Putting Jesus in Jail

Criminalizing homelessness

It was Brother Michael of the Morning Star Monastery who said it, in Austin, Texas, back in 1996. House the Homeless and many others were trying to repeal the then brand-new No Camping Homeless Ordinance. The City Council had passed this atrocity in the belief that it will make homelessness go away by outlawing it. Council members spoke openly of the “Homeless Ban,” and a city official was caught on tape stating that the goal was to “run these people out of town.” Being homeless in Austin was punishable by a fine of up to $500 or time in the Gray Bar Hotel. What Brother Michael said was,

This ordinance would have put Jesus in jail.

How many pastors have said those words, over how many years, in reaction to how many laws that were designed to further restrict the lives of people experiencing homelessness? Not to deny Austin its originality, but the script for the No Camping Homeless Ordinance drama has been passed around from city to city for decades. It’s all too sadly predictable. Here is another generic quotation, issued in this case from the mouth of the District Attorney:

The ordinance does not punish persons for being homeless.

How many law enforcement spokespeople and politicians, in how many cities, have had occasion to use that line? And, of course, it’s nonsense. By the time Austin’s ordinance had been in place for a year, more than 2,000 people had been charged with violating it, and by some strange coincidence, all of them were people experiencing homelessness.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell says,

The ‘No Camping’ ordinance is punitive in nature and is being selectively enforced. Students are sleeping outside while waiting to get concert tickets without worry of being arrested. Visitors at Barton Springs and travelers in our airport and bus stations also sleep without fear of being arrested. This is obviously a crime of economic status.

As in so many other cities, the politicians talked about a “safer climate,” and none of them were talking about what was safe for the people experiencing homelessness. Does anybody ever stop to think that maybe homeless people like to be safe, too? Maybe they like to be around ordinary people, in places where there are plenty of witnesses if anything goes wrong, instead of out by the railroad tracks, vulnerable to any kind of predator. A few people, with more sensible heads and better intentions, noted that laws like this only drive people deeper into the woods. How many times has that been said, and hasn’t it been true every time?

Even a city council member who claimed to have once been homeless himself was in favor of the ordinance, and, in fact, cast the deciding vote. This is another cliché found all too often in human life: The person who claws his way up the success ladder and kicks anybody in the face who clings to a lower rung:

We already have laws against public harassment, trespassing and intoxication, the nuisances that the anti-camping measure is intended to counter.

That was another thing pointed out by Richard and other sensible people, and, alas, it too is a totally predictable bit of dialogue. The people who say it are absolutely correct, but no matter how often they repeat it, a lot of other people don’t listen. Every once in a while it occurs to somebody that there are situations in which more legislation might not be the solution. If societal problems could really be solved by passing laws, it seems like some of those problems would have been fixed by now, by the last four million laws that were passed. Along with the predictable sense, there was yet more predictable nonsense:

In the first year alone, close to $200,000 has been spent on processing ‘criminal sleepers.’ Additionally, the pressure and the costs to the court system have also been enormous as these victims continue to seek jury trials. Furthermore, the ban has now cost Austin well over 2000 misspent police hours.

You know what comes next. How many cities have put themselves through the same kind of financial wringer, using up limited resources that could much better be spent in some other way, and had gotten minimal results?

The Austin struggle attracted the attention of few celebrities, including Bruce Springsteen, who was in town to do a show and donated the proceeds from the concessions and t-shirt sales to the cause. Molly Ivins got mixed up in it too, and if you’re not familiar with her writing, you’re missing a lot.

The whole story is in Looking Up at the Bottom Line, which is one reason why professors in many disciplines ought to be assigning this book to their students as required reading. It’s an excruciatingly detailed account of the workings of city politics, and a harsh lesson in what aspiring social workers and activists will find themselves facing in the real world.

The homeless ban is still in force, and now it appears that Austin is trying to make mental illness illegal, or something. An effort to improve the No Camping Homeless Ordinance gave the city a chance to tamper with it in a way that guarantees even worse results. (Please see Richard’s description of the current situation and of the importance of the Universal Living Wage).

And then, to lighten the mood, check out Statesman reporter Andrea Ball’s story about Austin’s famous goose, Homer:

In the 1980s, the Austin fowl grabbed headlines when local homeless activists threatened to eat him unless city leaders agreed to a meeting about homelessness. He survived, met Willie Nelson, went to the 1988 Democratic National Convention and spent several months on a raft in Lady Bird Lake with two human companions protesting homelessness.

The conscientious journalist, not content to let Homer be forgotten, has tracked him down and followed him up, even learning the details of his current diet and his arthritis. Homer, now on his third wife, has been credited with being the catalyst that focused the attention of the Austin community on the problem of homelessness. We think House the Homeless had something to do with it, too.


Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Homer the Homeless Goose: Where is he now?,” Statesman, 12/30/10
Image by ItzaFineDay, used under its Creative Commons license.

  1. Ricky T. Morrow says:

    I am getting so sick to my stomach, with these laws about destroying the homeless. Number one move, stop calling people homeless people. Homelessness is not an identity. It is a national problem. It is also a bad situation. Example: The people that are removed from their homes by natural disasters or lose their jobs become homeless. Now, is society ready to destroy them? What if homelessness happens to a politician’s family member or best friend? How would he are she feel if that person was harrassed and put in jail? I am starting to lose respect for politics in these cities. City government is trying so hard to kill off a big part of society.

    Homelessness can be corrected. Fixing the situation will be more beneficial to people in this situation, and beneficial to society as a whole. And it would be more cost effective. Jailing people is expensive. And that includes the court system. The same people that want them wiped off the planet, will have to pay taxes to house them. And it would only cause descent minded citizens of this country to hate the people that govern and support such sick laws. It would be more cost effective to provide housing, job training and allow these citizens to be self-productive. And housing is available. Think about the abandoned houses in every city across the USA. Forget about the million dollar loft or condo construction. $200,000 alone can house a lot people. Think about rooms for rent with utility sinks and a small counter surface for kitchen use. Think about mini refrigerators, single or double burner hot plates. Think about all-in-one bath units that are used in trailers or motorhomes. The are used in alternative housing. Housing doesn’t have to be expensive. Government, state and city levels have to try and solve the national problem of homelessness.

    I see dogs being treated like humans, and humans being treated like wide animals. I’ll make this very clear. The part of society that people hate……are veterans, people that are educated, people with great ideas, people with great skills, people that use to have a place to live or had wifes, husbands and families and had jobs. People do not come into this world as a homeless person. That is not on their birth certificates. So why is people in this society looking at it like this? HOMELESSNESS IS NOT PERMANENT. AND IT IS NOT A DISEASE PEOPLE. May God help these idiots out here.

    This is what really bothers me. These people that work and develop these ordinances, are suppose to be educated people with degrees. But they don’t have any damn common sense. You cannot criminalize millions of people across the country, just because they don’t fit your personal selfish criterion. The national results will be riots. Think about all of the riots in history in this country or any other country for that matter, where people said enough is enough. There are millions of Americans that will fight for their rights. And there are people that will support them. One more thing. Has anybody realized that police have too much power? You keep allowing these police to have more and more power……you will lose more and more of your rights.

  2. Pat Hartman says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  3. Sarah Chiang says:

    I was wondering if that ordinance has been repealed yet and if it has that is awesome but if not and it’s still being enforced we need to do something about it. This speaker I heard at a Gathering this year, Shane Claibourne, he protested laws like these in Philadelphia, laws like not feeding the homeless outdoors. I highly recommend looking him up. On YouTube it shows him speaking to us if you want to check it out look up: gathering thursday Shane Claibourne. He got his homeless buddies and they gathered in a park, worshipped, shared communion, ate pizza, and slept outside with them. When they got arrested they won the case. He explains it all in the video. Thank you for putting this out.

  4. Pat Hartman says:

    Thanks for writing in.