The Criminalization of Homelessness

This column by Barbara Ehrenreich just killed me inside.

The current prohibition on homelessness began to take shape in the 1980s, along with the ferocious growth of the financial industry (Wall Street and all its tributaries throughout the nation). That was also the era in which we stopped being a nation that manufactured much beyond weightless, invisible "financial products," leaving the old industrial working class to carve out a livelihood at places like Walmart.

As it turned out, the captains of the new "casino economy"—the stock brokers and investment bankers—were highly sensitive, one might say finicky, individuals, easily offended by having to step over the homeless in the streets or bypass them in commuter train stations. In an economy where a centimillionaire could turn into a billionaire overnight, the poor and unwashed were a major buzzkill. Starting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York, city after city passed "broken windows" or "quality of life" ordinances making it dangerous for the homeless to loiter or, in some cases, even look "indigent," in public spaces.

No one has yet tallied all the suffering occasioned by this crackdown—the deaths from cold and exposure—but "Criminalizing Crisis" offers this story about a homeless pregnant woman in Columbia, South Carolina:

During daytime hours, when she could not be inside of a shelter, she attempted to spend time in a museum and was told to leave. She then attempted to sit on a bench outside the museum and was again told to relocate. In several other instances, still during her pregnancy, the woman was told that she could not sit in a local park during the day because she would be "squatting." In early 2011, about six months into her pregnancy, the homeless woman began to feel unwell, went to a hospital, and delivered a stillborn child.

Well before Tahrir Square was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and even before the recent recession, homeless Americans had begun to act in their own defense, creating organized encampments, usually tent cities, in vacant lots or wooded areas. These communities often feature various elementary forms of self-governance: food from local charities has to be distributed, latrines dug, rules—such as no drugs, weapons, or violence—enforced. With all due credit to the Egyptian democracy movement, the Spanish indignados, and rebels all over the world, tent cities are the domestic progenitors of the American occupation movement.

There is nothing "political" about these settlements of the homeless—no signs denouncing greed or visits from left-wing luminaries—but they have been treated with far less official forbearance than the occupation encampments of the "American autumn." LA’s Skid Row endures constant police harassment, for example, but when it rained, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had ponchos distributed to nearby Occupy LA.

All over the country, in the last few years, police have moved in on the tent cities of the homeless, one by one, from Seattle to Wooster, Ohio, Sacramento to Providence, in raids that often leave the former occupants without even their minimal possessions. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, last summer, a charity outreach worker explained the forcible dispersion of a local tent city by saying: "The city will not tolerate a tent city. That’s been made very clear to us. The camps have to be out of sight."

What occupiers from all walks of life are discovering, at least every time they contemplate taking a leak, is that to be homeless in America is to live like a fugitive. The destitute are our own native-born "illegals," facing prohibitions on the most basic activities of survival. They are not supposed to soil public space with their urine, their feces, or their exhausted bodies. Nor are they supposed to spoil the landscape with their unusual wardrobe choices or body odors. They are, in fact, supposed to die, and preferably to do so without leaving a corpse for the dwindling public sector to transport, process, and burn.

Here are my issues and some ideas of what we can do tackle them.

At work every place I can put a bed, I have put a bed.  When I started five years ago, there would be 20 guys in the shelter some nights, many in private rooms.  Now we have 70 in there.  Our lounge space is designed for maybe 15 people.  We open up our dining room in the evening for additional space.  We also have to shut down the dorms during the day so we can clean.  As tough as it is, we need to shut down to get the guys up in the morning and get working towards moving out of the shelter.  If we don’t have a shut down time, some of our clients would simply stay in bed when what they need to be doing is heading to Social Services, heading to day labour or looking for work (while day labour is hard, most find permanent jobs while working there) or out looking for an apartment.  You would be surprised at the amount of guys that just want society to take care of them for the rest of their life and they need to be motivated to move along. 

On top of that is that we have two janitors who are cleaning all of the time.  Beds need to changed, linen has to be washed, floors have to washed and a lot of garbage has to be dealt with and the line between personal belongings and garbage is a fine line.  There is hidden vodka to be found (and tossed) and drugs to be found and disposed of.  If we had adequate lounge space, this wouldn’t be a problem but it is.

We do make accommodations if the weather is bad… if it is too crappy for the staff to go for a walk, it’s too bad for our clients and during the cold, it’s announced the day before so there is no stress over us being closed.  The same thing if guys are sick.  The flu is a part of life and we don’t make guys get doctor’s notes but if a guy is sick for a couple of days, we send him to the doctor for his own sake if he is not making an improvement.

Washrooms are another issue.  We don’t have public washrooms except during meal times.  Over the years we have people shooting up in our washrooms, hiding knives, drinking alcohol, drinking hand sanitizer, and even having sex (don’t ask, it brings back a lot of trauma).  We could open it up more but then I need to hire more staff to clean it and sadly supervise it.  Some staff let people come in and use the chapel washroom but I can’t count how many needles we have pulled out of there.  There has been crap on the walls, doors, and roof during that time and it’s just vandalism but it’s a huge issue.  Our one washroom has a wall covering that you need a diamond drill to get through and that was because it was just destroyed and that was during meal times.  I have heard a plumber’s snake grind through the flushed needles and the clogs that come with it.  I understand why people don’t want to open their washrooms up to the public.  Yet at the same time where is the nearest public washroom?  Midtown Plaza?  Tim Horton’s?  We tend to open it if we know the person but then we have people yelling at us for favouritism. 

While I can’t change the architecture of where I work, I can change some of the policies and procedures to make things easier for those that are homeless.  Last month I met with CUMFI about the problem of those being outside in winter.  Here is what I am trying to do about it.

  • For those that are cold and outside and don’t want to come in for shelter services, we are opening our lounge and using it for an all night drop in spot for homeless men and women.  Yes there will be coffee (decaf), soup, sandwiches, and maybe some KD.  If we can move a person into a shelter bed, we will.  If not, we are cool to do it on their time.  I had a client live for a year in the parking lot of the Centre.  I used to bring him coffee in the morning.  Every day we would chat until he was read to move inside.  It eventually happened (and then we screwed up and he moved out but he came back a couple of days later) and he has been a big part of our community and life since then.
  • Staff will be expanding the hours of our clothes cave for winter gear.  They do this anyways but it sounds impressive when I write it down.  This way if someone needs winter clothes, they can get winter clothes.
  • Making it easier to get free meals and making it easier for select agencies to refer people for free meals.  For men and women on the street and are hungry, we will find a way to get some calories in them no matter what time of the day it is.
  • We are giving The Lighthouse some of our mats so they have extra capacity (that we will fill).  We have a great relationship with The Lighthouse and any way we can help them, we will.  We know that they will do (and have done) the same for us.
  • We are working with the Saskatoon Police on ways we can relieve some of the pressure on their drunk tank.  We can’t do a lot but hopefully we can work together at making sure those that are manageably drunk can have a place to sleep as Larson House often fills up at 2:00 p.m.  This isn’t a change as the Saskatoon Police Service has always done a good job in bringing in cold and almost frozen men and women for help but we are doing an education piece for them so they understand what we can do.  Police officers in the past have actually offered to pay for guys to stay with us which is nice but totally unnecessary.  It does speak to the degree that officers do care about homeless men and women in Saskatoon and we want to make sure that they know of all of the resources they have at their disposal.  One thing that I have learned is that the one bit of information that I need as a frontline worker may not always get to me and if an officer has that information and can give it to me which helps us make a better decision or a referral based on his/her knowledge of the client and resources, we all come out ahead.
  • Doing a survey of abandoned buildings.  This one could get me in trouble but when it is –40, men come to us who are on what is called Transitional Employment Allowance or TEA for short.  TEA is a government of Saskatchewan program that is designed to transition you from one job to another.  It works but it also means you don’t get emergency services so if you are homeless, Social Services won’t help you.  It’s messed up that way.  For years I could never figure it out why they only came in when it was extreme weather and then it clicked in, you can stay warm in an abandoned apartment building at –20 with blankets but not at –40.  We started to ask and that is exactly what it was.  I am not sure what I am going to do with this information since disclosing it could hurt guys even more but I hate the idea that because of a stupid Government of Saskatchewan policy, people can freeze to death.
  • Expanding our data collection on the causes and geography of homelessness.  In Saskatchewan, all anyone cares about is our bed count.   That’s all I get asked.  Vacancy rates which only tells a small part of the story and ignores the problems behind why they are using the shelter.  I don’t know how to tell that story… well I do but not well and that kind of irritates me.

I am not happy with the solutions but they make the best use of limited resources and hopefully it will make a difference to those on the streets at night.  We have a long way to go and if you want to help, send me an email.

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