2 Years in Jail for Sitting on a Milk Crate? The Shocking Ways America Punishes Poor People Living on the Street (Hard Times, USA)
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"If it's illegal to sleep, stand or sit, what you are saying is that you have no right to exist," Boden tells AlterNet. "It's so clear these benign activities are criminal offenses [only] for certain people. There's no way a tourist sitting on a suitcase is going to get busted [under sit-lie laws]. No way."
"These aren't laws intended to stop rape, murder, or mayhem. It's about creating a good shopping environment and getting rid of people who aren't buying anything," says Boden. While proponents of these measures say that they're intended to manage aggressive or dangerous behavior, advocates don't buy it as it's already illegal to threaten people. "Threatening behavior, like grabbing someone, is not life-sustaining activity. You don't have to be an asshole to survive. The stuff we do to keep ourselves healthy and alive when we're on the street; if you're in a park and you're not bothering anybody, so what?" Boden says.
Many cities that crack down on sleeping in public do not have enough shelter space to house people at night.
The result of criminalization, in a nutshell: a homeless person gets a fine they can't pay, or is picked up for sitting on the sidewalk more than once; they're taken to jail, they're released, they go back to the same spot, and the whole thing ends up costing far more than providing emergency shelter or permanent housing assistance. If it happens enough, they get a criminal record that disqualies them from the social programs that can help get them off the streets and makes it almost impossible to get a job.
Advocates point out that redirecting public money to social services for the street homeless and affordable housing has been shown to work better again and again: it's more cost-effective and humane than jailing people. This includes investment in outreach programs that can identify the needs of the unhoused; more emergency shelters with better resources -- so unhoused people feel safe spending the night in the shelter -- and routes to affordable, permanent housing. A 2004 survey of nine cities found that putting people in supportive housing costs half or a third as much as jailing them.
Seattle's Housing First program stands as a famous antithesis to criminalization. Unlike abstinence-based interventions, Housing First did not require a clean record or sobriety. In fact, residents were allowed to drink in their rooms. The idea was that first you provide people with the stability of supportive housing and then you deal with the rest. A study conducted a year after the program launched found that housing homeless alcoholics massively cut down the public costs associated with people living on the street. Between hospital emergency and jail visits, each had cost the city $4,066. Twelve months later, the costs for those who participated in the program fell to $2,449 per person (housing costs included).
Interestingly, participants also started drinking less. "Median number of drinks dropped steadily, from 15.7 per day prior to housing to 14.0, 12.5, and 10.6 per day at 6, 9, and 12 months in housing, respectively," write the study's authors. Far from encouraging moral torpor, as conservatives would have us believe, giving the needy what they need -- instead of punishing, incarcerating or hassling them in the hopes they'll go away -- not only saved money but encouraged healthier behavior.
Portland, Oregon, also pursued the Housing First approach. As part of its 10-year plan to combat homelessness, the city launched A Key Not A Card (KNAC) program, where outreach workers offer the homeless access to permanent housing rather than just their business cards. In 14 months they were able to get 224 people into housing. The organization Downtown Streets Team works with cities to get homeless people jobs in exchange for food, housing vouchers and services.