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The Cost of Outlawing Homelessness

Police action

House the Homeless has looked at the costs involved in putting homeless people through the court system and warehousing them in jails, hospitals, and shelters. When pointing out the logic and fiscal responsibility that characterize the Housing First philosophy, those institutional expenses are the easiest to tally up.

It also costs money to run the ambulances and fire department vehicles that so often respond to emergencies involving people experiencing homelessness. Many more seldom-mentioned expenses pull tax money away from places in our society where it is desperately needed. For instance, how much does the federal government pay the contractor in charge of counting the homeless? How much money would it save if there were no homeless to count? How much is it costing society to disqualify so many people from future employment possibilities because of petty charges connected with homelessness? Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich puts the criminalization of the homeless in perspective:

Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell.

There is a whole constellation of crimes that we, with dark humor, call “breathing while homeless.” Here are a few headlines illustrating the often-overlooked ways in which cities and counties hemorrhage money while prosecuting those crimes and waging a de facto war on the poor.

‘City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating’

Michael Allen Mallicoat suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung after being handcuffed and beaten by three police officers. Three cops pleaded guilty to felony official misconduct and resigned. Four other cops were suspended, and three supervisors reprimanded. The $200,000 is a settlement, in return for which the victim agreed not to sue Knoxville, Tenn., for a much larger amount.

‘LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit’

A U.S. appeals court ordered Los Angeles to pay $700,000 to lawyers for homeless people in a lawsuit resulting in overturning a ban on sleeping in the streets…. A 2006 court ruling held clearing people from streets without providing beds is cruel and unusual punishment.

‘Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police’

In the fall of 2010, two L.A. County sheriff’s deputies, unequipped with a warrant and without identifying themselves as police — indeed, with no verbal exchange or warning at all — broke into a wooden shack where Angel and Jennifer Mendez slept. Apparently police opened fire before even seeing the BB gun rifle which was all Angel Mendez had to protect his pregnant wife from ill-intentioned intruders. The deputies fired 15 times, hitting the husband 10 times and the wife once.

Mendez ended up losing a leg. The sheriff’s department conducted an internal review which found, of course, that the shooting was justified. But a federal judge decided that the cops had violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment rights, and awarded the husband $3.8 million and the wife $222,000. Writer Bobby Caselnova asked, quite reasonably:

Why is it that if an ordinary citizen had broken into a home and started firing at the occupants, they would be thrown in prison, but when law enforcement officers do the same thing — and are found by a judge to be wrong — only the taxpayers are punished, not the officers themselves?

‘Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000’

In Albuquerque, N.M., three people were arrested and charged with “inciting a riot, refusing to obey an officer, resisting arrest and failure to have a required permit.” What on earth were they doing? Giving food to people experiencing homelessness. A lengthy legal battle ensued, and eventually the charges were dismissed. But the three men filed civil rights lawsuits against the city, claiming that their First and Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The settlement they were awarded cost the city more than $120,000.

‘City must pay $134K for targeting the homeless’

Ninety-nine criminal citations were dismissed thanks to the intervention of the San Luis Obispo Homeless Alliance. Dozens of people in the California city had been accused of the crime of sleeping in their cars, but a judge found the city’s law against vehicular sleeping to be unconstitutional, and awarded a payout of $134,000, which all went to the lawyers.

Sgt. Theresa Skinner, a senior lead officer in the Venice, Calif., police force, said in a recent interview that about 75% of the complaints she deals with concern transients, which is a rather rude term for people experiencing homelessness. Sgt. Skinner is quoted as saying, “Sometimes I wish I had crime that was more police-related. We’ll never make enough arrests or write enough tickets to get rid of homelessness.”

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Source: “Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, Looting the Lives of the Poor,” TomDispatch.com, 05/17/12
Source: “City to pay homeless man $200,000 in police beating,” KnoxNews.com, 01/22/14
Source: “LA ordered to pay $700K to lawyers for homeless in lawsuit,” UPI.com, 01/31/14
Source: “Innocent Homeless Family’s Wooden Shack Raided By Police,” PoliceStateUSA.com, 08/20/13
Source: “Homeless food case costs Albuquerque $120,000,” ABQJournal.com. 08/12/13
Source: “City must pay $134K for targeting homeless,” MercuryNews.com, 01/18/13
Source: “Venice’s famed tolerance is being tested by the homeless,” LATimes.com, 02/03/14
Image by Steve Lyon