Criminals of poverty

Pub date May 29, 2007
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION The morning I got out of jail, I walked through the icelike streets of Oakland touching ivy and running my fingers along the sides of buildings and cars and the trunks of trees. It wasn’t that I had forgotten how they felt. It was just that knowing that these things were still there, even when I wasn’t, helped to ease the shudder, the ache, and the tension that were now permanently lodged in my head.

Due to some extremely innovative legal work by a local civil rights attorney, I was given a chance to write as a way of working off my several thousand dollars of fines and months of jail time for crimes of poverty. In my and my poor mixed-race mama’s case, this was for the sole act of being homeless in the United States — a citable offense.

The most recent invention in the march toward increasing the criminalization of poverty in San Francisco is Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposed Community Courts — or what the Coalition on Homelessness so aptly renamed poverty courts.

These courts would focus on status crimes — crimes like the ones I was charged with not so many years ago, crimes that are unavoidable for people who are poor and living on the streets.

These courts represent a further step toward the permanent criminalization of poor and homeless people, disguised as a more compassionate approach to so-called quality-of-life issues.

But the reason this is inane and a serious waste of resources is that no amount of punishment will ever succeed in lifting people out of poverty.

As a youth raised in a houseless family who was cited and arrested countless times for the act of sleeping in our broken-down vehicle, I was given referrals to community service agencies for several thousand hours of community service (free work), none of which I could ever complete, which then led to jail sentences and a criminal record — yet I was never offered housing. Instead I was continually criminalized for the fact that we didn’t have housing or the money to acquire it.

The proposed price tag for the poverty courts is $1.3 million. That’s money that could be funding permanent housing, mental health services, and drug treatment that would actually improve the quality of life for poor people.

The information gathered by the Coalition on Homelessness and Poor magazine indicates that the city plans to redline a portion of the poorest neighborhood in San Francisco (the Tenderloin), and any sleeping, sitting, vending, camping, graffiti, and prostitution tickets received in this area will be sent to a special court.

This is consistent with the massive increase in sweeps, arrests, and citations of homeless folks since Newsom came to office.

My writing–media production assignment was eventually completed, albeit slowly, while I lived through the devastating experience of being a youth in a homeless family. Had I not received this innovative work-around, I would not have made it out of the criminal injustice system and in the end would not have made it out alive. *


Tiny, a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia, is the cofounder of Poor magazine and PoorNewsNetwork and the author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America.