If you are homeless and you live in an urban area in the United States, you are a criminal. It doesn’t matter whether you have ever stolen anything, whether you have hurt or threatened anyone, whether you have vandalized anything or not, you are a criminal. Because simply living in any city without a roof over your head makes you a criminal. By living, you are against the law.
The reason for this is a policy that has been adopted by almost every city in the United States– an anti-camping ordinance. This is a policy designed to keep people from camping within an urban area. (Here is a sample of one from Portland, Oregon) However, in practice, it is simply a way for a city to tell their police to harass their homeless as they determine it is necessary. Such an ordinance is not enforced on children who sleep in their backyard, although they are technically in violation of it. Nor was it enforced against many of the Occupy groups that sprouted around the nation, until they were determined to be a nuisance. But it is enforced against the homeless whenever it is necessary.
To break such an ordinance is to be a criminal. Thus, to participate in sleep– a necessary human activity– within an urban area, without a roof, is criminal. To fall asleep on a bench while looking homeless is enough to be treated as a criminal by any officer who determines that it is his duty to do so. Many officers do not. Many treat the homeless with respect. But enough do not, and actually use the ordinance as an opportunity to let the homeless know they are not wanted.
And this is because the homeless are criminals. If they are breaking the law, they deserve to be treated as law-breakers. Not only so, but any implements that they use in breaking the law are no longer theirs, but can be confiscated immediately by police officers. This means any sleeping bags, tents, blankets, tarps– often generously given by hard working non-criminal types– can be taken from these individuals, ripped up and thrown away.
It is also assumed by many (especially some of the police) that if a person is breaking one law, then they are breaking others. Many homeless are accused of stealing, selling drugs, violence, without sufficient evidence. Some have been arrested and even sent to prison for criminal acts that there was not sufficient evidence to convict them of.
Many of the homeless then do participate in criminal activity– after the accusations and harassment, not before. After all, why not? If a person is treated like a criminal, then they have gained some credit that they could use up. They don’t want to actually harm anyone. But since they are being punished and harassed and even arrested as criminals, if there are some large corporations they can gain benefit or survival from, then why not?
And then we do have a criminal element. Not because the homeless are naturally criminals, but because they are assumed to be criminals.
All the more reason why Marlin Anderson, Mary Bailey, Jack Golden and Matthew Chase are so bold and important. They are challenging Portland’s anti-camping ordinance in federal court. It has moved to be settled, but part of that settlement is the changing of the anti-camping ordinance of Portland. Such changes will not be known until the end of February, but we assume the change will reduce the prejudice and irrational harassment against homeless families, women, men and teens.
I applaud you and thank you for your diligence. Don’t give up on the rest of us.
“In the absence of proper shelter, it is the right of any individual to construct one”- Homeless man in Nicklesville, Seattle