When I was a youngster, one of my favorite movie genres was the classic Western.
I suppose part of that fascination for me was the ever-present archetypical hero pitted against overwhelming odds. This hero was never in it for the money or the prestige or any of the other things that motivated regular folk. What he did was always motivated by what he believed was right and usually meant he was protecting someone — or something — that was threatened.
The classic scene of the town marshal standing against the lynch mob approaching to hang his prisoner exemplifies this theme. But this oft-used scene is more nuanced than the usual good-versus-evil morality tale that we find in Westerns.
For in this scene the mob is usually composed of the townspeople. They are convinced that the jailed person is guilty and deserves to die. They are filled with righteous anger and impatient to see justice swiftly administered. But the marshal stands his ground, shotgun in hand, and wins the day. He doesn't gun down his neighbors. Instead, he reminds them of who they are — farmers, shopkeepers, and churchgoers. He forcefully reminds them of their humanity and stops the terrible evil that they are about to commit.
In so doing, the marshal also saves the town itself. It is saved from mob rule and cruel injustice. Its humanity is restored and civilization triumphs. As is often quoted, "Society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members."
Here in Lexington, we have been acting out our own morality play of late. Much of this centers on how we react to our most vulnerable members, many of whom have fallen into homelessness.
A number of new ordinances have been passed recently by our city council and signed into law. One of these, referred to as the nuisance ordinance, originally designed to stem criminal activity in poorly managed housing complexes, was hijacked by a small group of council members in an effort to close down the Community Inn, a shelter for men and women living on the streets.
A second measure, known as the adult day center ordinance, now requires a conditional use permit before opening another facility like the New Life Day Center, which provides daytime drop-in services for persons living on the streets. This added hurdle amidst vehement neighborhood opposition will likely prevent any such facility from ever opening again in our community.
And then there is the on-going campaign orchestrated again by a small contingent of council members to shut down the Community Inn. This effort ultimately resulted in the revocation of the conditional-use permit that allowed the shelter to operate.
This targeted effort to close down the Community Inn is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine if any federal laws were violated by city officials or council members.
Finally, amidst vocal and well-organized opposition by the Meadowthorpe Neighborhood Association, the city recently announced opposition to the hoped-for relocation of the Community Inn to the bankrupt Lorilard Lofts property. Since this property required a zoning change to be used for any sheltering activity, without city cooperation the project cannot go forward.
As our city's morality play unfolds, we are absent one key player: our hero, the marshal.
Where is the city leadership that is willing to stand against the mob and remind us of our humanity and save our civil society?
When we fail our most vulnerable citizens, we fail ourselves. Lexington is better than this. We need to find our common humanity amidst all the misunderstandings and stereotypes heaped upon persons who are without places to live.
If our city officials cannot find the courage to stand against the mob we should at least expect them not to join in efforts to further victimize these vulnerable people.
After all, what would we think of the marshal in our movie if he simply stepped aside and said, "Have at him boys!"
David Christiansen is executive director of the Central Kentucky Housing and Homeless Initiative.