It's No Crime to Be Poor; Let's Keep It That Way

There are plenty of reasons why a homeless person might actually prefer not to go to a shelter--contagious diseases, tainted food, sex offenders, abusive practices by shelter staff, and better alternatives, like sleeping in one's own car.  Despite all these, shelters remain continuously full, and people are turned away every night of the year.  That's because there are so many homeless--more than 12,000 in Denver alone.

Homelessness is one of the few "growth trends" in our present economy.  And it is, indeed, a purely economic phenomenon.  Nobody chooses to be homeless.  Kerouac was talking about low-budget tourism--a very different thing.  This is not tourism, not a vacation, not camping.  Let's be clear about that.

The three leading causes of homelessness are job loss, the high cost of housing, and break-up of a family.  Mental illness and substance abuse do not cause homelessness.  There are plenty of people who have these problems and yet have a roof over their heads.  They have housing for the same reason you do.  Either they have the money to pay for it, or someone who has the money is willing to provide a home for them.  Those are the only reasons why anyone has a home.

Almost half of homeless people have jobs.  But jobs aren't what they used to be.  Jobs used to be full-time, permanent, with the expectation that the worker will probably have to support a family.  Today, few jobs fit that description, and lots of hard-working people can't afford a roof over their heads.  The business community, especially that element that complains so much about the homeless, should do something about that.  If they can't create more good--really good--jobs, they should consider the possibility that our economy might truly be a lot worse off than any of us would like to think.  They should consider that almost anyone in our society is now at some risk for eventual homelessness.  It's not a pretty picture.  And it won't get better if we ignore reality.

Homelessness has been around for as far back as historical memory reaches.  It has increased during times of economic upheaval and subsided when economies were good.  There was one period in which homelessness almost disappeared in the U.S., starting with Lend-Lease, in the late 1930's and lasting till the early 1970's.  Those of us who grew up during that period never even heard the word "homelessness," as an abundance of high-quality jobs, low-cost housing, and a social safety net for the non-working poor made it possible for virtually everyone to have a place to live.  Those days, and the the good jobs, cheap housing, and welfare institutions that made them, are gone.  So homelessness is back.  But at least we know the cure for it.  A fully housed population was one of the great accomplishments of 20th Century America, though one rarely hears or reads any mention of it.

As for dealing with homelessness today, it shouldn't be so hard to figure out what homeless people need.  All we have to do is parse the word:  home / less.  Not having a home.  That's the problem, and it goes away, as soon as we get a place to live.  I got one, just a year and a half ago, and I am now indistinguishable from people who have lived all their lives indoors, except for the big, orange button I wear.

It took a long time for Denver to get on the right track--the Housing First track.  So we are a bit behind.  That will change, if we give it a chance.  Our neighbors in Utah have been using Housing First for about six years.  Their rate of homelessness has been dropping every year, contrary to the national (and global) trend.  They are also finding it a lot cheaper to put people into housing than to leave them outside.  Utah saves about $8,000 per person per year, this way.  For Denver, the savings will be around $14,000 per person per year.  And there are ways we can speed up the process, along with the savings.

Municipal and county housing authorities should be required to prioritize housing homeless people.  It might surprise the reader to know that most housing programs cater to people who can readily afford housing in the private market.  The public housing project where I now live accepts single individuals with incomes up to $52,000 per year.  And there are barriers in place that make it unnecessarily difficult for poor and homeless people to compete with more affluent housing applicants.  We need to change that.

So how did I get in here?  It was plain, dumb luck.  I won a lottery, and, fortunately, it was the right lottery.  Of the fourteen housing lotteries and wait-lists I applied for, only two recognize homelessness as a reason why someone might need a place to live.  Apparently, you don't have to take an IQ test, to get a job making housing policy--at least not in twelve jurisdictions that I know of.

Going to the required meeting at the housing authority got me in trouble at the shelter where I was staying.  Although I had my supervisor's permission to go, another supervisor overrode him and tried to assign me extra work as punishment.  I didn't do the extra work.  I was being kicked out of the shelter in a few days anyway, for paying my bills, so I just put off the punishment assignment till I was out.  Yes, you can get kicked out of a shelter for paying your bills.  They don't care what kind of bills you have, either.  But that's all behind me now.  I have my own apartment, where my life and my pension check are not ruled by a bunch of bullies.  It's nice to have a home, be it ever so humble.  I don't think I would have survived another winter without one.

So let's talk about this Final Solution the Denver City Council is about to vote on.  It's being touted as a night-time extension of the lightly enforced sit-and-lie ordinance, with a built-in procedure to try to get us some "help."  That's all baloney.

If I am sitting down, and a cop tells me to get up and get moving, it's a pretty simple matter.  Because I am awake, and because after sitting a while I am probably rested somewhat, it is easy for me to get going.  That makes it easy for the cop, too, who will also be moving along.  And in case he doesn't, there are lots of witnesses, in part because I chose to sit in a place where there would be witnesses.  Police behavior is moderated by the presence of those witnesses, if by nothing else.

Waking a sleeping person is quite different.  It can take a few minutes for a person to be fully awake, especially if they take sleeping medication or are in REM-sleep.  It is hard for the police officer to know just how long it should take and whether the person is non-compliant or merely a deep sleeper.  Then there is the time--again uncertain--that it takes to be stable on one's feet, put on shoes, and roll up a sleeping bag.  This is not a quick and easy transaction for either party.  Next, the cop is supposed to make a call, to find out if help is available.  We already know what the answer will be.  The shelters and warming centers are full--always full to capacity.  That is, after all, one of the main reasons why people sleep outside.  Some cops will resent having to waste their time on this ridiculous ritual.  One can hardly blame them for that.  But the problem is--who will they blame?  The Council members who voted for the ordinance?  More likely, they will blame the sleeper.  Denver Police have a troublesome record when it comes to controlling their anger.  If the ordinance passes, one likely result will be that someone will get killed.  It has happened elsewhere.

Aside from the increased possibility of violence, the ordinance will arbitrarily define law-abiding citizens as criminals.  It's not just a ticket.  It's a fine we can't afford to pay.  Then more tickets, night after night, and more fines we can't pay.  Soon, the unpaid fines will bring arrest warrants, and we will end up in jail, just because we can't pay those fines.  The ordinance will give us a criminal record that will bar us completely from access to most jobs, most housing, and many social services.  You won't solve the problem of homelessness by making it even more difficult for us to get housing.  This is a no-brainer.

All the proposed ordinance amounts to is an attack on an already beleaguered population.  I'm sure all the Council members sleep every night, in comfortable beds, in nice warm houses, without being roughly awakened, ordered to pack up and start walking; without being arrested, or worse.  To begrudge somebody the meager rest that one can get on a sidewalk or a bench, or in a car, is downright vicious.

Homeless people did not destroy the economy.  We are not the reason business is bad.  Those tourists who complain about us will find large, highly visible, homeless populations in every city they visit.  And the reason there are so few people buying entertainment and other non-essential services and goods is that fewer people have money to throw around anymore.  Those who are still doing well are trying to save what they can, in case they or someone in their family is next--next to become one of us.

People choose the Mall as a sleeping place, because it rates high on our safety index.  It has lighting, foot traffic, and regular police patrols.  When you don't have four walls and a locked door, that's your best bet for safety.  And we need it.

The Justice Department refuses to recognize bias-motivated crimes against the homeless as hate crimes.  The fact is, however, more of these crimes are directed against us than against all the officially recognized categories put together.  More than twice as many, in the case of murders.  And, take note here--there is a documented relationship between the passage of laws that criminalize homelessness and increased crimes against us.  Seen in this light, passing such a law becomes another kind of unofficial hate crime.

I wonder how many City Council members know that and have thought about it.  Do they really want to be responsible for what may well be legislative murder?  I doubt it.  And it doesn't have to be that way.  The official vote is yet to come.  There is still time for the Council members to change their minds on this.