim at January 26, 2007 2:09 PM

Jim, I'm sure you realize that when I said "they may administer it as they wish," I meant they can kick you out if you, say, deal drugs or shoot somebody, which are crimes regardless if you live in public housing or not.

The government can't do as it wishes. It is bound by the rule of law and the constitution. The government can and should be held to a higher standard.

Agreed. I don't think anyone disagrees with you (at least not on this blog).

what happens when you are found to be non-compliant? If we don't have a good answer, then we aren't solving the problem.

I thought somebody covered that: Enter rehab--which will be provided at no cost to you--or get out.

Posted by: Patti M. at January 26, 2007 2:20 PM

Good points, Jim. And, really, everyone else, too.

Yes - I agree that Julie's question needs to be answered (it's one of the ones I listed in the post -- creating a whole bunch of homeless people).

I concede that being poor reduces your choices and makes you more likely to agree to stuff you wouldn't otherwise. However what does that mean in practical terms? Does the constitution protect us from having to make difficult decisions?

To reiterate, good points everyone!

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 2:25 PM
Does the constitution protect us from having to make difficult decisions?

No. I think the constitution protects you from having to unreasonably forfeit your rights in order to accept assistance.

It doesn't matter if you've got nothing to hide. It doesn't matter if its "for your own good."

I think you can come at this argument from either a moral or legal point of view.

Posted by: Jim at January 26, 2007 2:36 PM

I don't think the issue is whether you have anything to hide or not. The issue is in the word "unreasonably."

The fact is, we do forfeit rights all the time. I'm not sure I've yet seen the case made here for this as an unreasonable forfeit of rights (vs. other such forfeits that already occur) from a moral angle. I fully recognize that there may be legal problems which I am not equipped to explore sufficiently.

Is there something special about accepting assistance? What about drug tests that are prerequisites for taking a job with the government?

Lefty made a suggestion on another blog like "how about make all the people in public housing employees by requiring some kind of "sweat equity" as a return for their assistance.

But that logistical note aside, let me address the idea of people being coerced into public housing by their situation, and therefore coerced into giving up their urine for a drug test.

Let's say you're a programmer, the economy is really bad and you've gone many months without the ability to find a job. You were a poor college student and you need the money. There is a job with the DoD, but it requires a urine test. It's the only job that will help you make enough money to pay your rent.

Are you being coerced into a drug test? Does that, then, make it morally wrong? Or does a programmer elicit less sympathy because we think she can find another job (in our hypothetical, she can't). No, she's not in the same position. I'm only using this analogy to analyze the "coercion" aspect -- obviously they differ in many other aspects.

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 2:59 PM

For me this comes down to the fact that these federal programs are not mandatory ... you aren't forced to participate.

And those who badly need the assisatnce should not be subjected to this kind of terrorism simply because they're poor. They have a right to live in peace.

Posted by: Keri at January 26, 2007 3:02 PM

I don't see how this compares to CORI checks. A registered sex offender has done something illegal, and the registration (and its consequences) are part of the punishment. Whether or not that is fair or proper is another debate. The point is that a CORI check identifies people who are already considered "guilty", while testing everyone in public housing does not. To me, that is a big difference. Don't treat someone like a criminal until they act like one.

The prospect of putting the government in the role of "parents" is pretty alarming. Especially when I think of just how "paternalistic" the so-called leadership can be.

Fertile young women might have additional reasons for wanting to keep their blood and urine to themselves. (I know pregnancy testing wasn't mentioned, but if you think it would never be pondered, or conducted by some mischievous lab tech for personal reasons, I think you'd be wrong.)

It is humiliating enough to be almost-homeless. It would be nice if you didn't also have to sign something agreeing that you can't be trusted, when your only "crime" so far is that you're momentarily down on your luck. Perhaps they should search your pantry, too, to make sure you're eating the right foods. It's for your own good, of course, so how dare you protest?

And the prospect of the federal government running anything like a "business" strikes me as... uh... humorous. Partly because of the money-management issue (they are poor role models) and partly because a business, being a private organization, can fire people for any number of reasons that the government isn't allowed to, including whimsy.

We all benefit in some way from federal money. Does that mean we should we all be subject to causeless searches? If we drive on roads built with federal money, should we be stopped randomly and tested for no reason?

For the record, I DO live next door to a convicted drug dealer. He's been in jail at least three times in the last 3 years. I could pee in a cup from now till doomsday and it still wouldn't get him out of the neighborhood. And he evidently knows how to beat a urine test, or else he'd be sent back on a parole violation.

So I don't see any benefit here. Just giving more power to the government to harass people without probable cause, treating them like criminals when they haven't done anything wrong (they "agreed" to be treated this way because... because they didn't want to be homeless?), and all of this costs money that could be more productively spent on so many other things, like rehab, an effective DA's budget, and greatly expanded vocational training programs, because it's not just the kids who need help preparing for the future.

Addiction seems to get more attention as a legal issue than as a medical issue. That's too bad, because all the punishment in the world (of the addict, and his neighbors) isn't going to cure an addiction. On the other hand, a rehabbed addict might accomplish something.

Posted by: Julie at January 26, 2007 3:30 PM

I think the situations are quite different, even though your scenario makes them seem like they are similar. I don't know if I'll be able to convince you of that here though.

The government assistance programs exist to help people because we've decided as a society that this is the right thing to do. While there are certainly strings attached, having to give up fundamental rights that are enjoyed by other law abiding citizens shouldn't be one.

The counter argument is that by providing this for of centralized subsidized housing, the government should also guarantee that it is a safe environment. I don't disagree. I just disagree that asking people to forfeit their rights is a necessary means to achieve that goal.

Government jobs don't fall into the same category as government assistance programs, IMO. Government jobs don't exist as a vehicle to directly help the person who is employed. They exist so that the government can fulfill its obligation to the people. As such, it has the responsibility to make sure it has filled those positions with the appropriate people because they are ultimately accountable to us all.

Is drug screening necessary to meet that goal? It is my lay understanding that the courts have set bounds which state this is only constitutional in certain situations.

Based on that understanding, I think the courts have come to an acceptable compromise on this situation which balances individual rights against public good/safety/etc. (Based on my possibly incorrect/outdated understanding, the programmer may or may not fall into the category of employee for which drug testing is allowed based on specifics of the job.)

No one has convinced me that a compromise of this sort is a) necessary and b) will actually do anything to solve the problem at hand. The problem demands a solution, but not one that is swift, and devoid of thought for the lasting implications it might have.

You can blame this current administration and the last 7 years of erosion of personal freedoms for getting me so riled up about issues like this.

Posted by: Jim at January 26, 2007 3:39 PM

It's true that federal programs aren't mandatory. I'm just wondering what the alternative is for a person who is facing homelessness, but would like to maintain some dignity while she is getting back on her feet.

I don't think it's fair to say that addicts don't want rehab. As far as I know, unless it's ordered by a judge, you have to get on a waiting list (unless you can afford to pay for it yourself, but we're talking about people in public housing). A moody addict may not be able to plan that far ahead.

I like the idea of "sweat equity," too, but I believe a lot of people in public housing are elderly or disabled, and their abilities may not be a good match for whatever it is that the housing authority might need them to do.

Posted by: Julie at January 26, 2007 3:48 PM

I'm just going to let Jim handle the rest of my arguments now, because he keeps saying all the stuff that I haven't been able to put into words. Thanks, Jim, whoever you are.

BTW, yes, I took several drug tests for employment when I lived in FL. Each of these were one-time tests, as a prerequisite to employment, and I knew about them well in advance. They were also pretty insecure, in that they would have been easy to cheat.

I wasn't in a position to decline these tests, but that doesn't mean that I approved of them. The test itself proved only that I didn't use drugs during my job search.

Posted by: Julie at January 26, 2007 3:59 PM

Julie writes:
I don't see how this compares to CORI checks. A registered sex offender has done something illegal, and the registration (and its consequences) are part of the punishment.

However, they are innocent of any other crimes. And I cannot demand you provide me with your own CORI. They don't post everyone;s CORI online for everyone to review. It would be a privacy violation, no? That's how it compares to CORI. Did you have to submit to a CORI to move into your neighborhood? Did I have to to get my mortgage?

The prospect of putting the government in the role of "parents" is pretty alarming.

I'm not a big fan of the nanny state. But perhaps you've already crossed that line when you've provided housing and other assistance.

People already submit to restrictions, sorry if I keep repeating this, but "those restrictions are different" leads me to think that an arbitrary line has been drawn at the status quo.

I completely understand people's sensitivity to these issues after 7 years of Bush. But I also see what's going on in these projects and the government started something by creating this housing, and I think they've dropped the ball. Especially when they create havens for the customers and the providers of illegal drugs.

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 4:00 PM

This thread is certainly much more interesting than when I just post my cranky opinion.

Maybe we should toss controversial questions up on the blog more often.

To quote Monty Python:

Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 4:13 PM
Maybe we should toss controversial questions up on the blog more often.

If you do that, I may never get any work done. I was behind when I started today, and this thread has only made matters worse. :-)

Posted by: at January 26, 2007 4:17 PM

That explains why your responses are so well thought out!

;)

Posted by: James at January 26, 2007 4:22 PM

I'm not a big fan of the nanny state. But perhaps you've already crossed that line when you've provided housing and other assistance.

Bingo. There is a very very fine line between doing enough and doing too much. We could argue for years on that point, and I'm sure we wouldn't be the first.

Posted by: Patti M. at January 26, 2007 4:41 PM

Wow...this, has really taken off.

Three quick points.

1. If you have random drug testing and someone fails what then? Oh, you evict them..they're living in public housing where do they go? Oh, they should have thoughtof that before using drugs! Gotcha, except what happens to their family? Are you comfortable with kicking out a whole family because one family member suffers from drug addiction?

2. When I mentioned 'sweat equity' in another blog part of my thinking is such equity provides experience, installs pride, provides motivation etc. The idea of reform vs. welfare goes back at least as FDR.

3. I obviously have no way of knowing the income of each family in public housing, but I own a home and according the breakdown on the Fall River Housing Authority website I could move into public housing. My point? Just maybe some of these people do have a choice.

http://www.fallriverha.org/fedfam.htm

Posted by: Lefty at January 26, 2007 5:47 PM

The brouhaha may be largely over on this topic on this blog, but I was too sick last week to use the computer much, so I didn't say much here or anywhere else.

I was thinking about it this morning, and suddenly it hit me differently. Rather than seeing it as an ineffective way to solve the drug problem, which was how I was looking at it, I started seeing it as a way to provide safer housing for people who need assistance.

I think it's the CORI check that turned my brain around. I get CORI'd in order to volunteer in the school and in order to be a Girl Scout leader. Of course, right? It only makes sense. And in order to get into the schools in this town, you need to be buzzed into the building.

Why shouldn't public housing be the same? Why shouldn't it be a safe place that people can aspire to live in, rather than a dumping ground for society's waste?

I don't think it solves the drug problem. That problem goes very deep and I don't believe there's any quick fix to that. People need to have hope, they need to have a little security, they need to have education, and they need to have access to health care (including drug rehab, and IMO, free birth control and very early birth control education). There needs to be less of a disparity between the ultra-rich and the merely rich, and the ridiculously impoverished.

But when I started looking at this drug testing as a way to just make the housing safer, it stopped looking like a bad idea, and started looking like a way to create a safe place for people requiring assistance to live. It's public housing. Like public schools, we should make it safe.

Another problem for me was looking at it as it presently is and imagining this change. It feels like you're taking away a personal liberty because right now there is no drug testing. If it were new housing and there were this testing requirement, I don't think it would feel the same, and I think people would line up to get in (people living in neighborhoods with a lot of drug-related crime). Rich people chose to live in gated communities with absurd rules about what kind of house you can have and what can be in your yard. I know that's not public housing, and I'm not making the argument that it's the same. I'm making the argument that people are willing to give up liberties (like having an old junker in your yard) if it means they're going to get to live the kind of lifestyle they want. People are willing to give up mowing their lawn whenever they please to ensure that everybody else keeps their lawn mowed once a week. And I think it's the same thing with the public housing -- people are willing to give up their right to use drugs in order to ensure that nobody around them is using drugs. Suddenly it just doesn't seem strange or wrong to me.

Posted by: Maggie at January 27, 2007 11:34 AM

Rich people can choose to live in gated communities; that's an interesting point.

Why not make it a choice thing?

What would happen if you had different public housing with different requirements for living there? Actually give someone in public housing something to aspire to.

The unfortunate thing is that, if you do have public housing with these requirements, you're going to concentrate some negative elements in some of the unqualified housing, possibly making them worse. But it does solve the problem of creating a whole new population of homeless people.

But I like the idea of giving people some choice.

Posted by: James at January 27, 2007 11:44 AM

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