Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Criminalizing Poverty: "We Get the Government We Deserve"

Two National Homeless advocacy groups singled out Los Angeles as the meanest city in the United States for the criminalization of poverty and homelessness. It's so called "Safer City Initiative" punishes people for having a roof over one's head. Instead of criminalizing torture or say widespread theft of the American pocketbook via banks, financial institutions and Congress, we punish poor people and the homeless, for what? Being poor. Welcome to disreality. To the right is tent city in Orlando.

Some of the other initiatives that serve the national interest are making it illegal to sleep or sit on a sidewalk, prohibitions against begging or god-forbid panhandling, selective enforcement of loitering and jay walking sought to put homeless behind bars making it more difficult to find a job once released. The Ten Meanest cities in order based on this study are: (some may surprise you)

1) Los Angeles
2) St. Petersburg, FL
3) Orlando, FL
4) Atlanta, Ga
5) Gainsville, FL.
6) Kalamazoo, MI
7) San Francisco
8) Honolulu
9) Bradenton, Fl
10) Berkeley

Four Florida cities, yikes. All warm climates outside of Kalamazoo. What's going on there? And cities that are perceived as "progressive" such as Berkeley and San Francisco that have some of the more draconian measures against homeless are on the list. When I visited San Francisco for the first time it shocked me how many homeless were on the streets and how mean the daily papers were about it. I guess progressive doesn't mean kindness to the poor anymore.

It always struck me as ridiculous that our policies regarding the homeless were so counterproductive. It hit me while living in Hartford, CT while I was working in a homeless shelter, a place I ate my meals five times a week with mostly homeless men, and women who usually had children in tow, many of which had a mental incapacity, that we make it illegal to beg for money or even a meal, yet it isn't illegal to be poor. In fact we like poor people, more to go around for the rich. Now, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in 70 years what is our solution for the poorest of the poor? Jail time. I am thinking this is where the heads of banks belong, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez for you know - stealing money from the public trust and fucking war crimes.

What singles the debate out the most for me is the provisions in the LA budget which is spending 6 million a year to pay for 50 extra police officers who patrol "Skid Row" while budgeting just 5.7 million for homelessness services.

L.A.'s motto might as well be: "Poverty is a crime and we seek to prosecute." Maybe California doesn't deserve a bail-out. Maybe we are all exactly where we should be, the country completely defunct and out of control, the oligarchs in control of the purse strings, and we are angry that a Puerto Rican Supreme Court nominee who climbed her way out of the Bronx to the Federal Bench said she thinks she might make a better decision than white men on a court of law because of her background. Is that really in debate anymore? As Professor Jenny Rivera, one of Sonia Sotomayor's many fedral law clerks used to say to us at CUNY: "Wake up people!"

It was remarked to me on the phone the other night, my mentor giving me advice on a job search: She said: "I am tired of always being disappointed in our leaders, we should all be in the streets, but in the end you know, we get the government we deserve." Tough to disagree with that.

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