In my previous post entitled Misdemeanors: Trapdoor Justice for the Poor and Homeless, I looked at how “masses of poor and homeless people are being sucked into an overburdened misdemeanor trapdoor system.” Once the trapdoor drops, a system designed to inflict misery and sustained hardship ravages the poor and the homeless.
Statistics support an emergency situation in this country: an estimated 13.2 million misdemeanors are filed each year in the United States, resulting in approximately 730,000 people in our jails on any given day. These statistics raise the question of why there are more people incarcerated in our jails and prisons than in other countries. What’s wrong with a country that confines so many men, women, and juveniles and remains intent on not addressing the root causes of this endemic problem?
The Criminalization of Being Poor—“Majestic Equality?”
A major contributor to the insatiable sucking of people into the hell of incarceration is the criminalization of poverty. Anatole France(1844–1924), a French novelist and winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature, facetiously equated the legal plight of the poor with that of the rich: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.” France’s tongue-in-cheek absurd juxtaposition is the social elites’ (white privilege?) immorally detached rationale for minimizing the plight of the poor in the offensive statement attributed to Marie-Antoinette: “Let them eat cake.” Regardless of whether she actually uttered these words, history marks them as “revolutionary propaganda keen to portray her as ignorant, distant and uncaring.” In 1793, after being convicted of treason, Antoinette was silenced by the guillotine, and a new social age began.
Where is the social safety net the poor and homeless can turn to for relief, for a fair chance at life? Where is the empathic response to the stranded, sick, and powerless? According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), in 2017, the national estimate of homeless persons in the United States was 553,742.
The Criminalization of Being Homeless
Let’s step back for a moment. My basic premise for fostering change is to look for the empathic approach versus revictimizing people and exacerbating the problem. Simply put, I like Psychology Today’s definition of:
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. Empathy facilitates prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that people behave in a more compassionate manner.
Do a self-check: When you see homeless people on the streets, what’s your visceral reaction? Are you repulsed, angered, or offended? Do you divert your gaze? Do you want to help and cause change? In a compelling report in Digital Journal entitled “Power Robs the Brain of Empathy,” Kathleen Blanchard reports that “researchers have some new insights into how [having] power diminishes [people’s] capacity for empathy.” People in power include elected officials and legislators charged with constructing the world of laws, rules, and policies that we are beholden to in our everyday lives.
Making homelessness into a crime is amoral and devoid of empathy. Criminalizing the result of the failures represented by the number of homeless people causes a depletion of empathy in exchange for power and infects the social norms theoretically available to all citizens. If people in power don’t have and appreciate the base ability to have compassion—or to at least try to put resources and relevant programs in place to equalize the social playing field—we’re all on an off ramp to doomsday in a veering vehicle driven by powerful people protecting their own self-interests. An unempathic government devoid of interpersonal sensitivity to those subservient to its powers is fodder for real revolution à la Marie–Antoinette. How can having unempathic people in power be less than a true national emergency? Are we destined to crash because of our own destructive human nature?
Constructive Alternatives to Criminalizing Being Homeless and Poor
According to the NAEH, communities can be proactive in combating the problems in their midst that are causally connected to homelessness and poverty. A coordinated systems approach requires “moving from a collection of individual programs to a [strategic] community-wide response” driven by reliable data that reflect the needs of homeless people to determine the appropriate allocation of resources, services, and programs.
The NAEH has identified key elements of a coordinated approach by communities to turning the tide on homelessness. Here is a brief outline:
- Coordinating Entry and Assessment
Designed to quickly identify, assess, refer and connect people in crisis to housing and assistance . . . [to] pave the way for more efficient homeless assistance systems by
- helping people move through the
system faster to housing;
- consistently offering prevention and diversion resources upfront; and
- improving data collection [to ensure accurate information on what kind of assistance is needed].
Setting goals on what should be prioritized along with creating
a timeline for meeting those goals . . . and mechanisms for evaluating progress. Planning also brings providers and government officials . . . together to address topics such as how to identify needs of the population, . . . the structure of coordinated assessment, integrat[ion of] prevention and shelter diversion resources, . . . and [to] sketch out preliminary needs assessment and screening tools.
- Using a Shared Data System
A Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) is a local information technology system used to collect client, program, and system-level data on the provision of housing and services to homeless individuals and families and persons at risk of homelessness. . . . There are benefits to a common and shared data system . . . [including the creation of] a more seamless process of matching individuals, youth and families with the right resources. It can also make the comprehensive analysis of a community’s homeless system possible, which is critical to assessing incomes and ultimately improving practice and performance.
The sum and substance of the NAEH recommendations, in my view, represent the intelligent use of planning, funding, and considered vision that can make significant changes in how the poor and the homeless can be serviced from the perspective of a national healthcare emergency. As discussed above, the criminalization of homelessness is a struggle to contain a serious national emergency.
How Trapdoor Justice Can Be a Life Sentence and Life Threatening
With so many people in the nation’s jails coming from the ranks of the poor and homeless, the psychological effects of being homeless become a social issue that encompasses having no place to sit, sleep, eat or be at total rest. Imagine being without a home and lacking physical necessities. Studies on the subject refer to homelessness exactly as you’d imagine: stressful, isolating, depressing, and painful. People in power are capable of experiencing the same human conditions. Without empathy, however, powerful people can look with impudent disdain past others’ suffering while gliding into a disparate world mocked by Anatole France.
The American Psychological Association (APA) acknowledges the impact of mental health on the homeless. The APA’s definition of homelessness is expansive:
Homelessness exists when people lack safe, stable and appropriate places to live. Sheltered and unsheltered people are homeless. People living doubled up or in overcrowded living situations or motels because of inadequate economic resources are included in this definition, as are those living in tents or other temporary enclosures.
Some compelling statistics from the APA report include the following:
- Rates of mental illness among people who are homeless in the United States are twice the rate found for the general population.
- 47 percent of homeless women meet the criteria for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder—twice the rate of women in general.
- People with substance and other mental disorders experience even greater barriers to accessible housing than their counterparts: income deficits, stigma and need for community wraparound services.
We are experiencing a mental health storm in this country. Exhibit A of the storm is a judicial system that criminalizes aspects of people’s lives for which so many have no control. The feeding of the misdemeanor system due to a one-size-fits-all remedy of penalizing helpless and needy people is social suicide. Without empathy for the powerless manifested by community and governmental interventions, those in power will continue to drive society toward a dreadful cliff.
You can find additional information in the following articles:
- When Power Goes to Your Head, It May Shut Out Your Heart, published by NPR on August 10, 2013.
- Criminalization of Homelessness: Your Basic but Comprehensive Guide. “New research shows that criminalization doesn’t work—it’s the most expensive and least effective way to address homelessness,” published by Bitfocus on March 14, 2016.
I always welcome your comments and suggestions.
Portrait of Marie-Antoinette attributed to Martin van Meytens (1695–1770), public domain
 Collateral Consequences Resource Center, “The Scale of Misdemeanor Justice, ” March 27, 2018, https://ccresourcecenter.org/2018/03/27/the-scale-of-misdemeanor-justice/.
 Alexandra Natapoff, Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 21–22.
 Pseudonym for Jacques Anatole Thibault.
 Examples of such law and ordinances are discussed in Misdemeanors: Trapdoor Justice for the Poor and Homeless.