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