Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What A Crime

Barbara Ehrenreich has written a brilliant New York Times Op-Ed piece on crime in America, and tells us about the worst crime of all.

The crime of poverty.

All over the United States, city after city is enacting laws that target the homeless community; and before you get in a snit, homelessness is a community just like the gay community or the Hispanic community or the black community. If you are part of the homeless community, these are just some of the "crimes" for which you can be arrested: sitting, sleeping, lying down, loitering.

Seriously. I've been in many major US cities and I've been sitting down and been left alone; I've even taken a nap in Central and Golden Gate Parks and not been bothered. I've waited outside office buildings, wandering up and down the sidewalk and never been ticketed.

And why is that?

I. Don't. Look. Homeless. So I must be "okay."

But look a little odd, maybe have dirty hair or worn out shoes, and you're asked to move along. And if you don't "move along," you're asked to spend the night in a small barred room. Just for being homeless.

It's a crime. And it only affects those who have nothing.

More and more, as the economy chugs along on life support, we see laws enacted to stop people from sleeping on park benches or under bridges. Yet those who enact such laws say they apply to everyone, even the wealthy. But they don't. A rich man asleep on a park bench, in his Prada slip-ons will most assuredly be left alone, while a poor man doing the same in his cardboard bottomed throw-away shoes will get the heave-ho.

From Barbara Ehrenreich's piece:

"...a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty...[finds]...that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol. "

Still think the laws apply to everyone? Barbara Ehrenreich gives examples of what it is like to be poor in America in 2009:

" The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance."

So, if you "think" someone is indigent then you can arrest them or ticket them or harass them into moving along. Now, while I may not like to admit it, I have my days when I look a little less than respectable. I have a ratty pair of pants worn in just the right places that are so comfortable I wear them all the time. Pair these with an old T-shirt and some ragged sneakers and i might look indigent to some people.

Who decides what looks like an indigent?

From the NYT:
"...Al Szekely....[a] grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.
It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail."

He fought for us. Took a bullet for us. And goes to jail for sleeping on the sidewalk; for being, of all horrendous things, homeless. Now, don't think for a second that Al Szekely wanted to sleep on the sidewalk. It wasn't a choice he made, it was an either or situation.

And it isn't just sleeping or sitting or loitering that can get you arrested. In Las Vegas a group called Food Not Bombs passed out vegan meals to the homeless. The city then passed an ordinance forbidding the "sharing of food with the indigent in public places."

Don't look at them. Don't feed them. Just arrest them and punish them for being homeless.

Many cities have adopted a "zero tolerance" mentality when dealing with homelessness as though, homelessness is, in and of itself, a crime. Since when is losing everything you own a crime? Since when is falling on hard times an excuse to arrest someone? The crime isn't homelessness, the crime is what we do, and don't do, for the homeless.

And that's mostly because homelessness has a skin color we may not like. Barbara Ehrenreich talks of the hullabaloo over the Henry Gates arrest, but also points out that in communities of color, you can be arrested for slicking a cigarette; it's called littering. If you "wear the wrong color T-shirt...you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect..."

And it isn't just the color line of homelessness that gets crossed every day, it's age discrimination, too. As Ehrenreich points out, "In New York City, a teenager caught in public housing without an ID...can be charged with criminal trespassing and wind up in juvenile detention, Mishi Faruqee, the director of youth justice programs for the Children’s Defense Fund of New York...In just the past few months, a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing teenagers found on the streets during school hours. In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level."

Why does this happen in America? Why do we turn our backs on those people in our own backyards who need help, but rush like fools around the world in our Mighty Mouse capes ready to save the planet? Why is it so hard to take care of our own at home?

The answer, I think, sad to say, is the color of homelessness and poverty, the age of homelessness and poverty. It boils down to skin color; racism. It boils down to age: children.

Just the groups to leave disenfranchised.

"Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them."


It shouldn't be a crime to be poor in America.

Full article HERE


Beth said...

oh Bob...how sad. I see a few homeless people where I live...but when I was in NYC, walking back to the hotel at 3:30AM in Times Square, which was FULL of people, I did see the police "escort" a man who was sitting on the curb. he was dressed in an old suit....but otherwise looked "ok"....so sad.

most of us are just one pay check away from them.

Beth said...

Last night we watched "The Soloist" with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. Excellent flick. I told Ken that it infuriates me to hear people say "Why don't they get a job?!" because there are so many that are mentally ill. Way to show compassion, you know?

Miss Ginger Grant said...

Homelessness is a HUGE issue in Houston... warm climate and all. The city and numerous charities provide shelters, missions, and programs to help them, but most won't stay.
A large number of the homeless in America are paranoid schizoprhenics... they don't know the difference between truth and reality. If anyone tries to help them, they are suspicious of the intent. And they do not see that living on the streets, eating out of trash cans, etc, is not a normal way of life. It's been proven time and time again that with the correct drug therapy their condition can be controlled, but getting them to accept the therapy invokes suspicion, so it is near impossible. Schizophrenia causes homelessness, as these people don't really always know where they live, etc. And the stress of homlessness can cause mentally healthy people to develop schizophrenia, as their body's sort of twisted way of surviving the indignities they suffer. It's a never ending cycle.
They are not criminals.. they are mentally ill. This severe mental illness prevents them from being able to function in society.
Meanwhile, their "community" causes public health and safety concerns, property devaluation and damage, and social strife among the residents of the areas they inhabit.
It's a huge, huge problem in America, and there are no bad guys or good guys. We are all losers on this one.