On Criminalizing Poverty

As we all know, these are tough economic times.  Unemployment is up.  Homelessness is too.  In Sacramento, tent cities along the rivers sprung up months ago and made the national news.  Police have generally asked people to “move on.”  Not since the so-called Hoovertowns of the Great Depression have we seen anything quite like this.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty recently released a new report, Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, jointly with the National Coalition for the Homeless. The report focuses on city measures that target homeless persons, including laws that make it illegal to sleep, eat, or sit in public spaces.  With information about 273 cities across the United States, Homes Not Handcuffs ranks the top 10 U.S. cities (“The Ten Meanest Cities”) with what the report concludes are the worst practices in criminalizing homelessness and discusses the policy, constitutional and human rights implications of criminalization.  The report  also offers examples of more constructive approaches adopted by some cities.

I am sad to say that my hometown of Los Angeles (see the LA Times acknowledgement of the “slam” on the City of Angels) is listed as number 1 and Berkeley, California (I am a Cal alum) is number 10.   San Francisco, where I practiced law, is no. 7.  Florida (St. Petersburg (2), Orlando (3), Gainseville (5), and Bradenton (9)) has four cities in the top 10.

Homes Not Handcuffs raises the important question of what role, if any, law should play in dealing with the homeless.  What do 9and should) we as a society do for the unfortunate members of our society who cannot afford a place to live?  Tell them to “move on”?  Cite them for vagrancy or some such crime?

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8 Responses

  1. A.W. says:

    Here’s my question. in those cities making it illegal to sleep, etc. in public spaces, do they provide any area where they can do those things? if yes, then i would say the laws are kosher, and if not, then yes, we have a problem.

    But to pretend that the homeless are not a problem or that these people really have no other choice is crud. I mean, gee, can i visit new york without two crackheads having a fistfight in the street? can i?

  2. A little empathy please says:

    What a crude, callous, and shallow final remark! There are crackheads among the homeless, but for the most part they are people who are down on their luck with no way out. No time to go into it in depth here, other pressing matters call me, but just wanted to say that your shortsightedness degrades thousands of people and your own capacity for intelligence. Next time you see a homeless person, rather than jumping into the stereotypes that reside in your head try to give them something to eat.

  3. By way of filling out the comment from “empathy:”

    I think it’s Robyn M. Dawes’ Everyday Irrationality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001) (if not, it’s Hastie and Dawes’ Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making, 2001; I’ve lent both books out so can’t check the reference) that has a nice discussion of how many if not most individuals who are otherwise quite intelligent will make generalizations about the homeless based on some memorable personal encounters (perhaps simply as witnesses) and that these generalizations are thought to capture truths about those who are homeless (that most of them are alcoholics, drug abusers, mentally ill, and so on) but in fact are not at all accurate. Indeed, among other psychological and cognitive liabilites, they illustrate reliance on the “availability heuristic” and anecdotal evidence. Many of the homeless are strategically out of sight (hence literally out of mind for those making the aforementioned generalizations) and endeavor not to draw attention to themselves, perhaps because they’re breaking some city ordinance having to do with where they’re sleeping at night but at bottom owing to unwarranted feelings of shame, particularly among those who never expected to find themselves in the situation they’re now in. While those who abuse alcohol and drugs and/or are mentally ill, and also homeless, deserve our empathy and sympathy as well, they are not statistically representative of the homeless as such.

  4. If I may digress and expand on one of Mr. O’Donnell’s comments, couldn’t we also say:

    “how many if not most individuals who are otherwise quite intelligent will make generalizations about Conservative Republicans based on some memorable personal encounters (perhaps simply as witnesses) and that these generalizations are thought to capture truths about those who are Conservative Republicans (that most of them are gun-clinging religous nuts…and so on) but in fact are not at all accurate.”

  5. A little empathy please says:

    Interesting video on homeless vets in today’s (July 26, 2009) nytimes.com website. I wish I could have provided the hyperlink but couldn’t figure out how to do so.

  6. A.W. says:

    Mmm, yes, empathy instead of logic. I can’t tell you how many people I know who give money to the “homeless” just to see them later going home on the bus, or otherwise giving away their con job. They know there are just enough clueless people suffering from liberal guilt that they don’t have to, you know, work for a living. They bank on empathy overwhelming logic. They pay their rent with it.

    Oh, those poor people can’t get a job. Um, really? Not even at McDonald’s? Give me a break.

    The stereotyping here is liberal stereotyping. The truth is a lot uglier and a lot more their own fault. But with a media that doesn’t ever portray the truth of things, its hard to blame people for being fooled.

    Take my example of the crackheads fighting in NYC. I didn’t make that up. Okay, I assumed they were crackheads, but they were acting crazy and fighting in the middle of Times Square when my future wife and I went to NYC, yes even after Guilani cleaned it up to a real extent. We kept trying to move away from those idiots, but literally they fought running down the street and kept going in our direction. We would duck inside a souvenir shop and they would run at each other outside and knock over a sunglasses display. That’s the face of homelessness, too. And if you just wrap yourself up in your liberal cocoon and ignore those realities, then you will simply beclown yourself in the eyes of those who actually live in that reality.

    I mean sheesh, take this one:

    > Interesting video on homeless vets in today’s (July 26, 2009) nytimes.com website.

    Would that be the same NYT that suggested that Iraq war vets are unusually likely to be psychopaths? By the NYT’s portrayal, those soldiers were all ticking timebombs, when in fact they are less likely to commit violent crime than the general population. Its funny how selective empathy can be. They are victims when it suits their purposes, psychopaths when that is more useful. I have no use for the NYT’s view of reality.

    All of which is not to say that none of the homeless are “down on their luck.” But if you think that is even a significant share of the problem, you are kidding yourself. I know too many people who have had significantly bad luck in life who nonetheless kept from being homeless, to accept that all or most of the people who are homeless are just “unlucky.” I mean I know people so disabled they can’t turn the pages of a book without help. But they aren’t and never were homeless.

    And Patrick, for the love of God, can you ever discuss a topic without just citing books seriatim? Sheesh. Once again, you cite books and I cite reality.

    And even if those books contain “studies” of what causes homelessness, well, how exactly are they going to be validated? It reminds me of that great scene in the Shawshank Redemption when Andy declares he is innocent and Red asks around the yard, “hey so-and-so, what did you do to get in here?” And each person said the same thing: “I’m innocent. Lawyer f—ed me.” So all of the homeless claim its not their fault, just some bad luck. It matches my experience. 100% of the homeless people I have spoken to say this. Do you think I buy that even for a second?

    Now, look at any of those studies and tell me what percentage of those claims have been verified at all?

    I bet its so low as to be indistinguishable from zero.

  7. A.W. says:

    btw, i think this anti-spam word is a nice feature, but i would worry that it doesn’t seem to use alot of variety on my machine.

  8. Jenny says:

    One of the things that I find rather ignorant is the comment that these homeless people should just get a job at Mcdonald’s. As if that is the simple solution for everything when it comes to the problem of homelessness and the prejudice and bias against them. There are alot of things that many of us are fortunate enoough to have that we take for granted because they come so easily for most of us. They don’t come so easily for others. For example, if a homeless person were to apply for a job at McDonald’s, they would need an identification card which cost a fee, many don’t have the money to pay that fee. Even if they did or received a special discounted waiver, the dmv wants an address to send it to, that bring up a problem because they’re homeless. Many homeless people also don’t even have the basic documents we have because these were either lost, stolen, or they never even had them to begin with for many unfortunate reasons. In order to obtain these documents such as a birth certificate or social security number you have to establish your identity through some other means. Many of these people have no way of doing that because they are either estranged from their families or don’t have any family at all or because their identitfying materials have been misplaced due to the constant moving form location to location. It is extremely difficult to for many to do these basic things and society doesn’t provide a clear and accesible way of obtaining such needed, thus these people can’t get back on track, even if they really wanted to and tried to. Then there is the bias against hiring someone who has been or is homeless from potential employers, even at a Mcdonald’s. It’s not necessarily easy for them to do this. Society looks down upon people for not having certain things and yet society makes it so difficult to even try to get these things.