It’s hard to tell when this National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) page was last updated. But it’s safe to assume that the overall situation has not improved, since whenever. The NCH page, entitled “The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” says,
An unfortunate trend in cities around the country over the past 25 years has been to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.
Last week in Boulder, Colorado, a homeless man who was ticketed last April for sleeping in a parking garage, attempted to use an Eighth Amendment defense against the charge. That’s the one about cruel and unusual punishment. Once convicted, Michael Fitzgerald was supposed to either pay a $100 fine or do 12 hours of community service. Instead… well, let Heath Urie, staff writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, tell the story:
Fitzgerald appealed the case to the Boulder County District Court on the grounds that the city’s law against camping in public places essentially punished him for being homeless and having an involuntary need for warmth and shelter as he sleeps at night.
Yes, it looks like the rule he broke is not only cruel and unusual, but discriminatory. However, unfair as it is from the viewpoint of a person experiencing homelessness, so-called respectable society disagrees. Urie reports how Judge Lael Montgomery expressed a strangely familiar sentiment, saying,
The camping without consent ordinance applies to all persons who wish to camp in Boulder, regardless of whether they are homeless, shoestring travelers trying to avoid the cost of accommodations, or persons who merely enjoy the great outdoors.
Nobel Prize-winning author Anatole France said it decades ago:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to beg in the streets, steal bread, or sleep under a bridge.
Attorney David Harrison, no doubt familiar with the classical allusion, echoed it in his argument about the city’s ordinance:
It’s certainly saying people with homes and people without homes can’t sleep under bridges… While certainly as a conceptual matter that’s true, as a practical matter (the law) targets the homeless population.
The journalist tell us that Fitzgerald is one of several local people experiencing homelessness who have challenged the tickets they’re received, on constitutional grounds. Boulder is like that. He also provides a helpful sidebar on the page, detailing the No Camping Ordinance, which has been in effect since 1980.
Recently, we talked about how in Austin, Texas, House the Homeless kept track of how many people were busted for sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in the downtown business area during 2009. Over the whole year, there were 708 convictions and 70 dismissals. The highest month was September, when 518 citations were issued. (The month-by-month count for the entire year adds up to way more than 778, so presumably, some legal processes were still going on when this survey was made.)
Anyhow, out of those mere 70 dismissals, only a paltry 52 were dismissed for mental health or medical disabilities. Statistically, what that means is, a lot of people were unfairly treated. Here’s why: In the health survey, 501 people were asked whether they needed to sit and rest now and then. The large majority answered yes. Even people who aren’t officially disabled need to sit down, occasionally. Think about it. Homes are filled with chairs. If people didn’t need them, they wouldn’t be there. People experiencing homelessness don’t have chairs. But they too need a place to sit.
(To be continued…)
Source: “A Dream Denied,” National Coalition for the Homeless
Source: “Boulder judge rejects homeless man’s appeal, upholds city’s anti-camping law,” Daily Camera, 04/08/11
Source: “Richard Troxell’s Health Survey Testimony,” House the Homeless, 07/20/10
Image by tobyotter (Toby Alter), used under its Creative Commons license.
We just have to share this amazing photoessay, the pictures taken by Getty Images staff photographer Paula Bronstein (and erroneously credited here to Paul Bronstein.) In Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, the winters are long and very, very cold, and many homeless people survive by living underground in tunnels that are not actually sewers, as the headline states, but channels for heating pipes.
Really, this is fascinating. Someone has taken the trouble to translate (from another website) nearly 100 comments from “Chinese netizens” as well as, apparently, European expats in China, and people from other countries too. Some cruelly anti-Mongolian sentiments are expressed. The country used to belong to China, then became a satellite of the USSR, but now Russia is kaput, so things don’t go well in Mongolia. But many points of view are represented. One person says,
Beijing isn’t lacking either — If you have the chance, go to the Beijing Film Academy campus gates and look under the manhole covers…
There is in fact a tradition of cave dwellings in northern provinces such as Henan and Shaanxi. The soft loessial soils allow cave dwellings to be excavated, providing homes that are spared the worst of baking summers and freezing winters. Getting enough natural light into the cave dwellings however is one problem that is shared with living in a sewer. There is simply never enough sunlight or daylight.
In case you’re thinking, “This could only happen in Mongolia,” think again. Or rent Dark Days, a documentary directed, produced, and filmed by Marc Singer, and released in 2000. It’s all about homeless people living in an Amtrak tunnel under New York City, amid construction debris and terrible noise from the trains, with plenty of rats for company. They build shelters from scrap wood, cardboard, tarpaulins, and whatever else they can get hold of.
Many of the residents have managed to pull electricity into their subterranean shacks. Sometimes they go “up top” to find food and things to sell. Many have pets, for protection or companionship. The sanitary arrangements vary. One resident says that if you’re homeless, this is the best place in the city to be.
But it’s not safe down there. One guy demonstrates for the camera how he sets up a noise trap, so if anybody approaches his place while he’s sleeping, a bunch of frying pans will fall down and wake him. Another claims that 80% of the tunnel dwellers are crackheads. A woman named Dee tells how someone tried to burn her hut with her in it. Still, most of the tunnel dwellers look out for each other and engage in cooperative efforts, and some of them have been down there for 20 years. It is a weird but not totally dysfunctional family.
Then, along come the armed Amtrak police, telling everybody they have 30 days to get out. Not one person wants to go to a shelter, where everything you have including your clothes will be stolen. With the aid of the Coalition for the Homeless, they negotiate the Section 8 bureaucracy. With the promise of housing, they demolish the cozy shelters that were built with so much care. The film ends by showing the various formerly underground people in their new apartments, with real beds, and windows with trees outside.
Now, check out “Lost Vegas” by Pete Samson, who explored the unknown world underneath America’s capital of gambling and glitz. He says hundreds of homeless people live in parts of the 350-mile flood tunnels beneath Las Vegas:
Rather than working in the bars or kitchens they ‘credit hustle’, prowling the casinos searching the fruit machines for money or credits left by drunken gamblers.
But the competition is stiff. Sometimes there is day labor, and there are always dumpsters to recover food and useful items from. Sampson interviews several residents, including a woman named Amy, who says,
The main dangers are the floods and the Black Widow spiders. But it’s not a terrible place to be if you’re homeless… It’s much cooler than on the streets, we get a breeze coming through and the cops don’t really bother you. It’s quiet and everyone helps each other out down here.
Clearly, something is amiss, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Despite all the promises humankind has made to itself about a brighter future, conditions are getting worse and worse for more and more people. What can alleviate the situation? The Universal Living Wage might be a good place to start.
Source: “Mongolia’s Homeless Living Underground In Sewers,” ChinaSmack.com, 11/06/10
Source: “Dark Days (2000),” IMDb.com
Source: “Lost Vegas,” TheSun.co.uk, 09/24/09
Image of Dark Days, used under Fair Use: Reporting.