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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: It’s not a crime to be homeless

Tucson could be considered a progressive city, and in many aspects it is. We have a lot of unique food, boast a pretty rad Gem & Mineral Show and have some of the most beautiful collections of art in the Southwest.

We also contribute to the worldwide marginalization of the homeless. Tossed aside and subjected to ridicule and persecution, the plight of the homeless is a problem we are ignoring, or even worse, actively inflaming.

According to a National Institute of Housing report on homelessness, “One homeless individual’s release from jail was conditioned on his agreement to stay out of a two-mile square area covering most of downtown Tucson.” Downtown, urban and industrial areas offer the most available shelter to the homeless as well as comparatively lucrative places to ask for help, and removing them from these areas exacerbates an already intense obstacle to survival.

The criminalization of activities like public loitering, urination, defecating and sleeping is a direct assault to the lives and well-beings of homeless people, and these are everyday actions the general public takes for granted.

For the homeless, shelter spaces are few and far between, and when they exist, they are often dangerous spots where the residents fear for the safety of their bodies and possessions because of the other inhabitants. For the homeless, options are slim and living has become a criminal activity that cities are demonizing instead of treating.

In Tucson, the city has considered leasing sidewalks to businesses so they can mandate the homeless away from their locations. Combined with location sanctions, this proposal infringes on their right to travel.

Tucson also has a massive population of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning homeless youth, and these sanctions worsen the already-troubling living conditions for them.

According to UCLA Law School’s The Williams Institute, 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ-identifying and, as a result, are directly at greater risk of arrest, sexual assault and illness as a result of “survival sex work.” According to Patrick Farr, the Wingspan Anti-Violence Project coordinator at the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, this is a result of the system of cyclic hate violence against the homeless and LGBTQ-identifying people.

“They are conscious of the problems they are facing and for a majority, going into survival sex work is one way to find a place to eat or sleep for the night,” Farr said. “As a result, this population faces the heaviest police crackdown — one trans youth said that, ‘All my friends were there,’ after spending a night in jail after being arrested.”

This crackdown and general hateful sentiment isn’t, however, unique to Tucson or to LGBTQ homeless. In an interview following the shutdown of a public feeding program run by local nurses, one Santa Monica, Calif., resident emphatically spoke to this perspective, telling a reporter, “If you can’t feed yourself through working in this society, then maybe you shouldn’t exist and starve.”

People privileged and lucky enough to have homes find cruel solace in placing punitive measures against the lower echelons of society, incarcerating people for acts that should be misdemeanors, thus criminalizing existing-while-poor. Criminalization, however, has no positive effects and it is costing us money.

According to the same NIH report, it cost $40 to incarcerate someone in 1993 compared to the $30.90 it cost to feed, house, clothe and offer counseling services to the same person. Barring a discussion of the horrible status of our justice system, this is a clear misuse of public funds.

One county in Florida might have a heart: It started a voluntary “Homelessness 101” program to educate police officers about decreasing arrests and citations against homeless people. Arrests dropped by 26 percent. In another Florida county, a meal tax was imposed, grossing over $400,000 a year to provide services for homeless people. There are good options; we are just looking past them.

An unwillingness to engage with these issues then foments a disdain for the victims; a cyclic pattern of disgust leading to harassment and arrests is not productive — it is inhumane. “Homelessness 101” needs to be become a nationwide program for legislators and law enforcement officials, because the current system is not only ineffective, it’s awful.

I certainly would not want to be jailed or harassed on the basis of my outward appearance or a stranger’s presumption, and the over 600,000 homeless nationwide don’t either.


Nick Havey is a junior studying physiology and Spanish. Follow him on Twitter.

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