Hungry Homeless Man Ticketed for Digging Through Trash

A man in Houston ran afoul of a law making it illegal to dig through trash. Seriously.

The city of Houston, Texas is officially more concerned about the safety and dignity of its trash than the city's homeless. The Houston Chronicle reports: 

James Kelly was hungry and looking for something to eat. He tried to find it in a trash bin near Houston City Hall.

For that, the man, who said he spent about nine years in the Navy but fell on hard times, was ticketed by a Houston police officer.

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According to his copy of the citation, Kelly, 44, was charged on Thursday with "disturbing the contents of a garbage can in (the) downtown business district."

"I was just basically looking for something to eat," Kelly said Monday night. "I wasn't in a real good mood."

The Chronicle traced the law back to 1942, when it was delightfully titled "molesting garbage containers." A 1988 rewrite expanded legal protection from molestation to recyclables, and over the last 2 decades it's become increasingly restrictive as municipalities have become more and more committed to purging the homeless from city centers. 

How come Kelly had to dig through the trash for food? Aren't there groups that feed the needy? Maybe he just likes trash food so much he was willing to break the law to get some? Actually, if there were charitable organizations feeding the homeless that night, they would have been harder to find than a year ago; in 2012 the City Council instituted a feeding ban that forces groups to get permission from the city before they can give food in public. The fine for lawbreakers is $500. 

The two laws exemplify the increasing criminalization of homelessess, which AlterNet has written about here. Here's how it works: instead of spending money on social programs, cities spend way more money harrassing, fining, and jailing the homeless, in the hope that they'll magically disappear. Cities continue to do this, despite the fact that investing in social programs ends up being cheaper AND more effective in the long run. According to this 2004 survey, putting people in supportive housing can cost about a third as much as putting them in jail. Unfortuately, many of these programs are at a disadvantage because they conflict with the conservative narrative that everything is the fault of parasitic poor people. 

Tana Ganeva is a reporter covering criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. Follow her on Twitter @TanaGaneva.