Breathing While Homeless Still a Crime

by | May 29, 2012 | Uncategorized

House the Homeless would prefer to highlight successful programs, and honor the individuals and organizations that do so much to help people experiencing homelessness in America. But some things can’t be ignored, including the extralegal invention of many new “crimes” such as DWB, which can mean Driving While Black or Driving While Brown, but, either way, it means trouble. This example of dark humor became a meme adaptable to many situations, like the ever-growing crime of Breathing While Homeless.

Racial profiling assumes guilt based on skin color, and economic profiling assumes guilt based on money. While plenty of guilt can be assigned to the wealthy, being blamed by their economic inferiors does not much wound them.

On the other hand, when guilt is presumptively and automatically assigned to the poor, it can do them an enormous amount of harm. Many housed citizens find it difficult to care about any of this. However, they can be roused to care a lot about what happens to their tax dollars.

In other words, while compassion arguments may or may not work, financial arguments are often convincing. Here’s the financial argument against criminalizing homelessness: It can’t possibly be cost-effective. When people have little or no money, and no way of getting more, there can’t be any profit in fining them for open alcohol containers, obstruction, trespassing, camping, brawling, public urination, disorderly conduct, and minor theft — and then arresting them again for technical violations like drinking while out on bond. And then tossing them in jail for not paying the fines.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who consistently knits facts into compelling prose, reminds us that at least one-third of the states make it possible for someone to be locked up as a debtor. She sketches an astonishing picture:

If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage — a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: ‘sewer service.’

Ehrenreich adds that in most states, anyone who owes child support gets their driving license confiscated, and, in Michigan, the privilege to drive can even be revoked for unpaid parking tickets. Courts impose ridiculous fees that have no hope of ever being collected, but contribute to the judge’s “tough on crime” reputation.

In a lot of jurisdictions across the country, people who owe fines can arrange for a scheduled payment plan — if they’re willing to pay as much as an extra $300 for the favor. Under rules like these, anyone who isn’t homeless already, soon could be.

For people experiencing homelessness, it is so easy to get into legal trouble. Remember this, from last summer? Jonathan Turley wrote:

Now, in Maine, Shaun Fawster, 23, a homeless man has been arrested because a Bangor police officer spotted him using an outside outlet to charge his phones. Fawster was charged last weekend with theft of services… Since the costs of the charge was pennies, it is hard to see how this arrest served justice.

This picture is through a wider lens, encompassing the entire picturesque town of Boulder, Colorado, where, depending on circumstances and variables, an arrest can cost the government between $250 and $1,000. That’s just to put the person into jail, and doesn’t even begin to count the incarceration itself.

Pierrette J. Shields writes about “frequent fliers,” such as the alcoholic homeless woman who was booked into the county jail 112 times in the last 10 years. Just to arrest her has cost at least $8,000.

Homeless people who are jailed are often mentally disabled, or struggling with alcoholism or addiction, or all of the above. A simple, uncomplicated prisoner costs the taxpayers $67 a day, but the ones with problems cost $90 a day to maintain. Cmdr. Bruce Haas is quoted as saying:

In many ways (arrests are) probably their saving grace because when they come to the jail they get medical care and proper diet.

In fact, when it comes to homelessness, jail might not serve as much of a disincentive. Sometimes, it’s like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch, the place where he was most comfortable and happy.

Pastor Steve Kimes, who works with people experiencing homelessness in Oregon, writes:

Among the chronic homeless, jail is seen as a ‘vacation’. Sure, it limits your freedom. But it also gives you three meals a day, which is more than you’d often eat on the street. You don’t have to walk as much. You are less likely to be threatened by guards than you are by the community or the police outside. You have greater access to a toilet in jail. You have a much greater opportunity for sleep without being harassed… Frankly, in some communities, jail is much to be preferred.

And every now and then you run across an item like this one, from CBS News, about a man in Georgia who first threatened to kill the President, but couldn’t get anyone to lock him up for that:

Lance Brown was hungry and homeless, so he decided to get thrown in jail by hurling a brick through a glass door at the Columbus courthouse building.

Do we need more evidence that our society is sick? Is this the best we can do? America announces to the world a remarkable accomplishment — we have discovered how to end homelessness.  Simply throw everybody in jail!


Source: “The poor: America’s piggy bank,”, 05/17/12
Source: “Bangor Police Arrest Homeless Man For Charging Cellphone,”, 06/30/11
Source: “Repeat, low-level offenders costly for Boulder County Jail,” Longmont Times-Call, 04/16/12
Source: “Jail or Homelessness?,”, 06/28/11
Source: “Hungry homeless man gets arrested intentionally,”, 05/01/12
Image by matt44053 (Matt Dempsey), used under its Creative Commons license.