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

News & Politics

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).

"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. 

Selective Enforcement of the Law

While laws like sit-lie are passed to arm police with the ability to go after the homeless (and no one can really pretend otherwise, even though in theory the laws apply to everyone) other, more neutral laws like loitering or jaywalking are often exploited to harass the poor. 

"Let's say there's no sleeping in a public park," Jeremy Rosen, policy director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, tells AlterNet. "A homeless person taking a nap in the park will be hassled. A businessman man who falls asleep on a park bench would not be."

Other examples of laws that are more likely to be used against the homeless include holding open containers, loitering or the ban on public urination. Advocates say these laws doubly discriminate. First, because they criminalize activities, like sleeping or peeing, that humans need to do to survive, but that the homeless can't do at a home they don't have. At the same time they're often used as a pretext to bust and drive poor and homeless people out of certain spaces -- crackdowns that generally coincide with building developers' heightened interest in a low-income area or big city events. 

In 2006, Los Angeles launched the Safer Cities Initiative, an effort to clean up Skid Row, home to the bulk of LA's homeless population. The effort was spearheaded by William Bratton, a devotee of the "broken windows theory," which posits that if cities aggressively police low-level, so-called "quality of life" crimes like public urination or loitering, violent crime will decrease and neighborhoods will be reborn. (George Kelling, who helped develop the broken-windows theory consulted on Safer Cities. Although SCI officially started in 2006, similar strategies had been outlined in an earlier LAPD memo titled, "Homeless Reduction Strategies.")

Fifty police officers were dropped on Skid Row, the equivalent of sending 1,700 extra officers into the much bigger district of Van Nuys, Calif. according to a UCLA report about the program. Officers started handing out citations and arresting people for such pernicious activities as jaywalking and public urination. The UCLA study, conducted a year after the start of the program, found that the majority of the LAPD's 12,000 citations were primarily handed out to people who walked across the street when a Don't Walk sign was on. The study's authors estimated that proportionally, this was between 48 and 69 times more than the jaywalking citations issued citywide. The citations often led to arrest warrants. In the first year of the program, of 1,346 arrests, only 22 were for violent crimes like aggravated assault or robbery. 

Historically, Skid Row has posed a challenge for lawmakers. Homeless encampments can create health and sanitation problems, and the area has a high crime rate. But the Safer Cities Initiative helps show the problems with a law enforcement approach over social policy fixes. The program was initially supposed to combine policing with programs aiding Skid Row residents, but those didn't really materialize. As far as efficacy, studies found that although the rate of violent crime fell in Skid Row, serious crime had diminished city-wide at the same time.

The UCLA study pointed out that the 50-person police force cost around $6 million one year, while that same year the city allocated only $5.7 million for shelters and services for the whole city (at the time of the program Skid Row had far fewer shelter beds than it did homeless people). There were loads of unintended consequences: for example, police started more aggressively busting people for drug use in "buy/bust" stings, collaring users for selling and sending addicts to prison. Addicts, including those with serious mental problems, were no longer eligible for drug treatment over prison if convicted of selling even small quantities, according to the report. Once they'd left prison, they were ineligible for federal housing programs and even food stamps. 

Balancing the needs of cities and development with humane treatment of the poor is not easy, but one promising development is the emergence of Homeless Bills of Rights, which advocates say they want to turn into a nationwide movement. In 2012 Rhode Island passed the first Homeless Bill of Rights, which says an unhoused inpidual, “Has the right to use and move freely in public spaces, including, but not limited to, public sidewalks, public parks, public transportation and public buildings, in the same manner as any other person, and without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status,” and “Has the right to equal treatment by all state and municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing status.” 

Homeless Bill of Rights was recently introduced by Rep. Tom Ammiano in California. In its current form, the bill bars discrimination based on housing status, codifiying the rights of homeless people to engage in "life-sustaining" activities on the street. The thinking behind it is that it's inhumane to arrest someone for sleeping in public, if the city does not provide them with a place to sleep, or for public urination, if the city does not provide public bathrooms. It states the homeless can sleep in legally parked cars and have access to public spaces without police harassment. 

"Right now, there's nothing on the books at the state or federal level to inhibit a local governments' ability to pass laws that discriminate against the homeless, or enforce laws meant to remove people from communities," says Boden, who helped co-write the bill."It's the neoliberal approach to poverty in this country," he says. "Limited charity, a good tax write-off, to those we deem worthy. And we get rid of the rest." 

Protecting the rights of the homeless should be everyone's concern, says Boden. "Today it's homeless people they're going after, but that's not the point. That's today's target. We know from looking at our history that there's always someone who comes next."

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