The Criminalization of Black Homelessness
In communities all over the country, police are strongly incentivized — by federal grant conditions and local budgetary constraints alike — to make arrests and issue fines as frequently as possible. The federal programs that distribute funding to states and cities often emphasize quantifiable results over meaningful engagement with those individuals and communities involved with the effect of law enforcement agencies attempting to maximize their arrests. This makes the federal government at best complicit in, and at worst, directly responsible for promoting mass incarceration.
In recent years, the need for sufficient funding to support criminal justice systems across the country has only intensified, leading many states to push operating costs onto citizens. These demands often result in the deployment of law enforcement officials into predominantly African American neighborhoods, meaning black people are disproportionately exposed to encounters with police.
One cost of that is fiscal: Nationally, there has been a distinct increase in the number and cost of fines and fees associated with interactions with the criminal justice system. These fines hit the poor especially hard, particularly when their inability to pay leads to warrants for their arrest. Nowhere is more indicative of this phenomenon than Ferguson, Missouri, which came to rely on the imposition of criminal justice debt on its majority African American population for a significant portion of its budget. As if this were not problematic enough, Ferguson courts released more arrests warrants than there were people in 2013.
But another cost is social: The heavy-handedness of the criminal justice system has had the effect of criminalizing African American life, especially for those African Americans who happen to be poor and struggling to make ends meet — in short, people like Alton Sterling, an African American man murdered by the police in Baton Rouge last summer. Sterling, who lacked a permanent home and was selling CDs to make ends meet, was all too familiar with these costs as a poor African American man in Louisiana, a state infamous for its punitive criminal justice system. He had a 46-page arrest record filled with charges ranging from failure to wear a seat belt to burglary. The charges came with large fines and court-ordered expenses, like a mandate to pay $200 for an educational assessment. Undoubtedly, this barrage of criminal justice debt played a role in pushing Sterling into the unsustainable employment and housing insecurity that characterized his life before it was cut short.
Together, these factors brought Sterling to the convenience store where his fatal encounter with law enforcement occurred. His extrajudicial murder, job insecurity and homelessness shed light on the many ways the predatory criminal justice system has been oppressing financially vulnerable African Americans in the century and a half since the legal demise of slavery. It’s a story almost as old as America itself.
Post-Reconstruction Crime: Being Poor and African American
Following the Civil War, emancipation opened a new world of possibilities to formerly enslaved African Americans, finally providing them with a chance to realize the social and political benefits of freedom. Opportunities for economic advancement, however, proved almost nonexistent.
Overestimating the strength of their new constitutional rights and underestimating the anger of Southern whites, freed African Americans found themselves once against at the mercy of white planter elites who had a vested interest in African Americans remaining impoverished. Federal programs like the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 were passed to democratize land ownership, but land remained out of reach for the vast majority of African Americans who were too poor to purchase it. Even the land promised to freed slaves by William T. Sherman’s legendary “Forty Acres and a Mule” ordinance quickly made its way back into the hands of white Southern elites.
Deprived of the opportunity to acquire land, the main source of wealth in the agrarian South, African Americans turned — or rather were pushed — back into forms of agricultural and domestic work that more closely resembled slavery than waged labor. This economic subjugation allowed white Southerners and the white supremacist state to reassert their control over life in the South.
It was against this backdrop that a young African American man named Green Cottenham was traveling around Columbiana, Alabama in 1908. Cottenham, passing time at a local train station, was arrested and convicted within 24 hours of vagrancy, a crime under a series of new laws that swept across the South immediately in the wake of Reconstruction.
Cottenham was saddled with a heap of criminal justice debt he could not pay. Despite having been born decades after emancipation, he was essentially sold into slavery, albeit in a new form, and forced to work for the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company to pay his debts. Cottenham spent his days unearthing multiple tons of coal in the Pratt Mines in Birmingham, Alabama, compelled by the constant threat of whipping and other forms of physical abuse. As if a sham of a trial, torturous conditions and backbreaking labor were not enough to underscore his descent into slavery, Cottenham was required to labor in chains.
Signs of death, from the disease-ridden bodies to the freshly dug graves, almost outnumbered those of life. There is no record of Cottenham ever leaving the mines alive — and all for the crime of simply existing in a public space.
Cottenham was neither the first nor the last African American to be caught in the inescapable net cast by these laws, which turned walking, standing, and even talking into criminal offenses. His arrest marked the first step in a multifaceted system of de jure racial control that came to characterize — or more appropriately, criminalize — African American life in the years following Reconstruction. Arrest records from these years bear witness to the incarceration of thousands of African Americans not for violent crimes, but for things like talking too loudly around white women.
The effectiveness of these laws in constraining African American life both literally and figuratively was palpable: Only about 10 percent of those arrested during this period throughout the South were white.
A Legacy of Enduring Poverty
These laws soon gave way to Jim Crow, the underlying principle of which became officially baked into law with the 1897 Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson. The entrenchment of the “separate but equal” ideology encouraged the rise of a number of state-sanctioned policies designed to restrict African American economic mobility, including redlining, employment discrimination, and disenfranchisement in the form of literacy tests and poll taxes.
Although most of the more overt legislative efforts to block African American advancement have since been dismantled, their legacy is unmistakable. In 2014, the national poverty rate for African Americans was 26.2 percent, compared to 10.1 percent for whites. And median white wealth was some 13 times greater than median African American wealth.
All the while, state and local governments all over the United States have continued to enact laws that attack the most vulnerable within the African American community: the homeless.
As they are overrepresented among the poor, African Americans are similarly overrepresented among the homeless. In 2010, one in 141 African American families took refuge in a homeless shelter, a trend reflected in cities throughout the nation.
The structural economic racism that produced these disparities is bad enough. But while the system creates poverty with one hand, it violently punishes it with the other.
Homeless and Harassed
Despite his homelessness, Alton Sterling was somewhat luckier than most. Months before his death, Sterling had secured transitional housing with the Living Waters Outreach Ministry Drop-In Center. Jerome Murdough was not so lucky.
In February of 2014, Murdough sought to escape the bitter New York City winter, ultimately taking refuge in an insulated stairwell of a public housing project. He was then arrested for trespassing and left with a $2,500 bail. Despite the precariousness of his physical and mental state, Murdough was taken to the notorious Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
Locked in a cell with a broken cooling system that allowed the room to overheat to almost 100 degrees, Murdough, in the words of an official, “basically baked to death" — a hideous and ironic death. All for the crime of seeking refuge.
Murdough was just one victim of a series of state laws that have emerged in recent years to punish homeless men and women for simply trying to survive. Like those enacted in the aftermath of Reconstruction, these laws criminalize basic human activities, prohibiting sleeping, camping, sitting, lying down, and vagrancy in public spaces. These laws exacerbate the poverty of an already economically vulnerable subset of the African American population.
The prevalence of these laws seems to be increasing. Reporting on the state of homelessness in 187 of America’s cities in 2014, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty observed a 60 percent increase in city-wide bans on public camping, a 43 percent increase in city-wide bans on sitting and lying down in public, and a 35 percent increase in city-wide bans on loitering, loafing, and vagrancy in public spaces since 2011.
Having been pushed on to the streets, the homeless are pushed into increased contact with the justice system. Of the homeless polled by the Western Regional Advocacy Project, 78 percent said that they had seen law enforcement harass homeless individuals for loitering, and 26 percent said that they had seen law enforcement arrest the homeless for the same. Similarly, 66 percent and 25 percent said they had seen homeless individuals get harassed and arrested, respectively, for sitting or lying down in public.
Lonnie, a homeless resident of Washington, DC, best articulated the struggle that homeless African American men and women face on a daily basis thanks to laws that criminalize homelessness.
“If I do anything, just walk down the street, they will put me in jail — even if we don’t do anything wrong.”
This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality.