'People should stop fearing and blaming the homeless,' says SU professor 1by Jack Mayne
The editor of a homeless study released last week says the reason people get so angry at the recent increase in homelessness is because “they just don’t like to see it.”
Sara Rankin teaches lawyering skills at the Seattle University Law School, and is also the founder and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at the Korematsu Center. She has nearly a decade of experience in private practice at major local law firms. She oversaw the law students who made the study, editing their report that we first posted here last week.
“People don’t like to be confronted with visible poverty,” she said. “They just don’t like to see it.”
Laws that Rankin says criminalize homelessness in Burien and in many cities, actually retards the individual’s chance to get out of homelessness and even make matters worse.
Try this challenge
In an interview with The B-Town Blog, she wanted Burien residents to do something that is very difficult to actually do, something she said she could not do herself.
“I challenge you to spend one night on the streets and I challenge you to spend one day without money trying – without asking for help – to get through the day, of not using a private restroom because you won’t be allowed but staying out in public and not going to the bathroom.
“If you really did try that experiment it would be incredibly humbling – it would be terrifying and I think it is the terror of that possibility that keep people from even wanting to think about what it must be like to experience homelessness,” Rankin said, adding quickly, “I couldn’t do it, I know I couldn’t do it”
She said she would ask whether part of their reaction to visible poverty – the fear that they feel when they see someone – “could be a reflection of some level of awareness that it could happen to anyone, because it does.”
Rankin said the numbers of homeless children and families is “staggering” and a homeless male on the street is likely to have served in the military.
“Visible poverty can be dealt with in a more fiscally responsible and humane way,” Rankin said. “It starts by resisting the urge to dehumanize people as just ‘the homeless.’ These are human beings with real dimension.”
Society’s ‘Dregs’
Rankin pointed to Princeton University researcher Susan Fiske for having done a lot of “scientific and credible studies” on the perception of the homeless individual in public.
Fiske wrote in a 2010 study that, “Society’s ‘dregs’ (e.g., homeless people) appear neither warm nor competent, provoking the most negative feelings of disgust and contempt, as well as the worst behaviors, both active attack and passive neglect,”
Rankin said the groups of people who rate the highest in negativity “are poor people, welfare recipients, undocumented migrants and homeless people.”
It goes deeply into the culture of our society that we “fear and resent and blame poor people for their own circumstances.” She noted that poor people, and rich people, can at times make “extremely poor decisions,” but it isn’t fair to say that everyone who is poor or homeless is there because of their own bad decisions.
People of color or an LBGTQ person “are more likely to experience poverty and homelessness,” Rankin said.
Money spent now
“Burien is already spending lots of money on these issues, it is just not spending that money on issues that do anything to address the underlying issues of homelessness.
“Any time you are using the criminal justice system as a way to respond to visible poverty, it is going to be a waste of money because the criminal justice system isn’t the way to address the issues of visible poverty, it is a way to address issues of criminal justice. Police officers are not social workers; the court system is not a housing service.
“You are never, really fixing the problem, you are just kind of throwing that money away,” Rankin said.
A minor civil matter can escalate to a criminal matter if the person can’t pay the fine, or can’t appear in court, Rankin said.
“So, if I give a poor person a ticket, that says, ‘you need to pay $250 because you were panhandling in an area where you should not have been,’ it may as well be a misdemeanor for failure to pay because they are not going to be able to pay,” she said. “The reason that is a problematic and a wasteful way of using city dollars is because that person now is in a worse off place than they were before and certain benefits that would be available to people, like housing, like assistance to employment, like other social services are often barred to people who have criminal records.
If a person were sitting in the wrong place or left their belongings unattended it can quickly escalate into a criminal history which could make it even harder for them to get out of homelessness.
“This is why I say it really makes no fiscal sense to try to address the problem of visible poverty through the criminal justice system.”
Burien didn’t respond
The city, in a news release, said the Seattle University study did not contact them for information but Rankin said they did.
“We did actually try to reach out to Burien, we served public records requests on them and told them what we were using the information for and they really didn’t provide us with anything,” Rankin said.
Studies like this are good because, “…now cities want to talk to us about the problems,” she said.
If a city does not have the money for services, it is because Burien, for example, is spending it inappropriately – it should be spent providing needed services to those in need.
“They do have the money, they are using it now, it is just allocated to law enforcement … the police department can be redeployed more effectively if they are not dealing with these sorts of issues and it is not just the police department, it is the prosecutors, its public defenders, its bailiffs, its administrative staff, its jails – it is the whole criminal justice system. It is already being funded; those funds are just being spent on the wrong things.
She said it didn’t mean getting rid of the police, it just means redirecting the money from those thing to “non-punitive alternatives.”]]>