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Sheriff Joe, Whatta Ya Know?

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 discussionon 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.”

Oh and I do know. I know that he’s wrong. I’ve been working on homeless issues for decades.  But to give the sheriff credit he did welcome the opportunity to learn more.  He said that if I connected him with local homeless providers he’s talk with them.  And, he took advantage of our time together to discuss the things that he’s most criticized for – mostly because I asked him how he’d like to be punished for being thought bad by other people.  I tried to make the connection that he punishes people based on an assumption of guilt, but he’s not punished the same way, he gets his day in court first.

He tossed the logic of my argument away, but he did stick up for those many things for which he feels he’s most unfairly criticized, “I took away their R-rated movies…  I took away their coffee…  I have some great religious programs, 500 volunteers… I started a high school in the jail… we have GED programs, Read To Me Mommy, Girl Scouts Behind Bars. I can go on and on.  But you don’t think any media will talk about that because they’re nice programs.” The sheriff thinks he’s picked on for ridiculous things, “So I did pink underwear, that’s been very famous.  Wanna know why I put them in pink?  Because they were stealing the white underwear.”

I didn’t ask him how poor a person would have to be to steal underwear.  Clearly the color of the underwear had become more of an issue than the need to steal it.  In fact, the sheriff said, “It’s a soothing color.”  When I questioned pink being soothing he responded, “Yeah, of course.  And yeah, cancer… everyone’s using pink.”

Underscoring his lack of convention the sheriff brought up, “I do understand I have the only female chain gang in the history of the world.”  I quipped, “And the only child chain gang too though right?”  And this was the saddest answer of all. “Well yeah. I thought I’d take a lot of heat, nobody seemed to care.”  It’s sad not for what it says about the sheriff, but for what it says about the rest of us. 


The HEAR US Inc.-sponsored EPIC Journey will stop in Austin, TX on Monday, 2/18 (event open to the public, free, 9:30-10:45 a.m., University of TX, Utopia Theater, and Tuesday, 2/19 (UT classes), The 5,000-mile tour concludes in Charleston, SC, College of Charleston, 6 p.m. (event open to the public, free, in room 129 of the School of Sciences and Mathematics Building, corner of Calhoun and Coming Streets).