Are the poor now criminals?



In a depressing yet timely op-ed piece Barbara Ehrenreich points out a growing trend in American urban centers, the criminalization of being homeless.

From her article in the New York Times which discusses a recent report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty:

“The report lists America’s 10 ‘meanest’ cities — the largest of which are Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, ‘An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive’ public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of ‘criminal trespassing’ (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. ‘Can you imagine?’ asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. ‘They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.’

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing.”

Read the full article here.

The article points out that part of the pressure behind this increased zero-tolerance of visible poverty is that there is a revenue stream for cities that manage to fine the homeless and poor.

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3 Responses to "Are the poor now criminals?"
  1. It is absolutely mind-boggling that at a time in our country when the identifier "Christian" has become such a "make-or-break" posture in the politics and society, the homeless are treated like this. To arrest a homeless person for mere homelessness is to arrest Christ. People really need to read Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 6:18 over and over and over again before they go off on what a "Christian nation" we are.

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  2. I read this yesterday at the recommendation of a friend, and was horrified by all of it.

    I particularly can't wrap my head around the idea that anywhere on this earth, it's illegal to share food.

    Food. I mean, my God. Doesn't everyone get hungry?

    I spent the last academic year doing street ministry. I can tell you that precious little separates me from homelessness. It can be any of us. And I'm not to the point where I feel comfortable giving money when I'm asked for it. But food? I once gave a traveler an orange. He gave me an impossibly big smile.

    This is illegal?

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