Moving out the disadvantaged
Bill Such, the Chico Jesus Center director, wrote a poignant account in the Enterprise-Record about a recent city police sweep that moved the poor and homeless from squalid makeshift shelters on city land along Comanche Creek. Such was there only to tell these unfortunate folks they were all welcome to eat at the Jesus Center any day for free. Mental-health workers also came. State penal code sections 602 (no trespassing) and 647J (no squatting) allowed the authorities to act.
Such’s account served to remind us that the greatest sin one can commit in our nation today is to be poor. What we want from the poor is that they somehow disappear because they cannot flow with our corporate-fed consumer mainstream. They have no cash, bank accounts, credit cards, decent credit ratings, or the trappings of conspicuous consumption that serve as the hallmarks of our materialistic society.
The poor are supposed to go somewhere else—anywhere but where they are. There’s temporary help for the poor who are hungry, mentally ill, or addicted, but nothing permanent.
Until very recently, being poor and homeless in our big cities was not just a sin; it was a crime, usually a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail. These cities conducted their homeless sweeps at night, mainly so working people would not see the arrest and removal of the poor—forcing them to leave their few belongings behind so they would be lost to others—and be reminded that a single stroke of bad fortune could put anyone on the street in their midst.
A ray of hope beamed through in April when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled (in Jones v. City of Los Angeles) that cities could no longer make homelessness a crime. If a person had nowhere to sleep but the sidewalk, the court reasoned, that person could not be arrested for “status,” as opposed to “conduct.” Sleeping on a sidewalk is an involuntary act that arises from a person’s status of being poor and homeless. Criminal law is directed at voluntary acts (conduct).
Many well-meaning people who seek a humane and decent society argue that everyone should have shelter, but such has never been the case and isn’t likely ever to be the case. In many smaller as well as larger cities, it is common to find a chronic shortage of shelter beds. The federal court ruling doesn’t mean that these cities, along with their corporations and businesses that could provide real resources and help, must build more shelters. It only means the government can’t use its criminal laws to deal with the ever-present problems of poverty and homelessness.