Sunday, December 28, 2014

Poverty Is Not A Crime

There is a very significant problem in America that very few media outlets are paying attention to. The criminalization of poverty is becoming an issue in America, and no one seems to care. What's disheartening is that this trend  is coinciding with a growing number of Americans falling into poverty.  The increasing inequality in America has been well documented, and the results are more and more people showing up on our cities' streets.  While none of us were looking, state and federal agencies have been waging an undeclared war against the poor and homeless in this country.  Just the basic human biological needs ---like sitting, sleeping, or lying down have been labeled as loitering thus causing persons to be fined or arrested.  Here are some specifics:
Homeless Camp In New Jersey

  • Over 1/3 of the large American cities have imposed city-wide bans on public homeless camps.  A 60% increase since 2011. These camps often in a metropolitan city are under a bridge, beneath the overpass on the freeway or railroad trestles. 
  • In a growing number of American cities like Tampa, Florida, a person deemed homeless gets thrown in jail.[See Source
  • There have been bans on asking for food in public and giving out food to the homeless in public.[See Article]
Let's put this into perspective. What are the implications of this? Could you envision a police officer walking through a city park or any other common public area, seeing  a white male dressed in a suit and tie taking a lunch time nap on a park bench and arresting him?  No!  No,  those people are seen as hard working and just taking their mid-day power nap before they have to go back to work. The people who aren't permitted this same luxury are the homeless.  For fear of being arrested,  the homeless person must wander around all day long, continuously on the move.  Why?  Because in many cities now, you can be incarcerated for just simply being homeless,  and to take a nap on a park bench with your bags would draw the eye of the authorities.

Even Charity Is Being Banned In Some Cities!

The House of Public Discourse has found through our research one glaring motivation behind all of this legislation by our nation's municipalities regarding the homeless; to legislate the homeless problem out of sight and mind and to punish people who do not comply.  Taking away essential services to assist the homeless will force these needy Americans to go somewhere else with their problems .  One of the many trains of thought is that providing services for the homeless enables them to remain homeless.  Factoring in a political dynamic that caters to the racist and anti-tax crowd that believes these people should be left to fend for themselves, we easily see that idea is not only narrow-minded and wrong, it's un-American. People are homeless for a variety of reasons. Many areas in this country lack affordable housing, jobs, mental and physical health care and a working wage that is not indicative of the cost of living in a particular area.[See Article]

Increasing Need for Food Assistance across the U.S.

The 2013 Hunger and Homelessness Survey, conducted
by the United States Conference of Mayors

•     83% (19 of 25) of cities surveyed, in 2013, reported
an increase in the number of emergency food
requests from the previous year
•     91% reported an increase in persons seeking
food assistance for the first time
•     80% reported an increase in frequency of visits
to food pantries and emergency kitchens each

No matter these findings and despite the growing need for food assistance, cities have chosen to target the homeless by prohibiting their access to food sharing programs.

With a growing increase in need:
•     78% of cities had to reduce the number of times
a person could visit the food pantry each month
•     66% had to turn people away due to lack of resources

No Safe Place

As if homelessness was not hard enough on an individual within itself,  turning it into a criminal offense is, in a word, horrific.  For instance, in Bakersfield, CA, it is now against the law to panhandle for money.[See Source] This law is just one example of how communities all across America are clamping down on the plight of homelessness.  In another California city, an ordinance was passed making it a crime to sleep in your car.  That's right, sleeping in the car you own can land you in jail for six months.  The explanation given for this ridiculous ordinance was that it ruined the quality of life for the cities' elitist community.  The end goal for these so-called quality of life laws is to make no safe place for the homeless to rest. These type requirements are expanding nationwide. What all these facts and figures and ordinances amount to is an all out assault on homelessness. Unfortunately, it does not stop with these measures.  The mere act of being a good Samaritan to the homeless can land you in jail.  One of the most bizarre restrictions we uncovered was in New York City.  In that city, it was made illegal to donate food to a homeless shelter based on the fact that the food given could not be accessed for salt, fat, and fiber content!

So with corporate profits soaring to record levels while income inequality falls to record level lows it begs the following question:

When Did The War On Poverty Turn Into A War On The Poor?

Despite the slow but sure economic recovery from Bush II era politics, poverty in the U.S. is on the rise.  Poverty in America is becoming mainstream.  4 out of 5 Americans are one paycheck away from homelessness. Why do we see this downward slope after 50 years of the so-called " War on Poverty?"   One of the main factors that jumps from the page is capitalism.[ See: The American Dream Has Been Hijacked By The Capitalists]  We see an all out assault on every social program to assist the poor, and a total attempt to turn back the hands of time on civil rights legislation passed back in 1964.  There has been a stealing of people's pensions, a living wage that has not kept up with the growing cost of living, the outsourcing of jobs to other countries--- all tenants of the Mitt Romney-style of vulture capitalism.  Unions are being attacked and disbanded.  Even the smallest of measures to help the poor have been cut or done away with while there is an ever increasing trend to subsidize corporations and to sponsor arguably  unconstitutional amendments to make them appear as a person.  The bottom line is that measures that help poor people are being mitigated away while actions to help the rich have been enhanced.

According to a 2013 Census Supplemental ,  almost 50 million in the U.S. are poor.  Food Stamps keep five million out of poverty, and without Social Security,  more than half of America's elderly would be in poverty.[ See Additional Source

How much is the present assault on social services increasing this gap?

We have seen Republicans in every state work to cut food stamps while adding benefits for the wealthy. We have seen Democrats cave on their principles in relevant matters to Republicans who use these cuts to the poor as leverage to enact legislation for their deep-pocket political donors;  The old-Washington two-step.  The reality is these social services that are kicked around like a football on Super Bowl Sunday are a lifeline for a vast amount of American citizens.

What Are The Solutions?

Firstly, we must address the living wage issues in America. Increasing the minimum wage to $15 would be a nice start. Secondly, "We The People," must not lose our rights to organize on all fronts... labor, health care, and education just to name a few. We need to ensure and bring back guaranteed pensions for people who are long time employees and work hard all their lives for an employer.  We need to move away from a system that rewards profits over people. The free-markets have freed a few and enslaved the masses. We need as a collective society to change our priorities to those that put the common welfare of the people ahead of the common welfare of the corporations and their so-called free markets. 

It is the position of the House of Public Discourse that the steps needed to combat this war on the poor and the services they depend on should originate at the local levels of every community in this country. We who care must step up our advocacy for a positive change to make a brighter tomorrow for all Americans. The real unspoken and often under-disclosed fact is that the majority of Americans are, in fact, themselves one paycheck away from poverty and the streets.  Being poor is a condition with many variables.  But the one truism this writer holds close to the heart is " Poverty Is Not A Crime."

Written By: Johnny Hill

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