Hamilton County, Ohio, home of Cincinnati, is seeking to ban homeless camps from its county. Its District Attorney argues that the homeless must go into shelters or leave the county.
I spent about twenty months as a live-in, full-time volunteer in a homeless shelter, which was an opportunity that brought me to Cincinnati in the summer of 2014. During that time, I lived as a Catholic Worker, a movement founded by Dorothy Day in the 1930s whose proponents devote their lives to fighting injustice, poverty, and violence. My time there informed my understanding of the plight of those living in homelessness and who it is that makes up that population.
Cincinnati and Homelessness
Cincinnati has a unique view on homelessness. First, we have the second highest number of children living in poverty, nearly 50%. Second, our Homeless Coalition was founded by one of the city’s most colorful residents of all time, buddy gray. He started the Drop Inn Center, now called Shelterhouse, in Over-the-Rhine, and fought efforts to gentrify OTR. He wanted to keep that part of the city as a haven for those living in homelessness and poverty, where housing would be affordable. He was killed by one of those who he served in 1996. His legacy is carried on by the Homeless Coalition, who still uses his motto, “whatever it takes,” as its marching orders.
Who Are the Homeless?
To begin with, a person is not “homeless.” They experience homelessness. Homeless is not a defining characteristic, rather an experience.
People who are experiencing homelessness do not fit a profile. They make up every gender, religion, background, age, race, and level of health. There are general trends, but it is impossible to paint a portrait of what a person in this situation looks like.
Virtually, no one grows up wanting to live in homelessness. Everyone wants some level of control over where she can live, what she can eat, and what she can wear. Everyone wants to be welcome and appreciated.
Why don’t they just get jobs?
Well, for a variety of reasons. Mental illness, drug addiction, mental disabilities, a criminal history, and maladaptive behaviors.
Executive functioning is that part of our brains that helps us organize things, stay on time, make decisions, temper our impulses, and adapt to different situations. Essentially, everything that keeps one from losing a job.
Depression, anxiety, trauma, post-traumatic stress, ill health, hunger, and everything else involved in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can impair our executive functioning. Some people just don’t have those abilities. All of these things are ubiquitous in the community of people experiencing homelessness. Executive functioning is just not prevalent in that community.
To commit a crime, one has to have committed an illegal act with some level of intention. We call the illegal act the actus reus. If you steal a bottle of soda, you have committed an illegal act. If you are an alcoholic, you have not committed an illegal act. But if you drive under the influence of alcohol, you have committed an illegal act.
In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Robinson v. CA, found that it was unconstitutional to punish someone for their “status,” in that case a drug addict. The Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment makes punishing a person for their status cruel and unusual. The opinion, written by Cincinnati’s own Potter Stewart, made the analogy of it being like putting a person in prison for having a cold.
Homelessness is an experience and status, and thus not a crime.
The second element of a crime is its mens rea, or its mental component. Almost all crimes require the act to be deliberate or intentional. No one wants to be living on the street in homelessness.
Why don’t they just go into shelters?
Well, there aren’t enough beds. A shelter is not a shelter is not a shelter. There are emergency shelters, which are meant for very brief stays; there are transitional beds, which are meant for longer stays; there are group homes; and there are specialized shelters that serve men, or women, or families. There are shelters that serve people in recovery. There are shelters that serve veterans.
Drug and alcohol use are not permitted in the shelters. Violent people aren’t allowed. The people staying in shelters have no privacy, no independence, and no autonomy.
For twenty months, I sat on the other side of hundreds of phone calls, with people begging for a place to stay. It isn’t supposed to be that way. Cincinnati has a central phone number, called the CAP line. What’s supposed to happen is that a person experiencing homelessness should be able to call that number, and after a brief pre-screen, be directed to a shelter with a bed waiting for them.
Unfortunately, the system doesn’t work that way. There aren’t enough beds. Families especially are underserved. Wait times for shelter beds are very long. Shelters are picky, naturally, because they want to keep their current residents safe and healthy.
Most of the people at the homeless camps are ineligible or turned away from Shelterhouse or the other shelters because they’ve had an altercation that makes them unsafe for the people staying there, or their addiction prevents them from staying sober.
Mind you, Shelterhouse is not a palace. My friends who have had to live there describe it as lacking in dignity, privacy, and peace. Fights happen all the time, your meals are at the whim of the people who are making it, and viruses like the flu get passed around. A person with mental illness may see that as inferior to sleeping on the streets. (I by no means mean any disrespect to Shelterhouse, as it does more than the best anyone else can do with its limited funding.)
A few years back, I was sitting in the downtown library, reading a book, when I noticed a group of men pooling their snacks and having a picnic in the library. I had just bought some snacks myself, so I shared them. The gentlemen invited me to partake in their feast, and it was apparent to me that they were experiencing homeless. It also became apparent to me that they believed that I was homeless. I was wearing a T-shirt from the Homeless Coalition and carrying a copy of Street Vibes, so I figure that was why they assumed that.
“Look, young lady, do you have a safe place to stay?”
“Okay, well, if you get thrown out of there, we have a good group at the 3rd street encampment, and we always keep the women safe.”
These are not lazy people, or ne’er do wells, or criminals. These are desperate people, who, for whatever reason, don’t function well in our society. Whether its physical illness, like drug addiction, or mental illness, their executive functioning and coping mechanisms are not like ours.
Those living in homelessness are capable of crimes. And, those crimes should be punished. But, not all homeless are criminals. If a person asks you for money, it’s not a crime anymore than the big advertisements on the side of buses asking you to spend money. Now if that person crosses the line and harasses you, a crime has happened. If a person has that awful sour smell from months of not bathing or washing their clothes, it isn’t a crime. If they defecate in public, that is a crime. Enforce the crimes we have, don’t make new unconstitutional ones against people because of their status.
Not having a home or a shelter is not a crime. And shame on this city I love for trying to make it one. My friends in the library are not criminals, and I’d much rather live in a city with them than with people who think we should criminalize being poor and without a place to stay.
(Come on, Queen City, we can do better.)