Homeless need our understanding
By RANDALL AMSTER
Here we go again. The criminalization of a class of people simply because of who they are, coupled with expanded police powers, all done in the name of economic security and public order. While I could be talking about immigration under this rubric, the issue of homelessness in Prescott raises similar concerns and deserves thoughtful consideration.
Just as we’ve seen a strong backlash against the state’s draconian new immigration law, cities and towns adopting stringent anti-homeless policies oftentimes find themselves creating an unwelcoming atmosphere that actually drives away tourists and shoppers.
Urban and quasi-urban areas that are overly regulated and sanitized can undercut the energy and spontaneity that make for a dynamic experience in public places.,/h2> Prescott’s downtown squarely fits this framework.
As is almost always the case, the charge to “crack down” on vagrants and the homeless (not the same thing, by the way) is being led by local business owners who’ve suffered a downturn in their enterprises.
Many factors are at play here: a protracted recession, lower consumer confidence, and the development of malls on the town’s outskirts. Local businesses, that we certainly ought to support, should be pointing a finger at a city council that has subsidized big-box development and undermined Prescott’s desirability as a tourist destination by making it look more like a generic Anytown instead of protecting its unique heritage.
Homeless people, however, make for a more convenient scapegoat, in part because their presence is so public – by definition, after all, a homeless person is one who lacks a private space to retreat to and therefore exists primarily in public.
Consider the behaviors being talked about as problematic and potentially criminal, such as sleeping, eliminating, sitting, asking for help. All of these are completely innocent and essential human activities, none of which are illegal when done inside one’s private space.
When done in public, however, they are seen as nuisances, and the answer often proposed is criminalization in which jail sentences can be given for such acts.
Moreover, by and large such actions are limited to a particular class of people, namely the homeless, and in this sense laws against these behaviors seek to create “status crimes” aimed almost exclusively at a certain group.
When the City Attorney says that the city is focusing on conduct and not aiming at a “classification” of people, it indicates his awareness that status crimes are unconstitutional and unenforceable in the United States, yet it also demonstrates his disingenuousness because we all know who these laws are intended to impact.
As Anatole France once said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Indeed, we are all equal under the law, but some of us are more unequal than others.
The homeless are a diverse group that increasingly includes displaced working-class people, families, and veterans. They deserve equal respect and a place to exist.
If not in “Everybody’s Hometown,” then where else?
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is a professor of Peace and Justice Studies and chairman of the Master of Arts Program in Humanities at Prescott College.