Friday, August 14, 2009

The Barbara Ehrenreich explosion

We usually skip by opinion pieces, unless it's a slow news day. August 8th was a busy news day, it was also the day that Barbara Ehrenreich had her latest op-ed published by the New York Times. Since it's release it has set off a flurry of comment, blog posts, and debates.

Ehrenreich cites a recent study that was conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which ranks the meanest towns to the homeless. The city is deemed "mean" if it's laws treat the homeless unfairly, such as prohibiting overnight sleeping or begging. Some cities are even going further by outlawing giving food to the homeless. You may remember our post about the survey from July.

A national law advocacy group has put a mid-sized Michigan city into the list of the meanest cities for homeless people. The study ranks the top ten cities that are unfriendly to the homeless, Kalamazoo, Michigan joins Los Angeles, Orlando, Atlanta and others.

The law center that complied the reports says some loitering laws Kalamazoo have are anti-homeless. From this story in the Kalamazoo Gazette, reporter Kathy Jessup explains.

The report, issued by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, put Kalamazoo in the top 10 alongside larger cities such as San Francisco, Atlanta and Orlando, Fla. Los Angeles was No. 1 in the ranking.

The groups said the rankings are based on factors that include "the number of anti-homeless laws in the city, the enforcement of those laws, the general political climate toward homeless people in the city and the city's history of criminalization measures."

According to the report, Kalamazoo's designation is based largely on a 2007 controversy over a city ordinance prohibiting overnight sleeping in public parks and on rules passed in 2008 for downtown's Kalamazoo Transportation Center that addressed loitering, panhandling and illegal substances.

The report says information on Kalamazoo's ordinances and arrests was provided by Michigan People's Action, formerly known as the Kalamazoo Homeless Action Network.

KHAN has been a longtime advocate for local homeless people and an outspoken critic of Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety enforcement practices. The network participated in 2007 talks that shaped the city's park-use, panhandling and loitering ordinances.
The report says dozens of homeless people were arrested in Kalamazoo in 2007 and 2008 for alleged violations in parks and at the transportation center.

Michael Evans, who was the lead organizer of KHAN and one of the people arrested, said most of the charges were eventually dropped after the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty provided legal assistance.

After citing the study Ehrenreich moves on to some interviews she did with homeless people and asked them about their treatment by the law. For our snippet, we jump to Ehrenreich's conclusions, which have helped to fire up the discussion. We hope that it begins turning people to this question; Which is ultimately cheaper for society, prosecuting the poor, or helping them out of poverty?

Some of the community organizers I’ve talked to around the country think they know why “zero tolerance” policing has ratcheted up since the recession began. Leonardo Vilchis of the Union de Vecinos, a community organization in Los Angeles, suspects that “poor people have become a source of revenue” for recession-starved cities, and that the police can always find a violation leading to a fine. If so, this is a singularly demented fund-raising strategy. At a Congressional hearing in June, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified about the pervasive “overcriminalization of crimes that are not a risk to public safety,” like sleeping in a cardboard box or jumping turnstiles, which leads to expensively clogged courts and prisons.

A Pew Center study released in March found states spending a record $51.7 billion on corrections, an amount that the center judged, with an excess of moderation, to be “too much.”

But will it be enough — the collision of rising prison populations that we can’t afford and the criminalization of poverty — to force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment? With the number of people in poverty increasing (some estimates suggest it’s up to 45 million to 50 million, from 37 million in 2007) several states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty — for example, by sending drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, shortening probation and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missed court appointments. But others are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes” but also charging prisoners for their room and board — assuring that they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them.


Peter said...

Hi Kale,

related to aidnews, you might also be interested in including these into your blogroll:

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Peter said...

oh.. and forgot: ;-))


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the book barbara it helped the Kalamazoo group tremendously..since it was the library choice for the community in was our chance to start a discussion on true poverty in our community.

LoriAnne Tennison Founder of Kalamazoo Homeless Action Network
and human rights fighter