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Charlotte and Its People Experiencing Homelessness

DNCA while back, House the Homeless blog looked at how cities prepare for the Olympic Games, political gatherings, and other large-scale events. Mostly, they take extreme measures to remove street people, giving them bus tickets to anywhere else, or corralling them in an area unlikely to attract tourists. Sometimes they’re kept off the streets by relatively benign means, like free tickets to museums or movies.

If their papers are not in order, it’s easy enough to just turn them over to la migra. Tales are told of increased arrests and imprisonments for petty violations. Makeshift shacks and lean-tos are of course demolished, and the Potemkin Village syndrome comes into play. (Supposedly, when the ruler of Russia, Catherine the Great, was touring around to inspect her country, some functionary named Potemkin traveled ahead and built impressive-looking facades of prosperous villages, like film sets.) In those circumstances, people very much resent being moved around like dirt swept under a rug.

In the county that contains Charlotte, NC, site of this year’s Democratic Convention, about 5,000 people are experiencing homelessness, and fewer than 1,000 regularly sleep in shelter beds. Some live in cars.

Apparently quite a few fall under a slightly different definition of homelessness, where technically the person has a place to sleep, even if it is a very insecure and temporary position on somebody’s couch. It is estimated that fewer than 100 hardcore, long-term homeless people live totally outdoors. The situation has certainly not been improving. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 2010, family homelessness in Charlotte increased by 36%, and in 2011, increased another 21%.

During the convention planning, Mark Price kept track on behalf of the Charlotte Observer. A group called Charlotte Center City Partners took a great deal of interest in humane alternatives. The director of the local Men’s Shelter met with the convention promoters; and took on extra staff and trained them to help the street people understand the rules and restrictions that would apply during the convention. There were a lot of places you couldn’t go with a backpack or a shopping cart, but also plenty of information about how to stay out of trouble.

The city passed a new law against camping on public property. The transit center was moved to a temporary location several blocks away, and the main library was just plain closed for the duration. To make up for the loss of these hangouts, the Homeless Resource Center prolonged its usual hours, and other venues figured out ways to allow for more people to be present during the days.

Many homeless advocates foresaw that the biggest impact would fall in the “transition housing” category, mainly the economy-class motels where low-income families exist crammed together in one room. It would be particularly harmful to school-age children, because almost none of the families have the transportation necessary to get their kids to school from anyplace but where they’ve been living.

But Charlotte planned ahead. A $20,000 fund was raised by businesses, churches, and the government, to help with rent. Thirty-six churches figured out how to provide for nearly a 100 extra beds on the average convention night. As David Jamieson reported for The Huffington Post, motels multiplied their rates as much as tenfold, for the convention period. He and others spoke with some displaced people, most of whom admitted that they were behind on their rent anyway, and seemed not to blame the business owners.

Because the economy is so slack and the opportunities so few, people end up in these “transitional” situations for years, long enough to take a philosophical attitude about being moved out for a week or more. (Or is that just a journalistic Potemkin Village?)

Jamieson has some good news:

Not every motel, however, chose to pounce on the short-term windfall. Monica Wojtkowski, general manager at an Extended Stay America near the airport, said the hotel didn’t raise rates or ask current guests to leave. ‘This is just the philosophy we had. We want to maintain good public relations,’ she said.

When the president’s outdoor speech in a stadium had to be moved indoors, Mark Price followed the story. For whatever reason, the food could not follow to the new venue, so Second Harvest mobilized, called all the soup kitchens and shelters to see how much their refrigerators could hold, and delivered 7,500 pounds of fancy catered vittles to the people experiencing homelessness.

The Charlotte Observer opined:

After the Democrats pack up and hit the campaign trail, 3,000 or more homeless adults and children will still be here. Both of the city’s primary shelters are often over capacity, and nonprofits such as Crisis Assistance Ministry are working overtime to keep people in their homes. It’s tragic that Charlotte — a can-do city, as landing the DNC attests — can’t-do on homelessness. More than four years after Charlotte and Mecklenburg governments endorsed a 10-year plan to end homelessness, the community has made little progress in implementing a comprehensive strategy to truly fix the problem.

Unfortunately, the current situation seems to follow the Waterbed Paradigm. Remember waterbeds? You can sit on one, and the water will be suppressed. It will also create a bulge in some other part of the mattress. The dent you make by sitting on the waterbed is an illusion. There may be less of it in one spot, but there is still the same amount of water in the bag.

In a recent speech, President Obama said:

The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter — she gives me hope.

Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Reactions?

Source: “Charlotte won’t hide the homeless during the DNC,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/21/12
Source: “Charlotte Homeless Outside DNC Cling To Motels,” The Huffington Post, 09/05/12
Source: “Let’s help homeless beyond DNC week,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/27/12
Source: “Local charities benefit from 8,000 pounds of food leftover from DNC’s canceled stadium event,” CharlotteObserver.com, 09/07/12
Source: “Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention,” WhiteHouse.gov, 09/06/12
Image by Stevebott (Steve Bott).

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Political Parties Make Homelessness Worse Than Ever

Convention Center, TampaTampa, FL, and Charlotte, NC, each received $50 million in federal funds for security at their national political conventions. Charlotte purchased more than $300,000 worth of bicycles for its cops, and lavished over $700,000 on a “command center upgrade.” Tampa bought itself a new armored SWAT vehicle with a price tag crowding very close on $300,000, and spent more than a million buckaroonies on spy gear, including video linkage between helicopters and the police down below.

If you’re anything like the people at House the Homeless, every time you hear numbers like that, your mind automatically translates the figures into how many meals, how many socks, how many months of rent for a struggling family whose kids need a table to do their homework on and a roof under which to do it.

And how have the homeless been faring, in the two cities thronged by visitors including America’s best and brightest?

On August 24, Elisabeth Parker reported on the mindset of local authorities in Tampa, which was preparing for the Republican National Convention. Bob Buckhorn, the mayor, said that the city had set no policy with the intention of removing people experiencing homelessness. A police spokesperson said there were no plans to displace the estimated 700 chronically homeless people from the downtown area — except for the streets that would be closed to all pedestrians.

The entrenched downtown dwellers represent only a small fraction, because the greater Tampa area contains around 16,000 homeless people, and about a fifth of them are children, which divides out to about 3,200 homeless children. How does a major political party have the nerve to hold its big self-congratulatory bash in a city with 3,200 homeless kids?

A team from Hillsborough County’s Homeless Coalition passed out flyers with maps detailing the closed areas, while police officers were advised by their department’s homeless liaison to recommend that people go to the shelters. But according to people on the streets, the Salvation Army shelter was already full, two public libraries where many were accustomed to sit out the days had been closed, and police told people to remove their belongings from hiding places in the shrubbery.

Tampa also expected to cope with 15,000 protesters in town for the convention — strangely, almost the same as the number of Greater Tampa’s homeless residents. Various news sources reported that 10-day vouchers would be available for the Good Samaritan Inn, yet when the owner of the inn was contacted, he told a confused tale of someone showing up with a voucher that was then rescinded by a county official, and no more had been seen since.

Technically, the homeless are allowed to be nowhere — their only acceptable posture is upright and in motion. A deputy gave a quotation about how it’s always somebody else’s property, whether it’s public property or not. There’s a very basic question here. Doesn’t public property belong to the people? Isn’t that what “public” means?

A woman who works with the homeless heard numerous stories of people being “run out” of downtown. When the reporter contacted the police department to confirm or deny, it had nothing to say. By August 28, Jason Cherkis was telling The Huffington Post:

The convention has cost the homeless not just regular sleeping spots and peace of mind. In some cases, it has cost them their belongings. The homeless used to squat near Trinity Cafe along the street. The police recently put a stop to it […] just prior to the convention, city garbage collectors showed up with a police escort. They moved down the street throwing away any belongings left unattended. In one instance […] a woman claimed her possessions but the city workers tossed them anyway.

Homeless people reported being chased to at least a mile away from the convention site. Parks were off-limits, and apparently, police warnings were spread the old-fashioned viral way, by regular speech. The word was going around: stay away, only sleep north of the overpass, don’t be caught walking around with a backpack. Everybody seemed to know somebody who had been charged with trespassing. According to the rumor, the police imported from other towns might be relatively soft, but the Tampa police would be ruthless.

But the next day, BBC reporter Daniel Nasaw related a mirror-image version of that story. A Tampa police spokesperson told him that the extra out-of-town police were the ones the homeless needed to be wary of, unfamiliar as they were with the city’s relatively lenient treatment of the homeless. (Seems like the strangers must have been given some kind of briefing before being turned loose on the streets of Tampa. Couldn’t that information have been included?) Nasaw wrote:

Secret Service and police have blocked off a swathe of downtown Tampa, set up check points, erected security fences, and otherwise disrupted the ordinary flow of pedestrian and automobile traffic. Security […] has created hassles for everyone who lives and works in the city. And for the city’s large homeless population, the convention presents a major disruption in an already tenuous existence.

Pastor Tom Atchison, the founder of homeless services organization New Beginnings, pointed out how millions had been spent by the city for law enforcement and security, while no provisions were made for the people experiencing homelessness, whose lives are already tough enough. Typical was homeless veteran Ernest Grandison, who told Nasaw that people were prevented from reaching soup kitchens and other necessary destinations, and that the security cordon downtown added an hour and a half to the walk to his usual Sunday breakfast church. He told the reporter:

Now, if you stop to rest on a bench, they pull up and say, ‘You need to leave’.

Reactions?

Source: “Downtown homeless get directions for how to cope with RNC,” Tamps Bay Times, 08/24/12
Source: “Tampa Homeless Say They’re Barred From RNC Convention Site,” The Huffington Post, 08/28/12
Source: “Tampa homeless ‘sidelined’ by Republican convention pomp,” BBC News, 08/29/12
Image by Azalia_N. (Azalia Negron).

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Deceased People Experiencing Homelessness

Metairie-Cemetery

The coroner can usually identify the bodies, but most of the time their families don’t collect the remains. So once a year, in autumn, the county… buries them in a single grave at Evergreen…. The cemetery keeps people’s remains for four years, he said, in case anyone wants to claim them, although few do.

Daniel Costello wrote this six years ago, about Los Angeles, where there is a 30-day window during which a body can be claimed before cremation. Then, the ashes are separately kept for a while, just in case. Costello viewed the storage room in which 1,600 small maroon boxes were shelved. In each box, identified with a name tag if applicable, someone’s ashes were stored. Once the four-year wait was over, each pile of ashes would be decanted into a mass grave, the name tag discarded, and the box thriftily reused.

Last year, Los Angeles laid 1,639 people to rest in just this way. Supervisor Don Knabe told a reporter:

These are individuals that, for one reason or another, have no one but the county to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial. Some are homeless. Many are poor. Some have no families to grieve for them. Regardless of what their status in life was, each one of their lives mattered.

Some feel that, having ignored homeless people in life, the authorities should at least provide some kind of marker at each mass grave listing the names, rather than just the year. More could and maybe should be done to denote the resting place of so many unclaimed humans.

To pick a random American city, last month Mike Owen reported for the Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus, GA, on proposals that would cost the city an estimated additional $10,000 per year over what it already pays for indigent burials. The director of public services, Pat Biegler, put forward two ideas, one of them aimed at squeezing more use from the city’s Porterdale Cemetery.

Only about a thousand more burial plots are available, and with an average of 81 poor and forgotten people laid to rest there every year, at this rate, the cemetery will be full in 12 years. What Biegler suggests is to start employing the practice of cremation, which is the norm in many other places. Because of the religious implications, permission for cremation has to be given by a family member, and looking for them can be a long and complicated process. But part of the problem is, of course, that many people who become “indigent remains” do not have any locatable relatives.

However, even if only a portion of the total could be cremated, the plan would be to bury three sets of ashes in each plot, thus maximizing the use of space. (As we have seen, Los Angeles manages to fit more than a thousand into each plot.) But… Before the remains are buried, the processing of the body must be considered. For a straight burial, the casket costs $225 and the funeral home gets an additional $125 to cover its overhead. Cremation, at $600, costs nearly twice as much, though that may change if the city goes along with Biegler’s request to raise a standard burial payment from $350 to $400.

This story’s reader comments included an expression of incredulity that cremation costs more than burial, and an objection to burying three sets of cremains in a single burial plot, and the suggestion (maybe facetious and maybe not) that it would be more cost-effective to bury bodies vertically. The subject also unleashed ugly contentiousness. No matter what plan the authorities settle on, a goodly number of people will be riled up about it.

King County, WA, encompasses Seattle and about two million residents, and is nowhere near being one of America’s wealthiest counties. As of the 2010 census, median income for a family was $87,010, and about 10% of the residents qualified as below the poverty line. Carol Smith presciently wrote that an “invisible indicator” of a failing economy is the annually increasing number of unclaimed bodies housed in the morgue.

Smith interviewed Joe Frisino, chief investigator for the Medical Examiner’s office, whose job is to locate the relatives if possible and determine their wishes. Frisino often relies on Mary Larson, a nurse at the Pioneer Clinic, to help with identification. She also helps organize the annual group services, which sometimes memorialize as many as 200 unclaimed people. The nurse, an easel painter who often portrays her homeless friends in works of art, is quoted as saying:

We meet wonderful, very, very interesting people.

To qualify for indigent burial in Travis County, TX, a person has to either be unidentified, or possess under $2,000 in assets and no insurance. These days, that includes a lot of people, especially among the homeless. In Austin, Andrea Ball reported earlier this month on the inauguration of a second indigent cemetery:

For decades, Travis County has been arranging and paying for burials of low-income people. Travis County Health and Human Services and Veterans Services Department pays funeral homes about $850 per burial… The county provides the burial spot and arranges a small service. They also have staffers who work with surviving relatives.

Business and multimedia journalism student Michelle Chu notes that as an alternative to buying the 97-acre parcel of land for the new cemetery, the county considered privatizing indigent burial by contracting with funeral homes. She says:

Privatization would have increased the cost from $850 to about $4,500 per burial.

That would be an astonishingly exponential increase. Even more astonishing is to hear such an admission in a state where privatization is generally considered to be a good thing.

Ball tells us that in Travis County, cremation has not been the policy up until now, not even when requested by the decedent’s family, although that may change. Apparently, in other parts of Texas, a cremation can be had for as little as $200. In 2011, Travis County was responsible for 145 interments, at a total cost of $130,000. If the cremation alternative is adopted, it would have to be authorized by the next of kin, and not even considered in the case of an unidentified person.

In her piece, Ball quoted Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who sees the proposal as meeting changing needs while retaining sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless in Life, Nameless in Death,” LA Times, 06/25/06
Source: “L.A. County to bury homeless, poor unclaimed by family members,” LA Times, 12/06/11
Source: “City considering cremation of indigent remains to save cemetery space,” Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, 07/31/12
Source: “Indigent Remains,” KUOW.org, 12/23/09
Source: “New cemetery for Travis’ indigent, and perhaps a new option: cremation,” Statesman.com, 08/08/12
Source: “A New (Final) Home for Indigent Residents,” Travis County in Transition, 2012
Image by Loco Steve (Steve Wilson).

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Economic Inequality and Homelessness

Urban Blight #3By now, everyone has heard of TED, the nonprofit foundation whose mission is to spread ideas. Originally, its speakers and audience were drawn from the realms of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Now, TED draws from inspiration from every well:

Today, TED is best thought of as a global community. It’s a community welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world.

TED’s yearly global conference in Edinburgh is one of the most significant events a person could hope to attend. The speakers whose “TED Talks” are offered for free online include “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” who get to talk for no more than 18 minutes.

Richard Wilkinson’s speech only ran 16 minutes and 34 seconds, and he made a lot of good points in that time about how economic inequality harms societies. Does it make any sense at all that some of the wealthiest countries also have the greatest economic gaps between rich and poor?

Extensive research done by Wilkinson, who is emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham, revealed an interesting corollary to his contention that more equal societies almost always fare better in a number of important ways. Some countries get along fine with redistribution of wealth, and some succeed because there is a smaller difference in the range of before-tax income. The thing is, he says:

[W]e conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top… [T]he take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.

The studies were set up with carefully crafted parameters. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor was measured by taking the top 20% and the bottom 20%, and comparing them to find out exactly how much difference there is. Here’s what they came up with:

The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation.

We’re talking about all kinds of problems, certain of which are more pervasive at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, all of them worse in the more unequal countries — not just a little bit worse, but anything from twice as common to 10 times as common. Wilkinson says:

What we’re looking at is general social disfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.

Especially in the area of health and longevity, there is “a lot of difference between the poor and the rest of us,” according to Wilkinson. The research looks at life expectancy, infant mortality, homicide, teen birth rates, and many other indicators. Mental illness is one, including addiction to alcohol or hard drugs. Whole societies, Wilkinson says, have three times the mental illness rates as other societies, and it’s all tied up with economic inequality. Inequality has psychosocial effects:

More to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of being valued and devalued, respected and disrespected… The big change in our understanding of drivers of chronic health in the rich developed world is how important chronic stress from social sources is affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system.

Psychosocial stress has the same detrimental effects on the human body and mind as any other kind of stress. Mental illness leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to mental illness. Another vicious cycle is created by what Joel Dyer calls the “perpetual prisoner machine.” Where do homeless people come from? Sometimes, from prison. But that doesn’t mean they should be exiled forever. They’re not disposable people. And if a person never did time before, being homeless increases the likelihood of it, exponentially.

Wilkinson illustrates again and again how inequality affects not just the poor but the entire society. Although a closer approach to equality makes the most difference at the bottom, he points out, there are benefits at the top as well. Trust level is an interesting one. In the most unequal societies, only about 15% of the population feel that other people can be trusted. In the most equal societies, the number is more like 60%. In more equal societies, there is more community involvement, and that means making sure everybody is involved, who wants to be. Including people experiencing homelessness, who, if community is real, can and will be helped to escape that condition.

“How economic inequality harms societies” can also be reached via Universal Living Wage  (click on “What’s New” on the menu on the left).

Reactions?

Source: “About TED,” TED.com
Source: “Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies,” dotSUB.com
Image by Jerry.

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Three Kinds of Homeless

Lou-&-AndyThe subject of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by novelist George Orwell is about poverty in the late 1920s. For the poor, the fabled Roaring Twenties were dismal. Orwell came from an impoverished upper-class English family. The homelessness he experienced and described in his books may not have been strictly unavoidable. Even though a young man was expected to make his own way in the world, this young man’s parents would always have rescued him to the farthest extent of their ability.

But Orwell always wanted to know how the poor lived. He was never one to turn a blind eye to injustice, or to take the mass media’s word for anything. It was partly in the spirit of investigative journalism that he experienced homelessness and a tenuous hold on survival at the very fringes of society. James Wood says:

Even when he was working as a journalist in London, [Orwell] lived simply, without much luxury. There is a religious dimension to this, almost — a need to take a kind of vow of poverty, to dismantle his own privilege and luxury, to be other than his social background.

Like a war correspondent, he signed up for discomfort and danger. (Later on, he did actually participate in and write about a war, the one that idealists of his era volunteered for.) In Paris, he competed in the desperate scramble for work, showing up at a designated corner, hoping to be chosen for a miserable day’s employment. He took part in the exhausting life of the lowest-status drudges in great hotels and restaurants, working in 100-degree heat through 18-hour days, for less than enough to get by on.

In London, he became familiar with the free shelters, called “spikes,” where a man could only stay once per month. This rule kept all the tramps in constant rotation, walking from shelter to shelter, quickly burning any calories they might have gained from the dreadful food. In their waking hours, the homeless were compelled to stay upright and in motion, and in the hours of rest they were confined in prison-like conditions, to cope with the stark boredom of enforced immobility and idleness.

Orwell stayed in the lowest grade of private lodging houses, government shelters, and charity facilities run by religious groups. He learned about the hassle and humiliation of pawning one’s few shabby belongings. He learned about the choice between washing in bathwater already used by a dozen people, or not washing at all. He learned about the smells, the filth, the frustration, the shunning, the major disasters and minor inconveniences, and the need to always watch your back because not all the other tramps are as honest and decent as you are. On the other hand, he wrote:

I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny…

Author Michael Ventura writes:

True adventurers learn, eventually, that anything can be an adventure if you live with an adventurer’s heart and your life is not a lie. But I was a greedy boy. I wanted my adventure to look like an adventure.

Ventura hit the streets very young, and somehow landed in another state, with a dysfunctional family who accepted him. He learned at a very tender age that money can’t insulate anyone from unhappiness, and also that “normal” is nowhere to be found. Whether or not a child really, truly, technically has a choice about running away from home is not for us to judge. For this child, the place he found was better than the one he had left behind, and certainly better than homelessness. He writes:

Strangers took me in. I wasn’t grateful. I felt no loyalty. They were not my kind. But I’d been on the street, alone, and I didn’t want to go back to that… I had been uprooted at age 13. By age 15, I sensed vaguely that I would never be, or feel, rooted again… If the world is a shooting gallery – and it is – I wanted to be a moving target.

If Thomas Kinkade was the “painter of light,” T. Coraghessan Boyle is the writer of heartbreak. His novel The Tortilla Curtain, published in 1995, glows with the kind of compassion found in Bruce Springsteen‘s lyrics. It’s about people who camp in a ravine, in need so abject that a toothbrush is an unthinkable luxury. It’s about undocumented immigration, or at least that’s the aspect most readers and critics latched onto. Scott Spencer says of the main characters:

Candido and America are part of California’s unacknowledged work force, cogs in the vast human machine that does the state’s brute labor and without whom… the state could probably not survive. Mr. Boyle is first-rate in capturing the terror of looking for work in an alien society… “You didn’t ask questions. You got in the back of the truck and you went where they took you.”

Mainly, the book is about grinding, abysmal poverty, about the desperate willingness to work when there is no work to do. About being grievously injured when it’s impossible to take the risk of asking for medical care. Being victimized and exploited by people from your own land who are just as poor as you. The particular pain of being around food when none of it is for you. The pain of watching your wife go off in a car with an ugly stranger who hires her to use a toxic chemical that will affect your unborn child, and then cheats her on the pay. Of being hated for no better reason than that you have the nerve to exist and draw breath on the planet. Of being a husband or father or wife or mother who can’t provide. As Michael Ventura says,

If you’re the parent, the caring parent, the shame and guilt damn near kill you – you feel it’s your fault even when you’re caught in an economic storm not remotely of your making.

There are many facets to the larger condition of experiencing homelessness. For a runaway teen, some authority figure might question whether she or he really, really had a choice — but who is wise enough to second-guess a decision of that magnitude for someone else? For young journalist George Orwell, sure, he could have stayed home mooching off his parents. On the other hand, given his burning sense of injustice and his drive to learn about how the poor lived and his mission to convey the truth to a prosperous, complacent upper class, he didn’t have a choice.

Once the choice has been made to come north, the couple from Mexico in Boyle’s novel really don’t have any choice but to camp outdoors. Try as they might, and they do try heroically, things just don’t work out for them, and their connection with the rest of the undocumented alien community is so tenuous, they’re unable to network and attempt to get indoors somehow that way. There may be as many kinds of homelessness as there are individuals, and judging their worthiness and whether they are “deserving” of help is a job a little bit bigger than most of us fallible humans are capable of taking on. The one thing we know for sure is that they need help.

There are many different kinds of homelessness. As today’s thought experiment, let’s consider how many of them can be helped by the Homeless Protected Class Resolution and the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “We’ll Always Have Paris,” NewYorker.com, 04/30/09
Source: “Letters at 3AM: ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’,” AustinChronicle.com, 06/29/12
Source: “The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle,” NYTimes.com, 09/03/95
Source: “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow,” AustinChronicle.com, 02/26/10
Image by TheeErin, used under its Creative Commons license.

 

5

The Vulnerability of Homeless Women

biker in the woodsOn June 15, the corpse of Valerie Louise Godoy was found in a wooded area of Austin, Texas. At the age of 34, she was killed by “significant blunt force trauma,” not to the head, which might at least be quick, but to the body, which sounds like a miserable way to go.

Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless find that last year (2011) the number of homeless deaths in Austin was 137. Only a small proportion of these deaths were from violence, but there is a school of thought which holds that homelessness itself is an act of violence. Words to that effect are permanently engraved at the site of Austin’s Homeless Memorial, where every autumn, caring people gather to pay tribute to the lost lives.

Each one of these people had a story, as Richard reminded us when interviewed by TV journalist Alana Rocha for YNN Fox (News 8). The video coverage included several of his remarks, including:

The thing about Valerie is, she was somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter.

And so were they all — sisters and daughters, brothers and sons. Various news reports make a point of mentioning Valerie Godoy’s ordinary, relatively normal upbringing. She took part in high school theatricals; moved to New York for a while to study the culinary arts. She could be the girl next door. And this is exactly the point. People experiencing homelessness are not members of some alien species, separate from humanity. Most of them had ordinary, relatively normal lives. Unfortunately, these days, being a normal, ordinary American means being about one paycheck away from disaster.

Valerie Godoy was perhaps unusual in being homeless in the town where she grew up. It may seem strange that someone with local family should be living on the streets, but there are many reasons for adults to not live with their parents. Sometimes, relatives are unwilling to deal with the consequences of living with an addict who refuses treatment. There are compelling reasons why even family members with the biggest hearts in the world, might be unable to offer someone housing.

In fact, the government itself makes it difficult for people to help their homeless relatives and friends. If they receive Section 8 housing assistance, only the people originally authorized are allowed to live in a place. Did Granny’s apartment building burn down and she needs somewhere to stay? Too bad. A family might be willing to take in a stray person — but weighed against the risk of losing their own housing and finding themselves out on the street, they just don’t dare.

Valerie Godoy’s body was found in Duncan Park, aka the Ninth Street BMX trail, which accommodates offroad bicycle racing over difficult and challenging terrain. A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly. Their main concern seems to be that the park will be perceived as a menace to public safety and bulldozed so it can no longer be used for their particular brand of recreation.

Although the park is said to not be maintained by the city, Godoy’s body was found by a parks officer. KXAN reporter David Scott mentioned that the park is frequented by the homeless, “in part because a food truck stops there with hot meals.” Scott also called the murder a “bizarre” case, though he did not explain what was particularly bizarre about it. A police department spokesperson, Cpl. Anthony Hipolito, told YNN News:

It’s a pretty populated area. They run people out of here all the time…

The impression is given that, while the food truck may stop at the park, the authorities are not particularly hospitable to the people experiencing homelessness who go there to eat. Another member of the police force told a reporter it seemed like Godoy was not familiar with the area. The police may have gotten their information from the same person who commented at a website called LiarCatchers, stating that one or two days before the murder, he had overheard the victim asking someone how to get to Duncan Park.

According to one news report, Valerie Godoy was sighted shortly before her death sitting on a curb with another person who had not been seen around the park before. Was the killer a stranger to her? There is a reason for asking this question. According to a website that publishes “mug shots,” the victim was arrested for public intoxication on May 25. In the official photograph her face is cut and bruised [see video]. The picture used by other news outlets, after her death, is a digitally cleaned-up version of that photo, with the contusions and laceration removed. Who put them there? Who roughed up Valerie Godoy three weeks before she was brutally murdered?

According to a helpful website, Texas is second only to California in the number of women’s shelters encompassed by its borders. Texas has 195, nine of them in Austin. At first blush, that sounds great. When you break it down, the situation is more complicated and less rosy. It’s not clear which institutions are actually places with beds, and which are referral agencies. Two of the listings specifically mention domestic violence, and although women experiencing homelessness are often subject to violence from partners, the specialized nature of some establishments can make it hard to gain admission. One listing is not a shelter but a hotline. And so it goes.

Richard says:

Single women and single women with children continue to be the fastest growing segment of homelessness, not only in Austin but also in the nation. Women currently get turned away every day.

Obviously, the supply of help is not matching up with the need. Consequently Richard, House the Homeless, and all concerned friends are calling for the creation of the Valerie Godoy Women’s Shelter. The first step is to bring this matter to the attention of Austin’s city leaders by way of a petition, which can be found on this page. Please click over and sign!

Reactions?

Source: “Woman’s murder exposes Austin’s most vulnerable,” YNN.com, 06/20/12
Source: “Police call for help in murder case,” KXAN.com, 06/16/12
Source: “Police investigate suspicious death in Downtown Austin,” YNN.com, 06/15/12
Source: “Austin, Texas,” WomensShelters.org
Image by maczter, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Jim Crow Rides Again

Multiple PadlockHere’s the history and definition of “Jim Crow,” as presented by a website called Tennessee 4 me:

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, laws were passed that separated blacks from whites. These were known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws. Supposedly the laws were named after a dance tune, ‘Jump Jim Crow’ that ridiculed African Americans. Signs went up in front of water fountains, restrooms, and other public places saying ‘Whites Only.’

Most of an entire generation, maybe a couple of generations, of Americans would not know the meaning of “Jim Crow” if the question were asked on a TV quiz show. The concept was said to be dead and buried. But today, risen like a zombie from a shallow grave, the spirit of Jim Crow stalks the land, virulent as ever. In fact, that spirit has developed a whole new side to its malevolent personality.

Conversely, there is the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is resurrected by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Such is the belief of Cornel West, who wrote the book’s foreword. West also perceives a “democratic awakening focused on the poor and vulnerable in American society.”

Alexander’s work demonstrates that the country’s racial caste system has not been abolished, but only redesigned. Alexander concentrates on one major aspect of that indictment, the cycling of racial minorities from joblessness to prison to homelessness and loss of civil rights. West says:

Her subtle analysis shifts our attention from the racial symbol of America’s achievement to the actual substance of America’s shame: the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of precious poor, black, male (and, increasingly, female) young people in the name of a bogus ‘War on Drugs.’

In fact, the very discourse of colorblindness — created by neoconservatives and neoliberals in order to trivialize and disguise the depths of black suffering in the 1980s and ’90s — has left America blind to the New Jim Crow.

The massive disproportion apparent in the prison population is by no means the sum of the problem. Additionally, America has not quite realized that Jim Crow is now colorblind, too.

“Homeless is the new black.” It’s a multilayered pun, first from the fashion industry, where the “little black dress” is acknowledged as an outfit suitable anywhere, and black is the color you can’t go wrong with. But, either seriously or in jest, someone is always coming up with a line like, “Fuchsia is the new black,” meaning that it will replace that color as the fashion industry standard.

Then, there’s black in the racial sense. The way it used to be, in many parts of America, people who were then described as Negro or colored were considered non-persons, and had an almost exclusive monopoly on destitution. Nowadays, anybody can join the hordes of the shunned. Having no place to live is an equal-opportunity experience. Is this what the heroes who struggled for racial equality had in mind? Did the civil rights martyrs suffer and die so that homeless could become the new black?

Now, rather separate restrooms, or even whites-only restrooms, cities tend to have no restrooms for anybody. It’s impossible to keep homeless people out of public toilets, so the answer comes in a blinding flash of darkness — no toilets at all! This line of twisted reasoning could be called “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” or “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

According to Drew Harwell, the way they do it in Clearwater, Florida, is to weld the doors of the public restrooms shut. And remove any stray hose or water spigot. After all, if people experiencing homelessness can be prevented from drinking, they won’t need to use a bathroom anyway, right? Oh, and make sure all the electricity is locked up tight. Harwell says:

Last month city employees took pictures of three men they saw charging cellphones at Station Square Park. Officials are also keeping a spreadsheet tracking homeless sightings and residents’ complaints… Slashing urban amenities is the city’s latest step in making it tougher to live on the street. The city’s homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut, said street survival guides and ‘renegade’ food giveaways only served to discourage the homeless from seeking real help.

This spate of bureaucratese is translated by Ann Sattley of Technically, That’s Illegal:

We cannot tolerate people living on the streets. It bothers some of our taxpayers, and they are the ones responsible for paying our salaries. We want to make them go somewhere else, so we’ll cut anything that helps them in any way. When people get upset, we’ll give them one stupid example of an alternative to keep them quiet. We’ll encourage them to go into job training, and ignore the fact that they need food and water before they can even consider getting a job.

Imagine: homeless people charging their cell phones, to communicate with the world, and maybe find work or a place to live. What a heinous crime! How dare they! The party line is that extreme “tough love” measures will “curb homelessness.” Really? Maybe the only thing curbed is the ability of homeless people to find a toilet. Or anyone else either, such as housed kids who play in parks, and the parents who accompany them. And retired folks, whose own personal plumbing doesn’t work too well. But who cares about them, as long as the street people are denied access.

Could life be any more grim? Yes. Harwell mentions a publicity campaign that was meant to talk “enablers” out of making donations to the Catholic soup kitchen — but the public pushed back against such a cruel idea. Incidentally, the homelessness consultant’s characterization of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (founded in 1833 and serving in 132 countries) as a “renegade” organization, is disturbing to say the least.

Reactions?

Source: “Jim Crow Laws,” tn4me.org
Source: “The New Jim Crow – Foreword by Cornel West,” NewJimCrow.com
Source: “Clearwater officials crack down on public amenities used by homeless,” Tampa Bay Times, 06/14/12
Source: “Tough Love for the Homeless,” Technically, That’s Illegal, 06/14/12
Image by mikebaird (Mike Baird), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever

Homeless Around the FireWhen a city passes a No Sit/No Lie ordinance, the purpose is not just to forbid sleeping outdoors, but to criminalize existence in any state of consciousness whatsoever. Officially, there is no offense called Breathing While Homeless, but it exists de facto, and some cities just get worse and worse.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, we learn that:

… [I]n 1996, the Houston, Texas, Living Wage effort to raise the minimum wage to $6.50 per hour was stopped cold in the last week of the campaign. Moneyed interests poured over 1 million dollars into creating misinformation and then handily defeated the initiative.

Houston has had a No Sit/No Lie ordinance for quite some time, and earlier this year, there was ferocious public debate over the rules that, as some phrase it, “criminalize charity” by forbidding citizens from feeding the homeless. A certain amount of compromise modified the originally proposed law, which had aspired to be much stricter. Chris Mora writes:

The version passed Wednesday reduced the maximum penalty to $500, made registration voluntary and lifted the food prep requirements. The property restriction does not apply to the feeding of five or fewer people.

In Sarasota, Florida, authorities carted away the benches from the city’s Five Points Park nearly a year ago, and recently voted not to put them back. J. David McSwane writes:

Removal of the benches was prompted by complaints from downtown condo owners who claim that large numbers of homeless people in the park are hurting their property values.

In 2006, Los Angeles got going on its Safer City Initiative, which was supposed to target not only drug dealers in the central urban area, but criminals who prey on street people. In other words, the new toughness was touted as protecting the homeless, as well as the housed.

Dana Goodyear reported on the results, which included a lot of arrests for “minor infractions that would have gone unnoticed in any other part of the city.” Goodyear went on to say:

In an analysis of the first year of the program, Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor, noted that there had been, on average, a thousand citations a month, most of them for pedestrian violations, such as walking against the signal. Often the violators were unable to pay the tickets; warrants were issued for their arrest, and they were jailed.

Overly concerned citizens think that, when the urban space includes places to sit, it promotes drug sales. That rationale is lamer than a homeless person on crutches. News flash: An awful lot of illegal drug sales take place in houses, restaurants, bars, parking lots, college dorms, churches, and, yes, even condominiums. Once all those scenes of crime have been abolished, then let’s talk about forbidding people to sit in an urban area.

Civic authorities are suspicious of people experiencing homelessness, and that will never change. But if the homeless bear watching closely, doesn’t it counter the interests of the authorities themselves to chase them into hiding? Since street people are assumed to be guilty of something, shouldn’t the police favor a city plan that would encourage them to remain in plain sight for long periods of time — rather than, for instance, skulking in the shadows, doing who-knows-what?

From a law-enforcement angle, it does make a certain amount of sense. Why not have public space for people to sit around in? Any city that can tolerate football mobs or the occasional riot could certainly find a way to allow a modicum of space for people who don’t own or rent any space of their own.

A No Sit/No Lie ordinance (or Sit/Lie ordinance which, paradoxically, has the same meaning) wastes court and police time, is neither humane nor cost-effective, and just plain doesn’t work. Everybody’s got to be someplace, and they can’t always be standing up. Keeping people on their feet is a nasty habit of torturers the world over. Even a healthy person can only endure a limited amount of it.

A lot of people are experiencing homelessness because they can’t work, and they can’t work because they’re disabled. Resistance to a no sit/no lie ordinance in any city is about the needs of disabled people and the occasional needs of just about everybody. You never know when you’ll need a place to sit down, to take a splinter from a child’s foot. Or because the tubing of your portable oxygen tank got tangled up and has to be sorted out. Did your therapist ever suggest pausing to smell the roses? How can you, when there’s no place to linger?

Spaces in cities should not be planned just for the postcard views. They need to meet the people’s needs. You can buy ant farms or palaces for pet cats that are designed better than some cities. No Sit/No Lie ordinances are described as “quality of life” ordinances, which is a prime example of twisted thinking. Quality of whose life? People experiencing homelessness have lives too, and the quality of their lives is also important, especially if they’re sick or disabled.

In the years from 2005 to 2011, San Francisco issued 39,714 “quality of life” citations, which were recently remarked upon by T. J. Johnston of SF Public Press:

Of the total number of citations, alcohol-related offenses account for the majority, but sleeping in parks and trespassing are also among the most frequent infractions cited. Possession of an open container consistently led among all other violations with 12,250 citations issued. Overnight sleeping in a park yielded 3,512 write-ups. Running neck and neck for third place are two similar infractions for trespassing: Obstruction of a street or sidewalk at certain times resulted in 2,254, and trespassing, 2,222.

People can’t pay fines, so they are thrown in jail, and then having a criminal record prevents them from getting into public housing, followed by further Breathing While Homeless offenses, and so on ad infinitum. If there is a problem with people sitting on sidewalks and blocking the way, put benches there. Or build wider sidewalks.

Better yet, address the basic problems of a society that breeds such a problem. Who is outsourcing jobs? Who is foreclosing mortgages? Who is killing the bees and making food prices go up? If people sitting on the sidewalk are the problem, let’s take out our anger not on them, but on the appropriate causes of that problem.

Reactions?

Source: “Drastically scaled-back homeless feeding ordinance OK’d,” Chron.com, 04/04/12
Source: “Park benches not returning to Five Points Park,” Herald-Tribune.com, 04/02/12
Source: “Dana Goodyear, Letter from Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, May 5, 2008, p. 28
Source: “Thousands of tickets handed out to homeless,” SF Public Press, 06/04/12
Image by Alex E. Proimos, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Breathing While Homeless Still a Crime

Brer Rabbit's HomeHouse the Homeless would prefer to highlight successful programs, and honor the individuals and organizations that do so much to help people experiencing homelessness in America. But some things can’t be ignored, including the extralegal invention of many new “crimes” such as DWB, which can mean Driving While Black or Driving While Brown, but, either way, it means trouble. This example of dark humor became a meme adaptable to many situations, like the ever-growing crime of Breathing While Homeless.

Racial profiling assumes guilt based on skin color, and economic profiling assumes guilt based on money. While plenty of guilt can be assigned to the wealthy, being blamed by their economic inferiors does not much wound them.

On the other hand, when guilt is presumptively and automatically assigned to the poor, it can do them an enormous amount of harm. Many housed citizens find it difficult to care about any of this. However, they can be roused to care a lot about what happens to their tax dollars.

In other words, while compassion arguments may or may not work, financial arguments are often convincing. Here’s the financial argument against criminalizing homelessness: It can’t possibly be cost-effective. When people have little or no money, and no way of getting more, there can’t be any profit in fining them for open alcohol containers, obstruction, trespassing, camping, brawling, public urination, disorderly conduct, and minor theft — and then arresting them again for technical violations like drinking while out on bond. And then tossing them in jail for not paying the fines.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who consistently knits facts into compelling prose, reminds us that at least one-third of the states make it possible for someone to be locked up as a debtor. She sketches an astonishing picture:

If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage — a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: ‘sewer service.’

Ehrenreich adds that in most states, anyone who owes child support gets their driving license confiscated, and, in Michigan, the privilege to drive can even be revoked for unpaid parking tickets. Courts impose ridiculous fees that have no hope of ever being collected, but contribute to the judge’s “tough on crime” reputation.

In a lot of jurisdictions across the country, people who owe fines can arrange for a scheduled payment plan — if they’re willing to pay as much as an extra $300 for the favor. Under rules like these, anyone who isn’t homeless already, soon could be.

For people experiencing homelessness, it is so easy to get into legal trouble. Remember this, from last summer? Jonathan Turley wrote:

Now, in Maine, Shaun Fawster, 23, a homeless man has been arrested because a Bangor police officer spotted him using an outside outlet to charge his phones. Fawster was charged last weekend with theft of services… Since the costs of the charge was pennies, it is hard to see how this arrest served justice.

This picture is through a wider lens, encompassing the entire picturesque town of Boulder, Colorado, where, depending on circumstances and variables, an arrest can cost the government between $250 and $1,000. That’s just to put the person into jail, and doesn’t even begin to count the incarceration itself.

Pierrette J. Shields writes about “frequent fliers,” such as the alcoholic homeless woman who was booked into the county jail 112 times in the last 10 years. Just to arrest her has cost at least $8,000.

Homeless people who are jailed are often mentally disabled, or struggling with alcoholism or addiction, or all of the above. A simple, uncomplicated prisoner costs the taxpayers $67 a day, but the ones with problems cost $90 a day to maintain. Cmdr. Bruce Haas is quoted as saying:

In many ways (arrests are) probably their saving grace because when they come to the jail they get medical care and proper diet.

In fact, when it comes to homelessness, jail might not serve as much of a disincentive. Sometimes, it’s like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch, the place where he was most comfortable and happy.

Pastor Steve Kimes, who works with people experiencing homelessness in Oregon, writes:

Among the chronic homeless, jail is seen as a ‘vacation’. Sure, it limits your freedom. But it also gives you three meals a day, which is more than you’d often eat on the street. You don’t have to walk as much. You are less likely to be threatened by guards than you are by the community or the police outside. You have greater access to a toilet in jail. You have a much greater opportunity for sleep without being harassed… Frankly, in some communities, jail is much to be preferred.

And every now and then you run across an item like this one, from CBS News, about a man in Georgia who first threatened to kill the President, but couldn’t get anyone to lock him up for that:

Lance Brown was hungry and homeless, so he decided to get thrown in jail by hurling a brick through a glass door at the Columbus courthouse building.

Do we need more evidence that our society is sick? Is this the best we can do? America announces to the world a remarkable accomplishment — we have discovered how to end homelessness.  Simply throw everybody in jail!

Reactions?

Source: “The poor: America’s piggy bank,” Salon.com, 05/17/12
Source: “Bangor Police Arrest Homeless Man For Charging Cellphone,” JonathanTurley.org, 06/30/11
Source: “Repeat, low-level offenders costly for Boulder County Jail,Longmont Times-Call, 04/16/12
Source: “Jail or Homelessness?,” PastoralBlog.blogspot.com, 06/28/11
Source: “Hungry homeless man gets arrested intentionally,” CBSNews.com, 05/01/12
Image by matt44053 (Matt Dempsey), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Still Kicking Them When They’re Down

human needsWe have often wondered if some kind of guidebook is being passed around, with a title like Harass the Homeless. The subtitle would be, “Kick ‘Em When They’re Down.” There is no shortage of examples.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who has written extensively on poverty-related issues, has founded a project to track some of the kicks. The Economic Hardship Reporting Project supports innovative investigative journalism on poverty and economic hardship.

Business and government alike have discovered that it’s easier and less detectable to take $1 each from 1,000 poor people than it is to take $1,000 from a solvent person.

The only sector of the economic conspiracy against the poor that has had some light shed into its dark corners is the loan industry, which includes both major big-name companies and strip-mall payday loan outfits. Currently, they can get away with charging interest that sometimes adds up to 600% per year. In regard to this and numerous other disgraceful practices, Ehrenreich says:

Before we can ‘do something’ for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.

For examples of what ought to stop or be stopped, see “How scammers keep targeting Michigan’s homeless” by Ted Roelofs, who gives just a few instances in just one American city.

A day laborer puts in a full shift cleaning and renovating an apartment, for an employer who disappears without paying. A man helps paint a house and ends up with only one-fourth of the pay that was promised. Con artists convince homeless people to cash forged checks, or use their personal information to fraudulently get funds meant for students. A meth cook recruits the homeless to go into drugstores and buy ingredients for his illegal enterprise.

Citing Kim Bobo, who wrote Wage Theft in America, the author estimated that through devious practices, employers manage to extract at least $100 billion each year from employees who are helpless to do anything about this, even if they somehow find out about it. Keep that number in mind, it comes up in the next paragraph, as Ehrenreich stacks up some economic facts:

The government distributes about $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for example, our sole remaining nationwide welfare program, gets only $26 billion a year in state and federal funds. The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid: on the one hand, offering safety-net programs for the poor; on the other, enabling large-scale private sector theft from the very people it is supposedly trying to help.

Many jurisdictions charge defendants for their court costs, and for room and board in the jail. We know a woman whose children were removed from her custody for questionable reasons, and put into foster care. That turned out badly for the kids — one went to juvenile incarceration and the other to some kind of state rehab program. And now the state is sending bills to the biological mother for both.

Ehrenreich mentions a similar mess:

The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.

A homeless person lucky enough to have a vehicle and unlucky enough to be stopped for a traffic infraction could find fines piling on pretty quick, like $214 for failing to notify the DMV of an address change within 10 days. Or $436 for not having the right kind of child seat, or $796 for failing to provide evidence of insurance. Next thing you know, this person doesn’t even have a car.

Governments at every level have discovered the awesome power of fines, and the only thing that can be said for that is, morally it’s a step above stopping citizens at random and taking their cash. But Ehrenreich points out the absurdity: “80%-90% of criminal offenses are committed by people who are officially indigent.” This certainly includes people experiencing homelessness. The law creates homelessness every day.

Reactions?

Source: “The poor: America’s piggy bank,” Salon.com, 05/17/12
Source: “How scammers keep targeting Michigan’s homeless,” MLive.com, 10/12/11
Image by jramspott (John Ramspott), used under its Creative Commons license.

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