Homeless for the Holidays

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“With the economy down, homelessness is up. In a recent article titled ‘Homelessness Rising as Economy Slides,’ Reuters reported that a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed that 19 of 25 cities saw an increase in homelessness in the past year, and on average the cities surveyed saw a 12% rise in homelessness….”

Author: Randall Amster, Peace Studies professor at Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona, and ED of Peace and Justice Studies Association
Published in: Huntington News Network (home page: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/), Havre Daily News in Havre, Montana, and The Times in Ottawa, Illinois
Date: December 22, 23 and 30, 2008

For the full article:
Homeless for the Holidays
(750 words)
by Randall Amster

With the economy down, homelessness is up. In a recent article titled “Homelessness Rising as Economy Slides,” Reuters reported that a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed that 19 of 25 cities saw an increase in homelessness in the past year, and on average the cities surveyed saw a 12% rise in homelessness. “Homeless advocates say families are flooding homeless shelters across the United States in numbers not seen for years, camping out in motels or staying with friends and relatives following foreclosures on tens of thousands of homes during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” the article observed, and “demand for emergency food assistance rose in 20 of the 25 cities surveyed.”

The U.S. is unfortunately catching up to the rest of the world. A 2005 U.N. Special Report found that approximately 1.6 billion people were “inadequately housed,” including at least 100 million who were “completely homeless.” The report cited contributing factors to this crisis including lack of affordable housing, gentrification and privatization, and a growing inequality of wealth referred to as an “urban apartheid” taking place around the globe. The report also noted a growing tendency to criminalize the homeless rather than expend resources to help address the roots of the problem.

In Flagstaff, Arizona, anyone sleeping in a car or camping in public within city limits is subject to penalties of up to $2500 in fines and six months in jail. Since the law passed in 2005, police have responded to over 200 incidents and made nearly 50 arrests. Now, with homeless shelters there beyond capacity, one councilmember has asked the city to consider easing the prohibition on people sleeping on public property and reducing the amount of jail time for violating the ordinance.

This is a positive step but it doesn’t go far enough. Laws that criminalize essential and innocent behavior such as sleeping should be rescinded altogether. A major premise of “criminal justice” is that problematic behaviors can be deterred through the imposition of punishments, and yet no one can be dissuaded from sleeping no matter the penalty. Cities adopt punitive measures toward homeless people and spend far less time and money on potential solutions like living wages and affordable housing.

The National Coalition for the Homeless issues reports on the criminalization of homelessness, noting that in 2008 “the housing and homelessness crisis in the United States has worsened, with many cities reporting an increase in demands for emergency shelter,” and that of 224 cities surveyed, 28% prohibit “camping,” 27% prohibit sitting/lying in public places, 39% prohibit public loitering, and 43% prohibit begging in public places. Another pattern noted is an increased effort to target homeless people indirectly “by placing restrictions on providers serving food to poor and homeless persons in public spaces.” Recent years have seen an upsurge in these trends.

Today we’re faced with a significant crisis in which multitudes are in a very vulnerable state. But the crisis runs deeper than that, being also largely one of attitude. We live in a society where a well-to-do urban professional might openly and blithely display derision toward a homeless person on the sidewalk, muttering “get a job” on the way back to the office to work for the very corporate interests that often contribute to joblessness and homelessness in the first instance. The professional is perfectly “normal” while the other is “deviant” in the dominant worldview, even though the former unwittingly contributes to causing the condition of the latter.

During the holiday season I’m often reminded of these issues. Some years ago, I was very nearly that urban professional with the calloused facade. On a snowy December evening, I was panhandled by a dark-skinned man with long matted hair and a graying beard. I can’t say what it was in particular, but something about his tone and choice of words caught my attention, breaking through the ambient din of New York noise. Over the next few months we managed to forge a nascent friendship despite our relative stations on opposite sides of the “urban apartheid.” Acquaintances of mine would see us chatting or having coffee together and would often say things like, “It’s so nice of you to try and save him like that,” failing to understand that in fact he was actually saving me.

With more and more people becoming homeless, and with the holidays upon us again, I’m hopeful that we can end the cycle of inequality and criminalization by finding new and surprising ways of helping to save each other.

— Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College (Arizona), and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His latest book is Lost In Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly 2008).