In The Evil That Men Do, Stephen G. Michaud and Roy Hazelwood list the “[…] traits of the antisocial personality — lying, substance abuse, promiscuity, disdain for social norms, cruelty, use of aliases, lack of a fixed address…”
They define “lack of a fixed address” — in other words, homelessness — as an antisocial personality trait, in and of itself. So do very many other authority figures and everyday citizens in our society. Is it any wonder that so often homelessness leads to a criminal record, just as a criminal record leads to homelessness?
It is a vicious cycle that, every year, larger numbers of people now find themselves trapped in. We seem to be heading for some nightmarish amalgam of the immense anarchistic societies that used to inhabit acres of slums in London and Paris, and the strange chaotic configurations of the urban cyberpunk future imagined by speculative fiction novelist William Gibson.
Far too many Americans spend their lives moving from correctional facilities to the streets and back again in an endless loop. Some are homeless because they are released from prison and have nowhere else to go. After a sentence of a year or two, it could happen that a person returns to an intact family situation. Finding a job might be almost impossible, but there is some chance that other family members will give a homecomer a place to stay and provide other forms of support, at least for a while. The save is tenuous, but not impossible.
Homecomers need another chance
How about a person who gets out after serving 25 years? How many friends and relatives have died in the meantime? Does anyone still even write? Are there children who have grown up and established their own lives, and would prefer not to associate with an ex-con?
What place is there for someone who has been incarcerated for a quarter of a century; who comprehends almost nothing about the modern world; who has no job skills; who probably could never get hired anyway because of his record; whose only acquaintances on the outside are likely to be former inmates like himself?
Now add to that scenario the very real possibility that the person might have been innocent in the first place. It happens all the time. We see how many people have gotten as far as death row, or even been executed for crimes they didn’t do. How many lesser sentences have resulted from wrongful convictions? It’s worth thinking about.
What if the person was grossly overcharged and/or over-convicted, for political, racial, or personal reasons, or because of a bad law that was later changed, leaving thousands of people serving time for actions that are no longer even crimes? These things happen often enough that to make any assumptions about any particular ex-con could be horribly unfair and only heap more injustice onto what they have already suffered.
True whether you like it or not
And there’s another thing. In his book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, Joel Dyer says:
Research has found that the vast majority of Americans, over 70 percent of us, have committed at least one imprisonable offense such as illegal drug use, driving while intoxicated, shoplifting, and so forth at some point in our lives.
Deep in his or her heart, every American adult knows “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s an old saying, and nowhere is it more applicable than when a free person compares himself or herself to a prison inmate. In many cases, the only difference between Joe Ex-Con and Mr. Upstanding Citizen is that Mr. Upstanding Citizen never got caught.
How many kiddie porn connoisseurs are running around loose, relative to the number of locked-up pervs? For each luckless nobody who was apprehended stealing a six-pack of beer, how many criminals in suits, responsible for stealing millions of dollars from hardworking Americans, are enjoying their illegal wealth without a care in the world, and looking down their noses at homeless ex-cons?
And, leaving crime entirely aside, consider this:
Our nation’s prisons have become the de facto housing facilities for many of our nation’s mentally ill.
Those words are from “Homelessness Prevention: A National Economic Stimulus,” the white paper written by Richard R. Troxell, President of House the Homeless. People too messed up to stay on the safe side of the law, even when they have no intention of antisocial behavior, are likely to be sentenced and incarcerated. What happens when they get out — still mentally incapacitated, plus with a prison record?
And regular people who made an error in judgment, a bad decision, and got swept up into the corrections system — what happens when they are freed? “Parolees,” Richard reminds us, “are not eligible for federal housing or food stamps.” Plus, a homecomer might have picked up a case of TB or some other condition, courtesy of the abysmal health conditions in penal institutions. There is a lot more to this extremely detailed document, whose overall theme is how to ensure that no one is discharged into homelessness — not from prison or from any institution.
And don’t forget — On Labor Day (Monday, Sept 2) take your Universal Living Wage banner to your picnic, and on Tuesday, unfurl it again from a highway overpass (see example on this page) or in front of City Hall. Or join a protest at a local Walmart on Labor Day or the following Monday.