Denver Reminds Us Laws Have Human Consequences

No matter how much you guard against it, there’s a part of you that gets used to human suffering.

I smiled tiredly, slipping a dollar in his cup and letting my mind wander.  I was already turning away when he grasped my hand.

He squeezed slightly and guided me back.  Whereas before his total person was a tilted cup, I was confronted now with a complex being.  A wispy gray beard ghosted sharp angles; his palms were covered in coarse white lines from a life spent earning something; and he held in his eyes imagination and loss.

He shook my hand firmly.  “My name is Jimmy.”

Late last night, despite advocacy by the Law Center and others, the Denver City Council passed legislation criminalizing homelessness by a vote of 9-4.  This law, which makes it illegal for homeless people to sleep outside, is only the latest symptom of a 20 year-old pandemic that many still ignore.

In 1991, the Law Center published Go Directly to Jail, highlighting a growing trend among cities to sweep homeless people out of public view by making illegal their life-sustaining acts.  For the past two decades, we’ve been tracking and challenging these laws—preventing passage, suspending enforcement, or even striking them down in court.  Yet still the trend persists.

There’s a lot of reasons these policies don’t make sense.  Fiscal hawks don’t have a leg to stand on; it costs up to five times more to jail a person than it does to provide housing.  And by giving homeless people criminal records, we’re making it harder for them to secure employment—damaging our economy and perpetuating the need for social services.

Criminalization laws also violate prohibitions on “cruel, inhuman[e], and degrading treatment” under human rights treaties.  The U.S. has an obligation both to itself and the world community to honor those terms.

But above all else—setting aside all the number-crunching and policy proposals—we have responsibilities as human beings.

Jimmy stared into my eyes.  He tugged me closer, pumping my hand in his.

“He that is inclined to mercy shall be blessed,” he recited earnestly.  “For of his bread he hath given to the poor.  He that maketh presents shall purchase victory and honor: but he carrieth away the souls of the receivers.”

I nodded timidly.  I think I meant it to show gratitude.  He didn’t smile, or frown.  I guess he just was.

His eyes searched mine, and with a final shake I was released.

There’s nothing illegal about being human.  That these laws receive even the briefest consideration is an indictment of us all.

Homelessness is not an unsolvable problem.  We know how to end it—we only need the resources.  In the meantime, we must ensure no homeless person is punished for their misfortune.

We’re better-positioned than ever before to address this crisis.  The federal government stepped up to the plate last month, with the Department of Justice and Interagency Council on Homelessness releasing a report condemning criminalization and pushing constructive alternatives.  But now it’s time to turn those words into action.

Denver is just one of countless cities sweeping homeless people out of sight, but it’s no less wrong for its having company.  Real human beings will be hurt by this.

It’s time to end this despicable practice and satisfy our convictions as moral people.

- Andy Beres, Development & Communications Coordinator

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One Response to Denver Reminds Us Laws Have Human Consequences

  1. Kathy Mitro says:

    The fact that there are no comments posted here makes me sad. Denver is not alone in these laws, they are proliferating at an incredible rate all over the United States, in Houston, Dallas, New York City and Fort Lauderdale the list goes on and on.
    Where is the crime in having no money? How many of us at one time or another, had none. Most of us when we had none had a support system in place to get us through hard times. The homeless have no family support system and must rely on the kindness of strangers to get them through a time of incredible crisis for them. Now we are saying all aid is to be cut off to them, and that people with the means to help them and the want to help are prohibited by law to help them. Where is the crime in sleeping in a pubic place? During natural disaster people with no beds are rushed aid. Are these people also in crisis any less worthy of aid because they have no money in their pocket.
    I know where I speak of this issue. I am one person with the means and desire, actually a heart felt passion to help these people and I have been threatened with fine and arrest for passing out food to the hungry in Daytona Beach, Florida. This food was pre-made sandwiches.
    Is this where our society is evolving to? The outlawing of all kindness and compassion by a government that wants to actually prohibit all aid to people in crisis, our own people in crisis, American citizens, many of them military veterans in crisis.
    We have been taught by many great peace loving leaders in history, Ghandi, Martin Luther King that there is power in the union of many peaceful voices, calling for the end of laws that prohibit empathy and compassion.
    The only way these laws can be overturned is by a majority of people who actually believe that love and peaceful actions are the way we want our society to move towards. kathymitro@yahoo.com

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