Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.
According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:
Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.
Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:
I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’
Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.
Somewhere in Middle America
For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.
Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.
The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,
Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.
That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.
A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.
Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,
It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?
Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
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