Criminalization Of Poverty ARTICLE DRAFT - COMMENTS REQUESTED by

Tom Boland (
Tue, 21 Dec 1999 22:20:14 -0800 (PST)

Comments from HPNers requested by author.
PLEASE CC Replies To: "David Oehl" <>

[Dave is writing an article for Peace Works, a publication of the
American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice group.
I'd referred him to HPN Archives & related info sources.
He writes:]

Here's the text of the article I was writing.  Would you mind looking it
over and telling me about any innaccuracies, etc? I'd appreciate it. If you
have the time of course.

Thanks,    Dave Oehl


Dave Oehl is a senior Peace and Global Studies major at Earlham College, and
is aspiring.

What do you get when you cross a booming national economy with homeless
people?  Less homeless people, right?  Wrong.

What you get, apparently, is not only greater homelessness, but also
enactment and greater enforcement of laws and policies that criminalize
poverty or homelessness.  Efforts in many cities are now focused on
excluding the homeless from downtown areas and places where they congregate.
It is important to examine public policy as a means of social control
instead of social change or improvement.  To this end, this article will
provide and discuss some examples of anti-poor policies, and solutions being
proposed or utilized.

Anti-poor and homeless policies


	According to the Atlanta Task Force for the Homelessí (ATFH)
Criminalization of Poverty report, published in 1993, there are two kinds of
laws that discriminate against the poor and homeless.  "Homeless" laws
specifically target homeless individuals and their activities.  "Status"
laws punishes a person for their economic condition, rather than behaviour.
	Many cities across the country have homeless laws, but they
generally fall
into the general categories.  Panhandleing is restricted or banned
altogether; Massachusetts passed a law of this kind several years ago but it
was struck down by the state courts as unconstitutional.  A lawsuit in Los
Angeles is challenging its anti-panhandling law.  Anti-camping ordinances
prohibit sleeping on streets or in parks at all or after curfew, such as in
Austin, Texas. Many cities have no-standing zones where people may not
linger, or no-sitting areas.  Austin and Los Angeles have laws such as
these.  There also exist such arcane laws as the prohibition of public
parking lot crossing, in Atlanta.
	In the Arizona city of Tucson, a special zone was created in which
it is a
crime to simply be homeless.  Police were arresting homeless people without
cause and releasing them only when they agreed to stay out of the area for a
certain period of time. Alan Mason, arrested under this law, was banned from
an area that covered just about all of downtown, including his lawyer, all
the courthouses, the voter registration office, and places of worship.
	The line between homeless laws and status laws blurs. Most disorderly
conduct laws are considered status laws by the ATFH, since many homeless are
mentally ill, or predisposed to erratic behaviour, caused by, or the cause
of, their homelessness.  Criminal trespassing, public urination, and public
drinking are also considered status ordinances.
	An example of a recent status ordinance is an ordinance proposed, not
passed, in September by Ray Suarez of the Chicago City Council to prohibit
sleeping in cars.  Mr. Suarez said that some residents did not feel safe
because people were sleeping in cars near their homes. Why do they not feel
safe? Activists are now making sure that the councilor is educated on this
issue and is dealing constructively with it and discussing affordable

	Other Policies

	Many administrations choose to selectively enforce laws to punish the
homeless, laws that were not originally meant to do so.  The laws involved
vary from stolen property to general trespassing to general sanitation (laws
that prohibit dumping in vacant lots or blocking entrances or alleys)
	New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is creatively sculpting NYC laws to
punish the
homeless and clear the streets, and making up new policies as he goes along.
	Giuliani has ordered massive street sweeps to clear out the
homeless since
a tourist was seriously injured when attacked by an allegedly homeless man
in November.  One commentator remarked that this is the first time
punishment has been meted out before there is even a suspect.  If you won't
work, you'll be kicked out of a shelter, and then you'll be arrested for
sleeping on the street. The Mayor is also opposed to any minimum wage
increases that might help the poor pay for housing.  Meanwhile he is
promoting New York as an urban Disneyland; as a result, rents are going up,
and the city and state are not creating affordable housing.  After a while,
one begins to suspect his motives.
	A New York City police manual for carrying out street sweeps called
"Quality of Life enforcement Options: A Police Reference Guide" lists 35
offenses for which one can be arrested.  A homeless man challenging these
policies in court was arrested in 1997 on an obscure sanitation code
violation.  He was strip-searched and held for 27 hours; the ticket turned
out to be invalid.
	In Los Angeles, Downtown business improvement districts hired private
security forces to patrol the streets.  They have been charged in a lawsuit
with coercive detention, invasion of privacy, and assault and battery. These
security officers routinely interview people on the street and keep files on
the people they interview.  They photograph and search the belongings of
people they think don't belong.  This policy does nothing to address these
people's needs or the causes of their situation.

	Effects of this criminalization

	One of my friends described the worst feeling in the world as "when
doesn't want you anymore."  These policies increase the alienation and what
Michael Sullivan from Bread and Jams calls "paranoia."  It is frightening to
live knowing that by virtue of who you are, or at least what condition you
find yourself in, you could be arrested.  The man that started the suit
against New York City now avoids contact with service workers, fearful of
being arrested again.  He never sleeps in the same place twice.  Homeless
people are less likely to seek help and shelter if they think they may get
harassed or arrested.  This can lead to more deaths or destructive
	Homeless artist and writer Robert Lederman says that these policies
cause more homeless to be shot  by police while resisting arrest or acting
"suspiciously," not only hurting people but also inviting lawsuits.
	These policies make it difficult for poor and homeless people to
find and
hold jobs.  Employers are reluctant to hire poor and homeless people when
they have a criminal record.  Furthermore, if people are arrested for
"quality of life" violations and miss work, they may lose their jobs.
	The costs of litigation, police activity, and jailing homeless
people can
be substantial.  The Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless suggested that
jailing, for three days, half of the 9000 homeless people arrested in 1995
would cost 742,500 dollars.  That doesn't include court and administrative
	These policies also feed negative public opinion, distracting it
away from
positive, long-term solutions and focusing it on the people themselves, not
their condition.

	Challenges to this Discrimination

	Challenges to these policies are coming in several forms.  Many
court cases
have been won or are pending, as noted above.  Then there are the Activist
groups and democratic government action.
	The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is an
organization that
Documents legal abuses and aids homeless defendants and plaintiffs.  They
provide legal advise and often file Friend of the court briefs on behalf of
plaintiffs.  They have supported many homeless people in successful
	For example, in 1997, a settlement agreement was arrived at in the
Pottinger v. City of Miami (FL), whereby the city agreed to implement a
training program to ensure that homeless people's rights are not violated.
The police may not destroy the property of homeless people.  An advisory
committee was created to monitor police contact with the homeless, and
monetary compensation was provided to the plaintiffs.  This case was a
"landmark development" and is provisions are being reviewed for possible use
all over the country.
	The National Coalition for the Homeless is a nationwide advocacy
organization with programs and resources.  They are currently conducting a
National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project.  The purpose is to link
grassroots organizations in a national network in order to "fortify those
local efforts and to strengthen cooperation.  This project helps individuals
or groups in resource poor locales to organize an immediate response by
providing knowledge, experience and resources.  The NCH recognizes that to
avoid simply returning to the old status quo, the campaign must work both to
protect civil rights and to stop the causes of homelessness once the
discrimination stops.
	A third method of countering this discrimination is as a
body, such as the Multi-disciplinary Working Group (MWG) convened to address
issues of Homelessness, Public Intoxication, and Nuisance Behaviours in
Cambridge MA.  Rather than enforce nuisance ordinances in Cambridge, the MWG
was formed.  It is composed of a range of individuals, including homeless or
formerly homeless people, police officers, various public service agencies,
and city government agencies.  The MWG focused on how to help "problem"
homeless people, those who used the city's services the most.  The MWG's
report states that their task "was to formulate recommendations for
responding to the public nuisance behaviours of these individuals."  The MWG
discussed ways to streamline service provision and cut down on redundancies,
fill in gaps in services, how to improve relations between the housed and
homeless populations, and community involvement.
	This is a constructive, educational and cooperative method to the
of the problem.

Social control is at work here.  To what end is uncertain, at least to me.
The vast majority of these policies are lauded by businesses who, as one
expects, are only concerned with thier profit margins.  These policies are
enacted by elected representatives responding to constituents or to campaign
contributors.  However, there is a significant effort to organize in
opposition of this control.  Most larger American cities have organizations
of homeless and poor people; some are stronger than others.  All can be
brought together to combat discrimination.

Email COMMENTS on above DRAFT to author "David Oehl" <>


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