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Why Miami Wants to Treat the Homeless Like Criminals

Why Miami Wants to Treat the Homeless Like Criminals

There oughta be a law that being homeless is a crime. That is the opinion of Miami’s city government.

Its vision is for police officers to arrest homeless people for, basically, living. Scott Keyes reports at Think Progress that arrestable offenses would include blocking a sidewalk, cooking food over a fire in a public area, and urinating or defecating in public. In other words, homeless people who sat down, made themselves a meal, or relieved themselves would be criminals. It’s hard to imagine how they could survive without doing those things, or where they would do them if not in public spaces.

Ironically, the city’s proposal follows an era in which law enforcement officers took exactly the opposite approach with great success. To settle a lawsuit, Miami agreed in 1998 that instead of arresting people for these kinds of “quality of life” activities, police would help them get a bed in a shelter. Lo and behold, in the 15 years that followed, the city’s street population dropped from 6,000 to 351.

Miami wants to mess with its success. On its wishlist is empowering cops to arrest homeless people for refusing shelter and to confiscate their property (which the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled unconstitutional; that ruling does not apply to Miami, which is in a different circuit). The city argues that homeless people scare others, but I wonder if the homeless aren’t more scared of others than they are of the homeless: see here for the awful story of one homeless Miami man (Ronald Poppo, pictured above) whose face was chewed off by an attacker.

What makes some believe that people without homes deserve to be treated like criminals? I believe that the punitive view of the homeless has two sources. One is uniquely American — the Puritans. The other is the widespread human reflex to blame the victim.

The Puritans were the original American “greed is good” individualists. They believed that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. The richer you were, the more likely you were one of the “elect” — the souls God had picked for salvation. As early colonists, these religious fanatics set the tone for our country’s popular, stubborn, cold-hearted impression that poverty is a moral indictment of a person’s character. We don’t brand adulterous women with scarlet letters anymore, but we do brand poor mothers “welfare queens” and condemn them for sloth, greed and defrauding the rest of us.

The House of Representatives just stripped SNAP (food stamps) out of the farm bill, which could take the food out of millions of hungry, impoverished Americans’ mouths, and the government cut unemployment benefits, taking income away from people with no other income. But the people adopting these laws have no proof that any particular poor person is guilty of any of those things, and lots of proof that for the most part they are struggling mightily just to support themselves and their children.

Victim-blaming also fuels policies criminalizing homelessness like the ones Miami wants to implement. Though much maligned, and indeed very destructive, it is a natural defensive impulse. When I see someone struck by tragedy — say someone who lost her home in Superstorm Sandy — I feel bad for her, but I also comfort myself and tamp down my fears by telling myself that the same thing would never happen to me because I live up on a hill, not down by the water. The truth, of course, is that living on a hill doesn’t immunize me from natural disasters.

The same faulty logic applies to people who blame the poor for their lot. I will never be poor like him, people think, because I would never use drugs, or because I would push and not give up until I had a good job. They don’t want to hear that it often isn’t that easy, that sometimes there are no jobs, or that the available jobs don’t pay enough to live on. (Many people stranded in homeless shelters have jobs but still can’t afford housing.)

When Miami was forced to stop arresting homeless people and start helping them 15 years ago, it dramatically reduced its homeless population, and still it wants to revert to punishing people for being poor instead of helping them improve their situation. I hope they think again. Public officials must overcome our country’s religious history and their own self-defense mechanisms to find a more evidence-based and compassionate approach to homelessness.

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136 comments

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6:25AM PDT on Jul 26, 2013

This is too shameful for words. We are such a rich country. We need to look out for our Homeless and our Veterans!! We as a country send TOO much money to other countries. It breaks my heart and I always try to lend a helping hand when I can. Being Homeless Should NEVER be a Crime!!

5:55AM PDT on Jul 25, 2013

I Agree

11:18PM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

To Lin M.,I don't know if it is a national law yet, but in New Mexico, if an elderly person is being abused in the home and the police go out to check on them, and the individual refuses help, there is NOTHING that can be done. If a home health care nurse or Adult Protection Services goes out to check on an individual, and they refuse to talk to them, there is nothing that can be done.
BUT!!, if a police dispatch receives a call, and discerns that the caller sounds "Anxious" or emoptionally unstable, a Specailly trained cop is sent to the home to check on the individual
If the cop perceiveds the individual as BEING emotionally unstable, the cop has the right to take the individual to PES (psychiatric emergency services.). I don't know how this doesn't violate an indiividuals rights, but from what I know of, the PD is now keeping a mental health file of individuals for whom the dispatch get continuous calls on who have TBI's (traumatic brain injuries or other mental illnesses)
If a homeless person seems emotionally incompetent but is non disruptive, there is nothing the PD can do UNLESS the person is intoxicated, "loitering" or passed out on a sidewalk in public. If the individual is taken to a hospital and refuses support AFTER being taken to a hospital, there is NOTHING that can be done. The individual HAS TO WANT TO HELP HIMSELF. OTHERWISE HE/SHE IS REALISED BACK OUT INTO THE STREETS.

6:43PM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

But if they wont take the offered help what can you do?

9:12PM PDT on Jul 22, 2013

if they tried to build housing they might tackle this problem to combat those that cannot afford rent.

6:56PM PDT on Jul 22, 2013

This, in the richest country in the world...shameless !

5:34PM PDT on Jul 22, 2013

ty

4:04PM PDT on Jul 22, 2013

Part 2- Con't. My brother befriended an individuakl who allowed him to live in his JUNKYARD.
He lived in a empty camper shell for atleast 40 to 5 months. He told me that he used to sell his plasma to to have some spare change in his pocket, and he urinated in a bottle since he had no toilet and bathing facilities. He never bothered to ask me for help, even when I would go visit him. he ended up going out to California to try and save our mothers life, as she was taken from las Vegas by another one of the "family members" who pulled a horrific act against us all.
My brother disappeared after three visits after finding our mother. He went missing for three and a half years. I found out the day after my mum's death last year, on January 16, 2012, that he was dead. Upon trying to find him to let him know about our mum, I found his name online upon a death announcement. I got a call from the coroner saying he had been checked into a hospital with a brain tumor. My point is this: He was so mentally ill through his homelessness, he became estranged and lost. He was declared indigent with NO FAMILY and cremated and put through a mass burial in a "John Doe Wall" at a cemetery in California on April 29, 2010. From what I learned, he only had our mum's phone number in his wallet, yet the numbers were disconnected. Does Homelessness scare me? Yet bet it does! I now know the depths of it extremely well.

3:48PM PDT on Jul 22, 2013

To Dale O., Thank you for your kind words and understanding. At this point, in thought of this article, I'm not sure how to approach this, but I feel I have a truth and confession to share, as I hope you all won't be uncomfortable with me coming forward in sharing my own devastation. (It's a long strung out ordeal so I'm going to share the basics of it.)
In 2005, My mum and brother were at the airport awaiting the arrival of my mum's nephew. Unfortunately they parked at the terminal curb instead of regular parking. The police happened to show up. They read my mum's license plate, and pulled my brother out of the car, frisked him, cuffed him, and took him to jail. (he was an alcoholic who had to drive with an intoxalock. I came to learn that the lock and certificate had expired) The police left my mum at the curb, not carrying about her own wellbeing as she was blind and unable to drive. I was never called or imformed. My cousin showed up, going about his merry way with my mum, not caring. From what I learned the whole ordeal might have been a set up, as it was arranged that my mum was to be relocated to Las Vegas. The police didn't even give my brother his legal rights. They just encarcerated him refusing him legal counsel. When he got out, he was left homeless. We were not real close due to the fact that he was not metally stable. (Con't. Part 2)

2:49PM PDT on Jul 22, 2013

Am sending green stars of appreciation to almost all of you for your wonderful, caring and truly loving empathy for the homeless population. I know from actual fact a lot of the homeless situation are currently in is due to lousy actor, shitty governor and piece of fecal matter Reagan! He is the one who started the process by closing down mental institutions! One of the most glaring omissions in the article is the FACT that 1 in 4 homeless men are former military personnel. Majority are from the Vietnam war. Heck of a way to treat our finest. So it is very important that we not only try to volunteer at a homeless shelter, no it is not easy work but it is so empowering not only to who you are helping but also to ones own self esteem to do the right thing. We must also hold all religous institutions to do right by the homeless. Last but not least hold our whoe/politicians feet to the fire and DEMAND solutions for this challenge. Cut the frigging pentagon spending and use the money where it should, WE THE PEOPLE. I am lucky I have never been homeless, but a couple of times I was almost at the precipice due to over $500,000. in medical debt. We're it not for the kindness of friends and family goodness knows how things would have turned out.

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