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.
Photo credit: ITN