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Sheriff Joe, Whatta Ya Know?

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In the past month, I've been sharing stories about family and youth homelessness from the road as I've traveled with my friend and colleague Pat LaMarche on our EPIC Journey. Our "Babes of Wrath" designation, a tribute to John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, is sort of a tongue-in-cheek reference to our feelings about this nation's neglect of impoverished families and youth. Pat recently interviewed Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, AZ. I went along as photographer. Here is our joint submission--Pat's story, my photos

sheriff joe arpaio

Winding through the desert south west on what Diane Nilan and I have called our “Babes of Wrath” tour, we took a similar route to the one Steinbeck’s fictitious Joads traveled during the Great Depression.  We’ve encountered homeless veterans, kids in jail, the famous & infamous of skid row, and homeless families not officially counted because they can afford a hotel room but not a permanent home. 

For our return trip we’ve turned southeast.   We’ve passed through a number of anti-fence jumping immigration check points.  And because immigrants – documented or not – represent so many of the poor in this county we decided to drop into the office of “America’s Sheriff,” Joe Arpaio.  Much like America’s cheeseburger – the Big Mac – he is much loved or much hated depending who’s doing the tasting. 

We settled down in his office – a 19th floor shrine to both the beauty of the Phoenix landscape and to the iconic sheriff himself.  The only thing more remarkable then the view outside the windows was the artifact collection inside them.

Nothing was off the table and I was allowed to ask whatever I wanted.  I explained that I had come to discuss poverty and how it might affect the workings of his jail.   

The sheriff asserted that the poor can’t afford the extravagance of a good defense, “As far as the criminal justice system, sometimes if you have a lot of money you can get good lawyers that sometimes the poorer people don’t have – you know – the luxury.”  Although he did concede that “many of them are poor that come into the jail.” He didn’t speculate how many fewer poor people would be in jail if they could afford a good defense.

I asked him about the homeless and he spoke of drug addicts and prostitutes.  I told him that many of the homeless were children.  He thought that was sad.  He speculated that homeless shelters had kids in them because their parents had split up.  And he launched into a hearty defense of the women who raise children alone.  You can read the transcript of our discussion on our Facebook page. 

He also believed that the homeless that weren’t drug addicts, alcoholics or mentally impaired should get jobs, “I still feel the greatest country in the world, that you can do or be anything you want and if you have the drive, I think you can find a job. I really do.  It may be washing cars or picking lettuce.  We don’t need to import illegals to pick lettuce.  Instead of hanging around on streets and just begging with a cup, that person can find a job.”

Ah, and there it was, the “illegals.”  But before we chatted about them, I wanted to make the point that the homeless often already have jobs.  It was a point that he never quite got – either disbelieving or choosing not to believe – he still insisted that homeless people with jobs had to be drug addicts too.  The sheriff countered, “If you’re high on drugs, even if you did work, you’re gonna shoot up your rent and your food.  So I think it’s a bigger picture than just finding a job. I think it has to be a mental problem.  You have to have alcoholic sometimes involved. Drugs is definitely involved. So you got to straighten out some of these problems too.  You know.”