Hostile Laws, Hateful Acts Bolster Stigma Against Homeless

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Memorial in a Bronx churchyard for Bill Murphy, a homeless man who died in 2010 under circumstances that police believed were accidental but friends and family found suspicious.

Photo by: Eileen Markey

Memorial in a Bronx churchyard for Bill Murphy, a homeless man who died in 2010 under circumstances that police believed were accidental but friends and family found suspicious.

They call it the “poor door.” It’s a classic example of stigmatizing poverty. So much so it riled up New Yorkers this summer, and people are still talking about it.

A Manhattan developer created a separate entrance for the 55 nonmarket “affordable housing” tenants in his 33-story, waterfront, luxury high-rise – hence, the “poor door.” Most people may not have been aware of it, but this is hardly the first luxury development in the City providing affordable units through a poor door.

Segregation by door, of course, isn’t just offensive because of the obvious odor of stigma it brings to the “lesser” tenants; it also guarantees those segregated tenants get lesser services. Most people, including some destined for the not-poor door entrance, were not amused. But stigmatizing and dehumanizing poor people is not new, and it’s not always so odious to the neighbors.

Ugly demonstrations in Queens’ Elmhurst neighborhood over a new homeless shelter at the previously vacant Pan American Hotel came replete with angry confrontations between community residents and children housed at the family shelter; name-calling and crowds grew so daunting officials interceded to take the homeless kids to a movie to keep them away from another protest. While it made for compelling summer TV viewing, it was just part of a growing trend of stigmatizing poverty, criminalizing homelessness and increasing attacks on vulnerable homeless people in New York and throughout the country.

The Big Apple’s media had loads of opportunities this year to feature stories like the tragedy of Jerome Murdough, an emotionally disturbed street homeless man in Manhattan, arrested for trespassing, to wit sleeping in a public stairwell. He was taken not to get mental health services but to a Rikers Island jail. Murdough’s mental condition quickly led to his placement in a solitary confinement and undoubtedly was the primary reason his shouts of distress were ignored as he literally baked to death in his defectively ventilated cell. And there was the scratchy street surveillance camera footage of a Bronx homeless man stomped to death for no apparent reason by teenagers as he slept on a church stoop.

Over the summer city police and MTA outreach workers conducted operations to remove homeless all-night riders or sleepers from the subways. The MTA, not unreasonably, views it as a business and customer service issue, but the outcome is often an arrest for a minor offense like lying down, taking up more than one seat or turnstile jumping.

The issue isn’t just criminalizing the behavior. It’s also that the outcome, an arrest, in no way addresses the real problem of homelessness and possibly a need for services often including mental health services.

It’s not just a plague of stigmatization or criminalizing poverty in New York. In Monterey and Santa Cruz, California, and in other cities and towns across America, local governments have been enacting ordinances making normal activities like sitting, lying down, eating, giving food to others or even standing still in some public places a crime. That’s despite the fact that numerous courts across the country have repeatedly ruled these laws against necessary “life-sustaining” activities unconstitutional.

Perhaps more troubling is the routine unequal enforcement of laws for the purpose of moving along or removing homeless people. A formerly homeless man recently told me about his experience of peacefully sitting on a bench in a New York City public park where he was rousted for no specific reason even as others sat nearby without being so much as talked with. The man’s explanation? “I looked homeless and they didn’t. It was a family park. They didn’t want someone who looked homeless there.”

He said the police officer actually told him which nearby park was “the poor park.” If he was shown out of the park because he looked poor or homeless, then his crime was poverty itself.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which tracks “criminalization” of poverty and homelessness, reports a dramatic increase in criminalizing sleeping in vehicles, lying down in parks, feeding people in public places and “loitering, loafing and vagrancy.” Earlier this year the UN Human Rights Committee publicly rebuked these kinds of policies noting “criminalization raises concerns of discrimination and cruel and inhumane or degrading treatment.”

It’s all too easy to stigmatize vulnerable populations like homeless people and to criminalize being homeless. But it does nothing to solve homelessness. Displacing homeless people from commercial areas to less traveled spots, moving them from a “better” neighborhood to a poorer one or making them less visible near high-profile venues hosting major sporting or public events isn’t just the wrong thing to do; it adds to the blame-the-victim mentality that incites even more venomous attitudes towards those in need.

So it should hardly be surprising that the down and out living rough on American streets are increasingly targets of senseless violence. A National Coalition for the Homeless study of hate crimes perpetrated against homeless people documented a 24 percent increase in violent attacks in one year, all believed to be motivated primarily by the perpetrator’s bias. They reported the attacks are becoming more brutal than ever. A National Health Care for the Homeless project found homeless people 25 times more likely to be victims of attacks than the general population.

It’s heartbreaking to think about these violent attacks. It’s obviously irrational to attack a homeless person to take their money. The perpetrators—and they are almost always teen-aged boys or very young men—usually are unable to give a reason for the attacks or say they did it just because their victims were such easy targets. But the real predicate for attacks on homeless people because they are homeless is that they have been diminished, dehumanized and stigmatized.

Rather than “solving” homelessness by policing homeless people out of sight, a not inexpensive proposition in itself, homeless advocates argue the right, and cheaper, thing to do would be to provide adequate services and housing. In New York it costs about $3,000 a month to house residents in shelters, but far less to provide housing subsidies for stable housing. A study often cited by former HUD secretary and now White House budget chief Shaun Donovan reports street homeless people cost about $40,000 annually, primarily in emergency room visits, avoidable hospitalizations and expensive interactions with the mental health, law enforcement and corrections systems.

Providing a robust housing alternative to homelessness is not inexpensive, but it’s far less costly than what we’re doing now in not solving the problem. It also promises an opportunity to better lives and lessen the stigma people without homes bear every day.