2 Years in Jail for Sitting on a Milk Crate? The Shocking Ways America Punishes Poor People Living on the Street

066d708d4dadaa262f4e33f3f97b595c_xlargeBy Tana Ganeva

Editor’s note: There are more than one million homeless people in America and 138 million people who live paycheck to paycheck. Many more are struggling, wondering how they’ll make rent or get enough food. Those numbers are astounding. This is America. Many proudly think our society is fair, but the evidence overwhelmingly shows that fairness in America is a myth. In the weeks and months ahead, AlterNet will shine more light on America’s economic injustice in an ongoing series, Hard Times USA. Since many have chosen to look aside, or think the traditional ways of doing politics will fix things, there is still much to learn about how this problem will be solved, or not solved.

We are launching our ongoing series with two articles today: Part 1, below, looks at how America punishes poor people living on the street, part of a larger pattern of dealing with poverty through criminalization rather than social and policy fixes that have been shown to work better. Part 2  addresses the growing apathy toward the plight of the poor, after decades of conservative demonization. As the gap between the wealthy and the poor keeps growing, there is a sense that more and more people don’t want to deal with the poor. Is that how you want our society to be? What’s your role? It’s time to rethink poverty. Part 3 in our series, running on Wednesday, looks at copper theft as a means of survival in California’s poorest city. Part 4 will look into the psychology of how people react when they encounter street homeless. Much more to come.

— Don Hazen, executive editor of AlterNet

In 2008, Atlanta police orchestrated an unusual sting: officers shed their uniforms to go undercover as tourists and office workers, a stunt designed to entrap beggars in the city’s tourist areas. Forty-four people were arrested for panhandling in one month. The best part about the sting, police officials said at the time, according to the  Atlanta Journal Constitution, was that while actual tourists rarely bothered to come back to testify about their terrible abuse at the hands of the city’s beggars, the undercover cops would make for enthusiastic witnesses. At the time, Atlanta had banned panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM, bus stop, taxi stand, payphone, public toilet — and anywhere after dark.

Laws that restrict panhandling are designed to target poor people living on the street. Other examples of laws that apply almost exclusively to the unhoused include bans on sitting or lying down on the sidewalk, eating in public, setting up camp or sleeping in a park or other public places. Advocates say these laws are used as a tool to drive the homeless out of sight.

Take the case of Gary Williams. Williams just spent 30 days in jail, because on two occasions a San Francisco police officer found him slumped over, asleep, on a milk crate. He did not have any camping gear with him — not even a blanket — yet he found himself charged with public nuisance, unauthorized lodging, and obstructing the sidewalk, his lawyer, Andrea Lindsay, tells AlterNet. The first two are misdemeanors, which carry up to a year of jail time each. On Monday, Williams pled guilty to one count of unauthorized lodging after the judge warned him that he could end up in jail for two years. The plea deal Williams opted for means he’s banned from the two blocks where he used to reside and will be on probation for three years.

“This is a dude who ended up in jail for the heinous crime of sitting,” Paul Boden, organizing director for the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) tells AlterNet. “When poor people stand for their rights, they sit in jail.”

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