Criminalizing Poverty: During Today’s Economic Crisis,
New Laws Crack Down on America’s Poor and Homeless
The number of laws criminalizing poverty is increasing as the housing and homelessness crises in America has worsened. Since 2006, there’s been a 12 percent increase in laws prohibiting camping out in public places, a 14 percent increase in laws prohibiting loitering, a 9 percent increase in laws prohibiting begging and a 8 percent increase in laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling, according to a recent report by The National Coalition for the Homeless. At the same time, after a double-digit jump in 2008, homelessness increased by an average of 6 percent from 2009 to 2010, and an additional 7% increase from 2010 to 2012, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors‘ Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness. Among families with children, homelessness increased by 14 percent. An average of 33 percent of homeless persons did not receive assistance last year because there weren’t enough beds or because shelters would not accept children.
In today’s economy, cities are facing really tight budgets, so they are often unable to build up or fund housing to meet the need. Many people are being forced to live out on the streets. In an essay published last year in The Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the New York Times bestselling book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” tells the story of a 62-year-old disabled veteran who was dragged from a homeless shelter to jail because he had an outstanding warrant for “criminal trespassing,” which is how Washington, D.C., defines sleeping on the streets. In some areas of the country, cities are even beginning to crack down on well-meaning individuals who want to hand out free food to the homeless. Las Vegas passed an ordinance forbidding the sharing of food with any “person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance. In Florida, Gainesville law limits the number of people soup kitchens may serve daily. In Phoenix, zoning officials actually stopped a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.
The phenomenon of criminalizing poverty isn’t limited to the homeless, though. Speaking from experience – having been homeless myself up until 3 years ago – I would compare applying for welfare and food benefits, which often entails mug shots, fingerprinting and lengthy interrogations about child paternity, to being booked by the police. In Florida, legislators recently passed a law requiring welfare recipients to undergo drug screenings, according to CNN. In response to criticism from the ACLU over his decision to approve drug testing for welfare beneficiaries, former Florida Gov. Rick Scott told CNN the law encourages “personal accountability.” People who can’t afford to pay court fees or traffic tickets in Michigan are made to sit in jail. Pay-or-stay sentences are no choice for the poor. They translate to rich people writing a check and going home and poor people going to jail. It’s a modern-day debtor’s prison. This two-tiered system of justice is shameful, it’s a waste of resources, it is unconstitutional, it is a gross violation of human rights and civil rights, and it urgently needs be changed.
As governments have cut funds to social welfare programs and passed laws that discriminate against the poor, the experience of America’s poor has come to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. Officials argue, though, that making it illegal to sleep, sit or store personal belongings in public spaces is not discriminatory, according to USA Today. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” said Joseph Patner, a city attorney who represented St. Petersburg, Fla, in 2009 when six homeless people filed a lawsuit against the city. “It’s not right for taxpayer money to be paying for somebody’s drug addiction,” he said. “On top of that, this is going to increase personal responsibility, personal accountability. We shouldn’t be subsidizing people’s addiction.”
Here in Atlanta where I live, it’s just as bad if not worse. In the inner city neighborhood just west of downtown where I live and work, anywhere from one-third to one-half of the single-family homes are abandoned and/or boarded up. At least 10 to 20 percent of these neglected homes are in such bad shape that a bulldozer is the only correct solution. But the majority of the other ones, though they are older dwellings, could be rehabilitated and lived in once again. But, since they are in an admittedly high-crime area, nobody wants them even though they are located only 5-10 minutes away from the mostly-revitalized downtown area. But since they are largely unwanted, many of these abandoned homes are inhabited by squatters who would otherwise be sleeping out in the weather. But as I wrote above, when the city of Atlanta police find people in these dwellings, they are immediately arrested for “criminal trespassing” and hauled off to jail. Few if any of these unlucky persons can bail themselves out of jail, so they languish behind bars until their court date, which can be anywhere from several weeks to more than 2 months. The fact that it costs the city an average of $65.00 per day to incarcerate these otherwise harmless individuals doesn’t matter to the entrenched powers down at Atlanta City Hall.
To make matters worse, if there are children involved, they are forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in foster homes at best, or even juvenile detention at worst. This perpetuates the cycle of homelessness and poverty while creating new caseloads for social workers, therapists, psychiatrists and probation officers, among others. In so doing, the seeds of rage, addiction and abuse are planted within these impressionable young minds until they wind up being institutionalized as teens or adults, one way or the other. And all this continues to occur because certain wealthy and influential property owners would rather board up these abandoned houses that (allegedly) nobody wants, rather than sell them at a hefty discount for less profit. It is these wealthy and incredibly greedy property owners who should be in jail, not the homeless squatters who have no where else to go.
Is there a solution that we can afford as conscientious Americans? You can bet your bottom dollar there is! I explained it the following way in my 2011 nonfiction book, “The Middle and Working Class Manifesto”. If the US government took all the money it spends in just one day on the occupation of Afghanistan and its clandestine presence in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan – among other places such as Western Europe – and invested those funds in an interest-bearing account at a bank, credit union or money market fund, there would be enough money to build a new 2,500 square foot house for every homeless person and/or family currently in America, fully furnished and with a year’s supply of groceries for a family of four. That’s right, everyone, just one day’s needless and pointless military expenditures would pay for all that. In closing, then, the fairness, compassion and equity of developed countries and their so-called “societies” can best be judged by how well they treat their least fortunate citizens. In that regard, I would say America has got a lot of work to do.