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2 Years in Jail for Sitting on a Milk Crate? The Shocking Ways America Punishes Poor People Living on the Street (Hard Times, USA)

Laws all over the country are designed solely to target the homeless. There are better solutions.

In 2008, Atlanta police orchestrated an unusual sting: officers shed their uniforms to go undercover as tourists and office workers, a stunt designed to entrap beggars in the city's tourist areas. Forty-four people were arrested for panhandling in one month. The best part about the sting, police officials said at the time, according to the  Atlanta Journal Constitution, was that while actual tourists rarely bothered to come back to testify about their terrible abuse at the hands of the city's beggars, the undercover cops would make for enthusiastic witnesses. At the time, Atlanta had banned panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM, bus stop, taxi stand, payphone, public toilet -- and anywhere after dark. 

Laws that restrict panhandling are designed to target poor people living on the street. Other examples of laws that apply almost exclusively to the unhoused include bans on sitting or lying down on the sidewalk, eating in public, setting up camp or sleeping in a park or other public places. Advocates say these laws are used as a tool to drive the homeless out of sight. 

Take the case of Gary Williams. Williams just spent 30 days in jail, because on two occasions a San Francisco police officer found him slumped over, asleep, on a milk crate. He did not have any camping gear with him -- not even a blanket -- yet he found himself charged with public nuisance, unauthorized lodging, and obstructing the sidewalk, his lawyer, Andrea Lindsay, tells AlterNet. The first two are misdemeanors, which carry up to a year of jail time each. On Monday, Williams pled guilty to one count of unauthorized lodging after the judge warned him that he could end up in jail for two years. The plea deal Williams opted for means he's banned from the two blocks where he used to reside and will be on probation for three years. 

"This is a dude who ended up in jail for the heinous crime of sitting," Paul Boden, organizing director for the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) tells AlterNet. "When poor people stand for their rights, they sit in jail." 

A 57-year-old man who lives on San Francisco's Market Street tells AlterNet that police routinely tell him he's violating the city's sit-lie ordinance. He reminds them that he is within the law because he is sitting on a chair, not the sidewalk. But that's as far as his protests go. He thinks if he were to lodge an official complaint against police harassment, he'd be more likely to be targeted in the future. 

In a 2009 report called,  "Homes Not Handcuffs," the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and Coalition for the Homeless detailed a number of measures that criminalize street poverty around the country. They found that 33 percent of the cities surveyed prohibited camping in certain public places; 47 percent restricted asking for money, and 30 percent had "sit-lie" laws on the books, a significant increase from 2006.

Here are some of the more imaginative examples from the report: Billings, Montana could fine a person $100 if they don't tell the truth about how they became homeless while panhandling. A city in Texas passed an ordinance requiring panhandlers to purchase a $115 license; the police chief said the fee was more than fair since he claimed to have seen a few local panhandlers living the high life at a Chili's restaurant. Many cities have outlawed asking for money anywhere near bus stops, payphones, exits to buildings, entrances to buildings, the street, the highway, and anywhere a tourist might go (a clear violation of the First Amendment, advocates argue, since panhandling is essentially talking in public).