What do we all need to survive? Think about it for a minute… what would YOU need? Food, Water, shelter, transportation, the internet?
Seriously, I was looking for jobs a while back because, as a paid activist, and a single dad, it was getting hard to make the so called ends meet… because paid activism is a poorly paid sector. So I was looking. I was doing my very best to find a job and live up to my responsibilities to take care of my daughter and pay the bills and meet the legal arrangements, rent, utilities, insurance, and that sort of thing, that I had signed on to in less lean times. In times of two paychecks. (A thing of the past for me now. A thing of the past for many.) There never seemed to be enough money to get everything paid. I still made sure my daughter had what she needed to not only survive, but to prosper in today’s world, a basic, working computer, books, clothes, food, some toys, most were second hand or discount or hand-me downs, and the rest were simply cheap. She was in Soccer in her home town, and I was a soccer dad.
I worked over 50 hours or more, most weeks, and spent little on myself for “entertainment”… All my clothes were thrift store purchases. I also would buy used dvd’s at the thrift store, or accept used ones from friends. I took a lot of books out of the local library and went to the movies maybe once every other month. When I had a particularly good week at work, (much of my income was percentage) I might be able to treat myself to a half hour of horseback riding for about $25. But this was a rare luxury.
And I still stressed on a regular basis and tried not to feel guilty every time I read something, or talked with a medical professional, (which was rare as it was the early 2000’s and I could not afford health care, so I went to the free clinic, which often meant waiting to be seen) and I was informed that the kind of food I was eating was not very good for me. I often felt like I was not doing the right things, but it was all I could do with the limited income I had… It was too expensive to shop at the Co-Op, so the Super Market, and at times, the Dollar Store would have to do… Eww!
I most probably could have gotten a job pumping gas, or working for some large retail outlet… but then I would not be able to sleep at night knowing I was contributing to a system that exploits poor people across the planet or does direct damage to the planet’s eco-systems… and they do so thanks to any number of wars we have fought to ensure our “national interests” which is code for business interests which is really all about access to resources in other places where we do not live and have no sovereignty in order to supply the consumer needs that help people live in the aforementioned world of today… at a profit .. but that profit was not for me or any of my friends or family… the few family I had left anyway.
I was skilled enough to run most development departments for your average hospital or university, but lacking a degree, I could never even get my application answered. I had done professional development and direct marketing, in essence, for non-profit activist groups for about 25 years up to that point, so I had the skills.
Oh yeah, and so I was looking for a better paying job and I could not even find a gas station job in the local papers because the classified section was shrinking and had so very little to offer that I was qualified to do.
Most of the jobs were now listed on the internet so, if I did not have time to go to the local library, or did not have a decent internet connection, which cost a bunch more money each month, then I was simply screwed.
As I wrote earlier, I worked over 50 hours most weeks, and spent little on myself for “entertainment” and I often had to depend on public transit, unless my car happened to be working when I could afford the repair bills … so to survive, and to look for a better deal, I needed the internet. Since I was divorced from my kid’s mother, and she was registered in the City and I lived in the immediate suburbs, I did not get report cards. I had to log onto my kid’s school web site or email her teachers, unless I could take time off work, to schlep down to the city to meet her teachers… which I did whenever I could afford to … So yes, the internet, in today’s world, is a survival tool.
I was, as you have no doubt read somewhere before, a paycheck away from homelessness… But I prefer George Carlin’s perspective instead. He would say that the problem was not one of homelessness. It was one of “Houselessness”. Here’s what he meant:
I worked as a grant writer for a short time at a non-profit organization whose mission was to end homelessness, at least in Philadelphia. (It was one of my better payng jobs and during that brief time, I was not so financially desperate. They soon laid me off mainly due to lack of funds. Despite my rather decent rate of 20% positive grant acceptance. Not bad for a beginner in the grant world. But not enough to pay my way… so it goes in non-profit activist-land.)
It was a great experience just the same giving me a fuller understanding of the bigger picture and I did do some significant good while I was there…
What I learned there was that the majority of homeless people, (and they ARE people, each with their own stories like you and I) ACTUALLY WORKED AND HAD JOBS. So why were they homeless? Well let’s put all the behavior issues aside for the moment because the idea that it was somehow the fault of most of these people because of some form of moral turpitude that they may have engaged in (Like rich or middle class people don’t engage in these behaviors too) is not and never has been the reason why most people are homeless in the first place. Most people are homeless in the first place for a very simple reason which I have already alluded to twice.
They cannot afford rent.
In the publication “In Focus” put out by The National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, it is revealed that incarceration and homelessness are MUTUAL risk factors, meaning that one can lead to the other. But why would it be illegal to be homeless? In a caring and compassionate society one would think that people who have fallen on hard times would not be punished right? (It could easily have been me in the past as my story above illustrates.) If they have some kind of condition that helps lead to their plight, why are we not providing some kind of treatment? Besides, the vast majority of homeless individuals are homeless for economic reasons. (Substance abuse, though high in the homeless population, is as often a result of the reality of homelessness as it is its cause.)
The fastest rising population in prison these days are single mothers. Why is that? Are people who are single moms more inclined to be bad people? Of course not! My Mom was a single mom for a while. And she raised me with a strong sense of right and wrong and how to treat people with care and respect. But she raised me in the early 50’s and the 60’s… a time when the economy was still artificially inflated from our countries success after World War Two. So I lucked out… not so much for single moms these days. Because there was enough money around, and the U.S. had such an economic advantage that one wage earned could support a family. My Mom was pretty independent, had skills and was the only person in her family with a high school diploma, but in those days, still could not find a job to support us as easily as a man could, so after leaving my birth father, she felt compelled to remarry, I am sure that love played a role in her decision but economics had to as well… But compared to single Moms today, we had it easy when it came to our economic options. My mother’s second husband was working class, but was able to support us as a warehouse manager for the US Air Force. (Yes, my adopted dad was a military contractor. But instead of dealing with weapons, he dealt with household items that service men – in those days – bought at the base exchange, a sort of department store for military families who lived on base… all the better to keep our troops out of the local economy and mixing with the citizens of whichever country we found ourselves in.. In our case it was Canada.)
So single moms in my day had economic supports that are harder to find if not gone today. Which means that options for survival are limited compared to the days when we all dreamed the “American Dream”. A dream that for many has become an American Nightmare.
Worse still, according to the Correctional Association of New York, 75% of women in prison are domestic abuse survivors. Why are survivors of another crime landing in prison? What’s wrong with this picture? 9 out of 10 convicted of killing an intimate partner, in the words of Justice Debra James, Supreme Court, Civil Branch, New York County, Chair, New York Women in Prison Committee, National Association of Women Judges in her forward to the Association’s report, “From Protection to Punishment”, published by the Cornell University Law School, Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, and the Women in Prison Project, of the Correctional Association of New York.
The report shows how these cases are often convictions for illegal acts that happen as a result of actions these women take to protect themselves from “… extreme physical and mental abuse.” The vast majority of these women are women of color. She also concludes that, “As this report illustrates, these punishments represent not only failures of policy and practice but also violations of survivor-defendants’ fundamental human rights.”
Then there is the War ON Drugs.
According to the ACLU, marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests—and 88% of those charges are for simple possession. Because of decades-old grant programs, local police precincts are showered with money from the federal government if they keep their arrest numbers high. Police have a built-in financial incentive to focus their arrests on low-level drug offenders to fatten their statistics, especially because these are some of the easiest arrests to make. This is a major reason why marijuana arrest rates have gone up in recent years, and why they make up the majority of all drug detentions nationally.
But for many, this was, and is, an underground economy that actually helped families make those aforementioned ends meet. I knew a young man on Long Island in the eighties who sold low effect drugs from the basement of his parents home and actually paid off their mortgage for them at a time when the economy was experiencing one of a repeated number of “corrections” making those damn ends hard to meet again. This was one case I was personally aware of, but there were many other examples of so called victim-less crimes, like pot selling that was often a families only way to keep from going under. But it gets worse…
Contracts with private prison management companies exhibit the same incentive. Cash strapped states contract with these private corporations to run their jails. As a stipulation of the contract, the state must “keep the beds full” or be in breach of contract. This is an incentive to criminalize all kinds of behavior to create a large enough population to round up, (like suspects on the streets of Baghdad, now languishing at GITMO) AND FILL THE BEDS. So single moms who cannot find work with sufficient wages to make those aforementioned ends meet, turn to… Crime? Prostitution, drugs, or maybe just leaving their kids in the car as they queue up for an interview for some dismally paying service sector job in order that their kids eat. And so now, single mothers facing or living in poverty are considered criminals… and they are incarcerated and the beds are full…
This is what we mean by “The Criminalization of Survival”.
On October 9, 2013, Solvej Schou, who writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly, tells us this: “… lower income Americans increasingly unable to find steady work and housing, post-recession homelessness and panhandling is on the rise in the U.S., and increasingly being ignored or punished.
“Case in point, peaceful begging—the act of non-aggressively asking for money or food—is increasingly being banned in various cities and states across the country. The criminalization of homelessness in U.S. cities, anti-panhandling and anti-solicitation laws in 188 cities had increased by seven percent from 2009 to 2011, according to a National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty report.”
Examples abound. Check out these extracts…
“According to dailykos.com, the Houston city council passed a law in 2012 making it against the law for anyone to give food to a homeless person, whether that homeless person was in a park or in a food kitchen set up specifically to feed the homeless people of Houston.”
“The same law made it illegal for homeless people to feed themselves with found food (usually from the trash). Dailykos reported that a homeless man was ticketed a week before they published their story on this subject and fined $500 for taking a partially eaten donut out of a dumpster. Five hundred dollars is the amount of the fine for persons who feed the homeless, or for the homeless who feed themselves inside the Houston city limits – the City Council lowered the fine down from $2,000 because of public outcry.”
“Noah’s Kitchen Executive Director Amber Rodriguez told The Christian Post that there are 13 and a half thousand homeless people in Houston and that the $500 fine would feed at least 750 people (Christianpost.com).”
“It was necessary for Noah’s Kitchen (as well as other charity groups that help the poor) to move outside the Houston city limits or pay the $500 fine every single time they offered a homeless person a cup of soup or a piece of toast. Yes, $500 for each and every offense. A second piece of toast to the same person would mean another $500 fine in addition to the first one! Yes, a hungry homeless person could quickly put Noah’s Kitchen out of business completely by simply eating 4-5 pieces of toast from that soup kitchen.”
“Several news agencies, including ABC News, Huffington Post, NY Daily News, Daily Mail, and the New York Times, to name a few, reported on March 19, 2014 that 56-year old homeless Marine veteran Jerome Murdough was jailed for trespassing in Harlem, and was then allowed to literally bake to death in his prison cell where he was jailed. Yes, the cell where Jerome Murdough was confined was allowed to heat to well over 100 degrees and Mr. Murdough died. He was allowed to swelter to death while being neglected by jail officials and employees.”
“Jerome Murdough was just looking for a warm place to sleep on a chilly night last month when he curled up in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project where he was arrested for trespassing,” (Huffington Post).”
Oh, that’s right, there is even more…
According to the ACLU Debtors prison is making an illegal comeback. There is the story of Stephan Papa. According to the ACLU:
“After he returned from Iraq both homeless and out of work, Stephan Papa spent one night in a drunken misadventure. Convicted of destruction of property and resisting arrest, Mr. Papa was sentenced to pay $2600 in fines and court fees.” Of course he was not able to pay those fees, and, though illegal to sentence people to jail for inability to pay, he was jailed anyway. Now it may not be the most laudable behavior, but many of us have had a drunken misadventure before and though the particular action may or may not have been criminal, taking a person’s circumstances into account seems prudent. And being drunk hardly seems to require the extreme reaction that Mr. Papa dealt with… His life is disrupted and possible ruined for a long time. Does this seem fair to you? Survival often includes basic coping with one’s situation.. When survival is on the line, we all may resort to “regressive behavior” that we may not be proud of, but that is part of being human isn’t it? So maybe it’s the criminalization of being human is what is at issue? Why not invest in the kind of support to help down-on-their-luck individuals like Mr. Papa a chance to learn new coping skills? Investing in any number of community mental and emotional health programs with just a sliver of what we now spend on war and intervention across the globe would go a long way to building security at home by lifting up people like Mr. Papa while creating jobs and stimulating the local economy in the first place. But how many of you have read that these kinds of community base support programs are attacked because they are “jobs programs”?
Well, what’s wrong with that? We need jobs programs and we need them where there is a real need. Why not reinvest in our communities and stimulate the economy by paying to help people in need rather than helping already obscenely profitable industries with more US tax dollars, (yours and mine) that benefit a few at the so called top at the expense of all of us let alone those most in need?
Criminalization of survival. Who does it benefit? Who profits? And why?
It is time for a change. There are legislative efforts afoot that can help begin to change these things. Simply enforcing current law against debtor’s prison is one solution. Several states have begun issuing simple cards for judges to assist in legal sentencing practices so that they are aware that jailing people for inability to pay for court costs and fines is illegal in the first place… Something one would think a judge should know?
There is a bill in Congress that I have mentioned before to help Mothers and other care givers stay out of poverty by, in essence, providing a wage for home care and what we used to call “housework” affording people of modest means the ability to be good care givers without forcing them to have to make choices like leaving their kids in a hot car to attend a job interview, or stealing the proverbial loaf of bread or its equivalent to feed their families or themselves… This bill is the RISE Out of Poverty Act, and its companion piece, the WORK Act… bills that deserve your support. You should call your Congress Person, both Bills are in the House, (The WORK act is in search of a prime sponsor) and you should demand they co-sponsor and vote for these two important pieces of legislation that would help de-criminalize the very act of survival, like taking care of ones family for example. You can call your Congress Person at the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121. You can also support the campaign to pass these bills by going to the following web site and signing the petition. http://www.everymothernetwork.net/support-the-rise-and-work-acts/ A growing number of organizations have been signing on as endorsing organizations and maybe your church or synagogue or Temple may do their part, or if you belong to a secular group or labor union ask them to endorse as well.
I once faced poverty and, with things as unstable in this world as they are becoming could face it again. So could you or someone you know. The current systems are shaken, and crumbling at their edges, if not at their very core. If nothing else, our economy is uncertain and it is far easier to be facing such a plight these days in a moment by any number of chance circumstances. An unexpected illness in your family, a sudden job loss, or a loss of your home possibly brought about by some extreme weather event thanks to rapidly advancing global climate change. Most of us are all “one paycheck from homelessness” these days.
Once again, when we look closely we can see that we are all in this together and we must break down the walls that divide us if we are all to be more secure.