Lame Rationalizations Criminalize Homelessness

by | Mar 17, 2015 | Uncategorized

The important thing about this news story is not its timeliness, or the people’s race, or age, or which American state, or any other mundane detail. This story is a stand-in for scenarios taking place all over the country every day. It goes beyond generic into classic, because of the assumptions behind it. As journalists are taught to do, Zack McDonald sums up the facts in the first sentence of his article:

A homeless couple has been arrested on charges of child neglect after police found them camping in the woods with their 2-year-old child exposed to the elements…

Wait a minute. What’s wrong with that? Aspen and Vail are full of 2-year-olds  exposed to the elements. Those ski slopes are cold! Whereas this story happened in a place with a subtropical climate and an average temperature of 74 degrees, this time of year.

Both parents were charged with placing the child in danger of physical and mental injury when officers investigated the conditions of the camp, and the child was taken into protective custody.

The first question that springs to mind is whether the child was ever left alone in the woodsy camp, or always in the presence of an adult. This important information was not given. McDonald reports the facts from the police department’s documentation, which covers only part of the situation, because at the time the story was published, more criminal charges were expected.

On a higher level, what kind of a catch-all criminal charge is that anyway? Every person on earth is in danger of physical or mental injury, at every moment, including those kids on skis. Here is another messed-up angle. Apparently, the police find the crime of living in the woods particularly heinous because, in their estimation, these people didn’t really have to live there.

It would be different if they were just down on their luck, but… they had the means to help themselves.

So claims Sgt. Aaron Wilson, in an example of cop logic at its most ludicrous. He says the mother had “enough U.S. currency on her, which she could have rented a motel room.” Really? For how long? One night, before the family would be back out in the woods again with nothing left for food or diapers? What if the only motel in the area requires that guests have a car, and they don’t? What if they can’t reach a motel without walking for miles along a busy highway, exposing their child to massive air pollution and the danger of being hit by a truck? What if the motel requires picture I.D., and for one of any number of possible reasons, they don’t have it? If they spend their money on exorbitantly-priced temporary accommodation, how are they supposed to save up the first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit, that they will need to move into an apartment, provided that anyone will rent them one?

Law Enforcement and Cash

Whatever amount the mother had, the officer characterized it as “more money than most people carry around.” For starters, a lot of people these days never carry cash, because they have credit cards and debit cards and pay their bills online with direct bank transfers. Nowadays, having cash is proof of belonging to the lower class.

However much the woman had, maybe it was earmarked for something—like a vaccination for the kid, or to buy a bus ticket out of town. The point is, we don’t know, and neither did the police, and it’s none of their business anyway.

Though the couple did not have a permanent residence…Parker Police were hesitant to call them “homeless.”… After further investigation, officers also found that the couple had been paying rent on a storage unit and were paying two cellphone bills…

The implication seems to be that according to the police, to truly deserve the status of homeless, people are supposed to own absolutely nothing. It’s also disturbing how the police don’t seem to be aware that even the cost of a storage unit and two phones is still only a small fraction of what it takes to actually live under a roof.

Police reported that witnesses had seen the couple and child coming and going from the camp site for weeks. The site had several blankets, but no tent or shelter.

To call the observers “witnesses” instead of neighbors really reinforces the idea that people experiencing homelessness are criminals. And what about these witnesses? During all these weeks of seeing the couple and child, how many of them came forward to offer a tent or sleeping bag, or the room above their garage, or a hot meal?

The child was turned over to the care of the…Department of Children and Families after immediate family…declined to take custody.

The public is supposed to assume that if relatives won’t help by taking in the child, these must be incredibly bad people. But maybe the only living relative is a grandparent with one leg, who has kidney dialysis five times a week, and can’t possibly care for a child. Or what if the mother’s side won’t take the child because they disapprove of the father’s religious affiliation? We don’t have a clue about what’s going on, but are all too ready to judge.

And speaking of prejudicial language, when authorities approached, the father “fled on foot” (only to be rounded up later.) Well, what was he supposed to do, stick around and volunteer to be arrested and locked up too? From that helpless position, how could he ever rescue his woman and child from custody?

Now, there may be reasons why this particular couple deserves jail time. But none of the reasons cited in the article actually qualifies—not in a decent society. There may be reasons why the child should be taken away and the parents incarcerated—but they have not yet been heard. What about “family values?” What about sticking together and trying to make it on their own? Obviously these parents did not want to hand their child over to the state, and for that, on a heart level, can they really be blamed?


Source: “Homeless couple charged with child neglect, 03/12/15
Image by Daniel R. Blume