IT’S RARE that a letter to the editor in the local daily paper is worth an entire column in response.
But when you see a letter as insensitive, as counterproductive, as medieval, and as colossally clueless as a recent letter about homelessness from Rep. Jesse Petrea, it would be almost irresponsible of me to let it slide.
Petrea, a Republican who represents Chatham County’s islands district in the Georgia General Assembly, wrote the piece complaining about what he calls the “embarrassing eyesore” of the long-standing homeless camp under the Truman Parkway at President Street Extension.
Homelessness is one of those hot button issues that is guaranteed to get a strong response either way. People tend to be either very passionate about defending the homeless, or sternly judgemental about them.
It seems that the people most hostile to the homeless are often those who have the most comfortable homes themselves. Funny how that works.
One always hopes that our elected leaders will have the wisdom to see homelessness for what it is, a very complex issue involving real people with real lives, who are of no less value as humans simply because they don’t answer to a mortgage lender or a bank or a landlord.
Alas, such wisdom is not in evidence with Rep. Petrea, as he proves in his own letter.
Regardless of how you view the issue, the simple truth is that many residents of that homeless camp under the Truman have lived there, largely minding their own business, for probably as long or longer than Petrea has lived in his own home.
I have lived in my own house for 20 years. There are families under the Truman who literally have lived there for about as long.
Indeed, these fellow citizens really deserve a different word to describe them than “homeless,” as they assuredly do have a place they call home.
A home Petrea wants destroyed as an “embarrassing eyesore.”
In the June 2 letter, Petrea pledges to use the power of his office not to provide adequate alternative housing for residents of homeless camps, nor to provide more funding for adequate physical and mental health care for them, nor to raise awareness of the issue of homelessness, nor to take steps to better enable nonprofit organizations to help the homeless.
He pledges instead to use the power of his office to assist local and state government in clearing the camps. That’s it.
Where the people end up, in Petrea’s mind, is apparently none of his concern.
At no point in his letter does he show even a passing interest in the welfare of the homeless families he would displace.
It would be disturbing enough for an average citizen to have this privileged attitude toward people much less fortunate.
But for a duly elected official to claim, as Petrea does, that a proper use of his power is to force the evacuation of people who live on the commuter route to his district because they’re an “eyesore” is beyond the pale.
Keep in mind that Petrea is one of many members of the General Assembly — for those of you who are recent arrivals to our fair state, that’s what we call our state legislature — who advocate bringing more Christian values to public policy.
I distinctly recall that one of the core teachings of Christ is helping the poor, the sick, and yes, the homeless.
Petrea’s remarkably un-Christian attitude isn’t the only galling thing about the letter, however.
The main reason Petrea wants the homeless camps cleared is because — wait for it — tourists might see them.
“Savannah welcomes 13 million tourists each year, and 65 percent of our tourists visit Tybee Island. Accordingly, they pass this exit en route to and from Tybee as do our citizens each day,” Petrea writes, referring to the President Street exit off the Truman where the main camp is located.
It is tragic that an elected official would have more empathy for the tender sensibilities of tourists than for the local citizens most in dire need in his own community.
A call to “clean up” the community is pointless without a call to clean up the root causes of so many local problems.
But not even the cosmetic argument makes sense when you think about it. If you clear out the homeless camps, they will go somewhere, and probably not somewhere you’d prefer them to go.
Oh, say, like the squares of downtown Savannah, where the tourists are — the same tourists that Petrea says he’s worried about offending?
Speaking of tourists: Petrea’s letter also brings up another pet peeve of mine.
As I have written many times in this space, Savannah simply does not get 13 million tourists a year.
No, we don’t.
Savannah gets about 13-14 million “visitors” a year — which is not at all the same as tourists.
For example, if you live in Richmond Hill or Effingham County and come into Savannah for a doctor’s appointment and then do some shopping, guess what? You’re now one of the 13 or 14 million “visitors.”
Don’t just take my word for it. Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli recently penned an op-ed in the same daily paper, headlined "Let's all call them visitors," explaining the difference, based on the actual survey data Visit Savannah uses.
Do the math, folks: 13 million tourists a year would mean over a million a month. That would mean over a quarter-million each week.
Savannah packs about a quarter-million people like sardines downtown for the St. Patrick’s Day parade each year. Do you see that big of a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd each and every week downtown, 52 weeks out of the year? Obviously not.
Don’t get me wrong – Savannah still has a very healthy, robust tourism industry and a very high number of tourists each year. That’s a great thing.
The point is that many of our elected and appointed local officials continue to base public policy positions — many of them very bad positions, such as Petrea’s — on this inflated “visitor” number.
Petrea joins a long list of local leaders who either genuinely misunderstand the tourism figures, or deliberately manipulate them to serve an agenda.
He might even have done us a favor by exemplifying so many wrong-headed local attitudes in a single letter, all in one convenient place, however unintentionally.
In any case, the only thing “embarrassing” about Savannah’s homeless communities is the insensitivity and lack of regard with which some of our leaders treat them.