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THE AMERICAN CRIMINALIZATION OF POVERTY

by ch@nce Saturday, Aug. 12, 2000 at 6:51 PM
coh@sfo.com

"Homeless" laws specifically target homeless individuals and their activities. "Status" laws punish people for their economic condition, rather than behavior.

errorTHE AMERICAN CRIMINALIZATION OF POVERTY
by Dave Oehl

What do you get when you cross a booming national economy with homeless people? Less homeless people, right?

Wrong.

What you get, apparently, is not only greater homelessness, but also enactment and greater enforcement of laws and policies that criminalize poverty or homelessness. Efforts in many cities are now focused on excluding the homeless from downtown areas and places where they congregate. It is important to examine public policy as a means of social control instead of social change or improvement. To this end, this article will provide and discuss some examples of anti-poor policies, and solutions being proposed or utilized.

Anti-poor and homeless policies

Laws

According to the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless (ATFH) Criminalization of Poverty report, published in 1993, there are two kinds of laws that discriminate against the poor and homeless. "Homeless" laws specifically target homeless individuals and their activities. "Status" laws punish people for their economic condition, rather than behavior.

Many cities across the country have homeless laws, but they generally fall into the general categories. Panhandling is restricted or banned altogether; Massachusetts passed a law of this kind several years ago but it was struck down by the state courts as unconstitutional. A lawsuit in Los Angeles is challenging its anti-panhandling law. Anti-camping ordinances prohibit sleeping on streets or in parks at all or after curfew, such as in Austin, Texas. Many cities have no-standing zones where people may not linger, or no-sitting areas. Austin and Los Angeles have laws such as these. There also exist such arcane laws as the prohibition of public parking lot crossing, in Atlanta.

In the Arizona city of Tucson, a special zone was created in which it is a crime to simply be homeless. Police were arresting homeless people without cause and releasing them only when they agreed to stay out of the area for a certain period of time. Alan Mason, arrested under this law, was banned from an area that covered just about all of downtown, including his lawyer, all the courthouses, the voter registration office, and places of worship.

The line between homeless laws and status laws blurs. Most disorderly conduct laws are considered status laws by the ATFH, since many homeless are mentally ill, or predisposed to erratic behavior, caused by, or the cause of, their homelessness. Criminal trespassing, public urination, and public drinking are also considered status ordinances.

An example of a recent status ordinance is an ordinance proposed, not passed, in September by Ray Suarez of the Chicago City Council to prohibit sleeping in cars. Mr. Suarez said that some residents did not feel safe because people were sleeping in cars near their homes. Why do they not feel safe? Activists are now making sure that Councilor Suarez is educated on this issue and is dealing constructively with it and discussing affordable housing.

Other Policies

Many administrations choose to selectively enforce laws to punish homeless people, laws that were not originally meant to do so. The laws involved vary from stolen property to general trespassing to general sanitation (laws that prohibit dumping in vacant lots or blocking entrances or alleys)

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is creatively sculpting NYC laws to punish the homeless and clear the streets, and making up new policies as he goes along.

Giuliani has ordered massive street sweeps to clear out New York's homeless people since a tourist was seriously injured when attacked by an allegedly homeless man last November. One commentator remarked that this is the first time punishment has been meted out before there is even a suspect. If you won't work, you'll be kicked out of a shelter, and then you'll be arrested for sleeping on the street. The Mayor is also opposed to any minimum wage increases that might help the poor pay for housing. Meanwhile he is promoting New York as an urban Disneyland; as a result, rents are going up, and the city and state are not creating affordable housing. After a while, one begins to suspect his motives.

A New York City police manual for carrying out street sweeps called "Quality of Life enforcement Options: A Police Reference Guide" lists 35 offenses for which one can be arrested. A homeless man challenging these policies in court was arrested in 1997 on an obscure sanitation code violation. He was strip-searched and held for 27 hours; the ticket turned out to be invalid.

In Los Angeles, Downtown business improvement districts hired private security forces to patrol the streets. They have been charged in a lawsuit with coercive detention, invasion of privacy, and assault and battery. These security officers routinely interview people on the street and keep files on the people they interview. They photograph and search the belongings of people they think don't belong. This policy does nothing to address these people's needs or the causes of their situation.

The effects of criminalization

One of my friends described the worst feeling in the world as "when someone doesn't want you anymore." These policies increase the alienation and what Michael Sullivan from Bread and Jams calls "paranoia." It is frightening to live knowing that by virtue of who you are, or at least what condition you find yourself in, you could be arrested. The man who started the suit against New York City now avoids contact with service workers, fearful of being arrested again. He never sleeps in the same place twice. Homeless people are less likely to seek help and shelter if they think they may get harassed or arrested. This can lead to more deaths or destructive behavior.

Homeless artist and writer Robert Lederman says that these policies may cause more homeless to be shot by police while resisting arrest or acting "suspiciously," not only hurting people but also inviting lawsuits.

These policies make it difficult for poor and homeless people to find and hold jobs. Employers are reluctant to hire poor and homeless people when they have a criminal record. Furthermore, if people are arrested for "quality of life" violations and miss work, they may lose their jobs.

The costs of litigation, police activity, and jailing homeless people can be substantial. The Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless suggested that jailing, for three days, half of the 9000 homeless people arrested in 1995 would cost 742,500 dollars. That doesn't include court and administrative costs.

These policies also feed negative public opinion, distracting it away from positive, long-term solutions and focusing it on the people themselves, not their condition.

Challenges to this Discrimination

Challenges to these policies are coming in several forms. Many court cases have been won or are pending, as noted above. Then there are activist groups and democratic government action.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is an organization that documents legal abuses and aids homeless defendants and plaintiffs. They provide legal advise and often file Friend of the Court briefs on behalf of plaintiffs. They have supported many homeless people in successful lawsuits.

For example, in 1997, a settlement agreement was arrived at in the Pottinger v. City of Miami (FL), whereby the city agreed to implement a training program to ensure that homeless people's rights are not violated. The police may not destroy the property of homeless people. An advisory committee was created to monitor police contact with homeless people, and monetary compensation was provided to the plaintiffs. This case was a "landmark development" and is provisions are being reviewed for possible use all over the country.

The National Coalition for the Homeless is a nationwide advocacy organization with programs and resources. They are currently conducting a National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project. The purpose is to link grassroots organizations in a national network in order to "fortify those local efforts and to strengthen cooperation. This project helps individuals or groups in resource poor locales to organize an immediate response by providing knowledge, experience and resources. The NCH recognizes that to avoid simply returning to the old status quo, the campaign must work both to protect civil rights and to stop the causes of homelessness once the discrimination stops.

A third method of countering this discrimination is as a quasi-governmental body, such as the Multi-disciplinary Working Group (MWG) convened to address issues of Homelessness, Public Intoxication, and Nuisance Behaviors in Cambridge MA. Rather than enforce nuisance ordinances in Cambridge, the MWG was formed. It is composed of a range of individuals, including homeless or formerly homeless people, police officers, various public service agencies, and city government agencies. The MWG focused on how to help "problem" homeless people, those who used the city's services the most. The MWG's report states that their task "was to formulate recommendations for responding to the public nuisance behaviors of these individuals." The MWG discussed ways to streamline service provision and cut down on redundancy, fill in gaps in services, how to improve relations between the housed and homeless populations, and community involvement.

This is a constructive, educational and cooperative method for the solution of the problem.

Social control is at work here. The vast majority of these policies are lauded by businesses who, as one might expect, are only concerned with profit margins. These policies are enacted by elected representatives responding to constituents or to campaign contributors. However, there is a significant effort to organize in opposition of this control. Most larger American cities have organizations of homeless and poor people; some are stronger than others. All can be brought together to combat discrimination.

oehlda@hotmail.com

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some notes to the article above dave oehl Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005 at 4:09 PM
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