Criminalizing America’s Poor and People of Color
by Rev. Paul J. Bern
The number of laws criminalizing poverty and race are increasing as police shootings and homelessness worsens in America. From 2006 to 2012 there was 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” (I would call that ‘frantic begging by some really scared and desperate people’), according to a 2013 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 7 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.
Since 2012, America’s twin social diseases, poverty and racism, have increased even more. At the rate this problem is growing, somewhere between 1 in 3 to 1 in 4 people will be homeless in America in another 15 years or so. That’s how severe homelessness is becoming even as I write this. Among families with children, homelessness increased by 14 percent from 2012 to 2015, the last year for which figures are currently available. An average of 33 percent of homeless persons did not receive any assistance at all in 2015 because there weren’t enough beds in the shelters, or because homeless shelters would not accept women (or men) with children. So, if you have kids and you wind up homeless in America, too bad for you! You and your children will freeze together in the cold. If you die from exposure to the elements on some January night, at least you’ll all go out together. Gee, isn’t that nice! And do these shelters who routinely discriminate against single parents and their kids think that God doesn’t see what they are doing, or that He doesn’t care? You can be sure that God will eternally punish these goody-two-shoes, self appointed public servants most severely!!
In today’s economy, cities are facing really tight budgets, so they are often unable to build up or fund housing to meet this need. Many people are being forced to live out on the streets. The lucky ones get to sleep in their cars. The unlucky ones are found the following morning, beaten or frozen to death. In an essay published in 2012 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.
Then, of course, there are the spate of police shootings. According to Minute News Press, “Though Americans commonly believe law enforcement’s role in society is to protect them and ensure peace and stability within the community, the sad reality is that police departments are often more focused on enforcing laws, making arrests and issuing citations. As a result of this, as well as an increase in militarized policing techniques, Americans are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist, estimates a Washington’s Blog report based on official statistical data. Though the U.S. government does not have a database collecting information about the total number of police involved shootings each year, it’s estimated that between 600 and 1,000 Americans are killed by police officers each year. Since 9/11, over 5,000 Americans have been killed by U.S. police officers, which is equivalent to the number of U.S. soldiers who were killed in the line of duty in Iraq.” In an article from November 11, 2014, USA Today reported, “Police killings highest in two decades”, and I quote, “The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police last year — 461— was the most in two decades, according to a new FBI report. The justifiable homicide count, contained in the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, has become increasingly scrutinized in recent months as questions continue to be raised about the use of lethal force by law enforcement. National attention has been drawn to cases from New York to Albuquerque, though much of the focus is on Ferguson, Mo., where the restive St. Louis suburb awaits the decision of a grand jury weighing the fatal shooting in August of a black teenager by a white police officer.” In the most egregious example to date that I know of, just this past week the police shot a six year old boy down in Florida. Six years old!!! Moreover, my black brothers and sisters are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by the police than whites. Considering that African-American people comprise about 15% of the US population, that number becomes even more disproportionate.
The phenomenon of criminalizing poverty isn’t limited to the homeless, though. Speaking from experience – having been homeless myself up until 7 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 pulling out a credit card 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 and people of color, 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 orphaned 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 several 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 exacerbates 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 military budget for its clandestine presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya 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.