Public Comment

Why Criminalizing Poverty Sells

Carol Denney
Friday March 13, 2015 - 12:17:00 PM

Criminalizing homelessness is the most expensive, least effective way to address homelessness. Studies prove it, reporters note it, and common sense suggests it since paying for a year of low-income housing or even a college education costs a lot less than a year in jail. So why does it sell like crazy? 

Nationwide we’re bristling with new anti-homeless and vagrancy laws according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. California leads with way with an average nine such laws per city according to the UC Berkeley School of Law Policy Advocacy Clinic’s recent study. The laws typically criminalize standing, sitting, lying down, sleeping, having belongings with you which might define you as “camping”, sleeping in your own car, sharing food with others, asking for money or help from others, and other behaviors which are unavoidable, especially for people who have no place to go. 

Why are these embarrassingly heartless laws so easy to pass and so popular? The answer is that there’s currently a political cost to any politician who insists on the creation of low-cost housing as a priority. But there is very little political cost at present to passing yet another law, even an unconstitutional law, which burdens the poor. 

Berkeley is a great example. Berkeley is a college town, notoriously liberal, consistently cast as comically out of touch with mainstream American politics in national press. But successive mayor after mayor has been more than willing to override community will, ignore the moral objections of religious and human rights groups, and go to bat in court for unconstitutional legislation on behalf of political groups who want the poor to just disappear. 

In an interview with Berkeley author John Curl, Mayor Tom Bates referred to rent control in particular as “a no-win position” for him and “a death knell” for politicians generally. Berkeley citizens, in the absence of honest leadership on the issue of low-income and affordable housing, cite their own frustration with panhandling and homelessness as reason enough to vote repeatedly for laws of dubious constitutionality which target poor people on the street struggling with unemployment, evictions, and skyrocketing rents. 

U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken issued a temporary restraining order in 1995 against Berkeley’s 1994 anti-panhandling law, noting that "some Berkeley citizens feel annoyed or guilty when faced with an indigent beggar . . . Feelings of annoyance or guilt, however, cannot outweigh the exercise of First Amendment rights." 

Poor and homeless people are notoriously ill-equipped to hire lawyers and mount legal challenges to the anti-poor laws generated primarily by merchant associations which, in the case of the powerful Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), get mandated “membership” payments from all the businesses within its expanding downtown footprint. The DBA’s board is dominated by large property owners who were the primary funders of the failed anti-sitting law campaign in Berkeley’s 2012 election. There is not a single representative on the board from the poorly funded non-profits and law clinics who work with the poor and homeless people caught up in the endless web of the criminalization of poverty. Those are the groups who will show up in opposition to new anti-homeless initiatives. But they are much less likely to be as able as wealthy investment and property companies to toss large campaign donations the council’s way come the next election. 

The Berkeley City Council knows that circling poor and homeless people endlessly through overburdened courts and jails over unpayable fines for innocuous offenses is dumb. They tend to be intelligent people who by now have had somebody toss a copy of Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic’s report on California’s New Vagrancy Laws or the No Safe Place report on the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (or both) on their desks. They may even have read the reports. 

But it takes courage to say no to merchant associations’ and the University of California’s short-sighted effort to make homelessness and poverty invisible. Courage is in short supply in the Berkeley City Council chambers. For all the opining in January and February 2015 about the Black Lives Matter campaigns, and even though the majority of those affected are people of color and people struggling with disabilities, the anti-homeless laws slated for passage at the March 17th Berkeley City Council meeting seem to be proof that the war on the poor will go on without interruption.