By 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.”

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30 replies on “‘People should stop fearing and blaming the homeless,’ says SU professor”

  1. I fear that with the direction I’ve read these conversations going on this blog in the past, this expertise will fall on deaf ears, and people who don’t even know what they don’t know about the topic will continue to be dismissive of the Sara Rankin’s and Susan Fiske’s of the world and continue to have zero empathy for the homeless in our area. The challenge issued (“…to spend one night on the streets and … spend one day without money trying – without asking for help – to get through the day….”) would indeed be an excellent way to generate real empathy amongst those of us who do have homes and access to money — if only people would actually do it.

    1. Seattle University does not allow the homelees to use their bathrooms or nap in their library.

  2. In the game of life there are winners and there are losers. Individual circumstances and how you deal with them decide which team you play for. So step up, or step out of my way because I have no patience for laziness or thieves. I have a study you can read, it’s on the topic of working for reward and it’s a true story based on cause and effect.

    1. That “there are winners and there are losers” mentality offers Black-And-White thinking on a topic has a lot of grey. Is an individual “lazy” if their circumstances have beaten and beaten them until they feel completely defeated by life? What about the idle rich whose lobbyists/politicians and megacorporations help them “steal” constantly? They’re pretty lazy because they can afford to be, and somehow that’s okay because it’s invisible and not confronting you on the street in your town? And, who are any of us to judge those who have nothing… we who have access to money tend to actually have LESS than nothing because we are so far in debt by owning houses and having mortgages hanging over our heads — did you ever think of it that way? The homeless, on a ledger, are technically “richer” by having only zero instead of being in the red like those of us with a mortgage. Historically, many of us grew up in an era when there were safety nets, and we were taught to think “oh there’s a bloated mismanaged social/govt program somewhere for THAT problem…” but the social safety net has been quietly dismantled over the last couple decades — so quietly, that many aren’t even aware that the safety net programs people used to have just aren’t there anymore. I am scared — no, terrified — that by the time I am old, despite all my efforts and savings and following every “rule” I’m supposed to, I will still outlive my savings and have no where to go but try to camp out in a park somewhere. And THAT is why I want to see changes to programs that impact the homeless now, like ordinance 621. Compassion and empathy are needed… we ALL – any one of us – could be in their shoes some day — I have no confidence whatsoever in the socioeconomic systems that are in place today “holding up” (as if they do now) in the future. Poverty in and of itself is not and should not be made into a crime. Don’t worry, Question… if I do end up an old lady living in a park somewhere, I won’t come to you for a handout. But, a little bit of empathy and not being automatically assumed to be lazy or criminal would sure be nice.

      1. You have taken the laziness quote and interpreted it unfortunately as gospel. One must at the very least show some self initiative to present themselves as more than a never ending drain on society, cost versus contribution.

    2. Life is full of surprises, especially when narrow minded people realize you can be a winner and then later on in life, be a loser too. Burien has many issues, but it’s resident’s cannot seem to agree on their homeless. How can someone who has not had the eye-opening experience of losing their home,all of the things they worked for, or got kicked out by a parent, there are many reasons for why people become homeless. It sometimes takes experiencing these things to learn empathy for others. I walk in Burien daily and I have never feared any of the homeless. With experience comes knowledge. Give some of these people on the streets a big garbage bag, tell them to bring it back full of the litter that plagues Burien and give them a breakfast. Wow! It would not be a handout, but you could have good things come about from an idea like that. All of these people who are having a rough go at life are someone’s son or daughter. I will close saying this, “I have no patience for idiot’s, and there’s a lot of you in Burien”!

      1. Give them breakfast for picking up after themselves, they make the mess and now a reward for picking it up? It has been said and it applies here “don’t crap in your own nest”

      2. Dream on, oh and by the way did your own property get stolen last week by a homeless methhead, mine did.

  3. Homelessness is a choice.
    Upon offering to buy one a cheeseburger, “aw cant you just give me the money, man?”
    Shelters are available.
    They dont go to them by choice. They could have a hot shower, hot meal, and a bed if thats what they were wanting.
    Remember, as a previous study found, at least 30% of the “homeless” actually live in houses and generate incomes of up to $20 per hour just by pan handling.

  4. I have been some what home less before when I was about 20 I got in a argument with my father and he kicked me out . I had no money and no food couldn’t find a job at the time lucky I had a friend with a couch I could sleep on. I also knew of where there are some shelters if needed and know how to follow some simple rules. The problem with most of homeless people in the area they get use to living on there own terms and don’t want to follow the rules of the shelters (most cant follow no drug activity or alcohol use on premisses). In the end
    I survived it ended up only being for a few days. I also know that most homeless are not out breaking a bunch of laws. There not usually the ones that steel stuff . There some that on a cold winter night they might do something stupid like j-walk in front of cop then flip them the bird to get warm bed to sleep in for the night.
    The problem I have with the homeless are the ones that sit on a corner of freeway off ramp or in front of a business and bug people for money. If they need help they can get welfare and food stamps but a lot of these people already get these services but trade there food stamps for drugs or booze or they get caught doing this and loose there benefits. So they spare change you have to figure the ones on the freeway off ramps have to be making at least a couple hundred dollars a day. The ones in front of a business $5 to $100 in a few hours. This is why they keep coming back to the same spots. This is why the city is doing what it is doing to try to curb this problem so it not a big issue anymore.

  5. Mental illness is real and can be treated. One of the best ways to begin treatment is to remain abstinent from alcohol and illicit drugs.
    Alcoholism and drug addiction are also real, and the most effective way to treat those afflictions is total abstinence.
    If those afflicted choose not to be treated, then what are our options? Keep our cars and garages unlocked so they can be picked clean at night? Walk over vomit and human poop on our way to return our library books? Pay more taxes?

  6. The new Burien commications officer, Katie Trefry, sent the article writer an e-mail regarding the response to the authors of the homeless study.
    ” The City did respond to the Public Records Request filed by SPU’s Law School. Our response was carried out by two staffers and consisted of information pertaining to citations issued due to the specific violations for which the requesters asked.
    As you know, a public records request triggers legal compliance rather than policy development, and as a result, does not constitute a reliable method of communication or outreach.”

  7. It is human nature to look at something unpleasant (like homelessness), assign a reason (like laziness), and convince ourselves it will not happen to us because we will not make the same mistake.
    If the homeless, poor, teens, etc. break the law, charging a fee they can’t pay is silly. Have them do community service like picking up trash, cleaning out brush from the park, etc.

  8. Sometimes when I see homeless people it hurts because giving them money isn’t what will help them in the long run, many I have encountered are not motivated to get out of homelessness. Other times I avoid because am tight money wise by the skin of my teeth and do not want confrontation and have to explain to the aggressive ones that I honestly have no money.
    There have been some who are very kind humans. Some ex-military, some divorced and had everything taken from them. Heard about the gentleman who called 911 for food..pulls at the heart.
    I think information for where to go for food, shelter, and getting out of poverty needs to become more available somehow.

  9. ‘People should stop fearing and blaming the homeless,’ says SU professor”
    But then what fun would we have?.*lol*

  10. Great article attached! Thank you. Burien, commenter, “Say What?” and like minded individuals seem to have the councils ear right now. I’d be great to expand on this story with a break down of the council members, their background, and how they actually stumbled into the positions as council members. It might help us understand how they opted for such a terrible approach to this local eye-sore. Just because a small group of people voted them in, doesn’t mean their right for the job or should be doing the job. Let’s all remember our current State Auditor who’s currently under a federal indictment. Just saying. I’m guessing the Burien administration works very closely with the B-town blog, in order to shine a bright light on Burien. So, I was surprised to see such an unbiased story from the Blog. Thank you. I guess you can call that…well, I’ll just leave it as a good read and even better comments. They really reveal Burien’s mindset and challenges, and I’m expecting one of two things out of this post: 1. absolute silence or 2. absolute aggression. It seems to be the Burien way.

    1. “A small group of people voted them in” well actually the majority voted them in, that’s how an election works.

      1. What an asinine response to a good point! 20% of Burien’s population voted in the last election. Of course the majority of voters selects the winning candidate (thank you for the democracy lesson), but the will of the citizens comes from a small number- slightly more than 10% of the community.

        1. A dismal voter turnout is one thing but did you consider while doing the math the inability of illegals to vote. Also after what the last Council did to this town one may have become disinterested.

          1. Are you really asking this question? Since you’re interested to know, I included both winners and losers in the calculation. In simple terms, the entire community. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I also included people of an antiquated generation who use the label ‘illegals’.

          2. Oh gee golly, I should have used undocumented aliens instead. Actually you become “illegal” when you don’t follow immigration laws and cross borders without permission. Want to argue the law?

          3. Which are honestly advocating, that people question authority or that they blindly follow the law? Undocumented migrants live, work, and pay taxes here, and you’re annoyed by it. I guess that makes them winners, and you not.
            Sure, I’ll argue the law with you. Go do some research– get your terms right, firstly –and we can take it up. Immigration is a political football so pick your favorite era and see if the law sticks.
            Does it make you feel less bad when you demonize others? Really, I want to know.

          4. Back to the topic, which actually is off topic regarding this article. Can “they” legally participate in the local voting process? A yes or no will suffice.

          5. Question,
            Don’t even try to reason/argue/discuss issues with Unbeatable.
            I have tried and tried and tried to talk with liberals about these types of issues and it is impossible.
            They are completely intellectually dishonest and operate only on emotion. Anger mostly.

          6. You’re the one who picked our topic and I don’t see any reason for you to give up now.
            I think we can answer that question with intellectual honesty, and if you remember my words maybe they will help you in the future. No good question can be answered with a simple yes or no, not even exceptionally ignorant questions like yours.
            Of course undocumented immigrants can’t vote in elections, and they don’t. But they legally become citizens, they pay taxes (They do it without getting services in return. Since they subsidize you, that makes you a freeloader.), and they are members of the community deserving of representation.
            They also have allies. This isn’t a liberal concept. This is how the world works.

  11. Ms. Rankin appears to do the same type of slippery double talk as most lawyers do. Here is an example-“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.”
    Everyone knows that filling out a Public Information Request is just a process to get a specific file and is handled by the city clerks. Also it would have been illegal for the clerks to question or make comments about why this group was requesting these records or what they intended to do with them. Had Ms. Rankin and her student been courteous, they would have provided Burien with the study prior to making it public and asked for comments and concerns. They didn’t do that.
    Let us not kid ourselves that Burien’s presence in this study blown up to hyper-level is not coincidence. As SAFE has stated at Council meetings, there are at least 100 cities in Washington State that have somewhat like ordinances as does also KC Metro and the libraries. So why isn’t this big news about those cities and agencies too? It isn’t news because Lauren Berkowitz isn’t in their cities going to the SU meetings trying to bring down their council members, citizens and businesses who don’t agree with her. Lauren Berkowitz did attend meetings at SU to fuel their attentions toward Burien.
    So why aren’t these other cities, the City of Seattle, the King County and State being admonished for their lack of attention and services to the homeless and why isn’t SAFE regularly at their meetings Protesting? It is because SAFE and their other tag along groups are not as interested in ending homelessness as they are in stroking Berkowitz’s political ambitions, agendas and get even attitude. Why weren’t they protesting over at Sea Tac about removing those encampments on public lands or why Sea Tac doesn’t have public showers for their homeless? These protests cost the citizens of Burien money and are probably driving up the Police costs for the year.
    Ms. Rankin belongs to that long recognized group of societal blood suckers known as lawyers that charge ridiculous amount of money to their clients for services. This group of professionals are generally white, upper income individuals that bring that baggage along with all they do and make their living at pushing the limits of the law on the rest of us with their word play. Ms. Rankin’s opinion of we are in Burien, how we should spend our resources and her pronouncements about what have been our life experiences or what they should be are reflected in her comments. Let her go to the City of Medina where they take your picture as soon as you enter the city and tell her story. Or Hunts Point, or Newcastle, or Normandy Park and the list of small cities in King County that consider themselves the economic elite. Or to SU to open their doors and campus to all of the homeless in Seatle to freely use their buildings. Where are those homeless free showers on the SU campus? How many homeless are they sheltering during the inclement weather? How many is SU feeding in it dining rooms daliy? And why does security and tuition cost so much at SU? Is it because they are just not using their money in the right places? Everyone knows Ms. Rabkin’s employer, the Catholic Church, is rich and should do this as part of their university’s mission instead of just writing paper reports?

  12. Difficult at best to perceive the reception of this “self proclaimed” liberal who’s majority of supporters are largely drawn from Botulinum toxin vintage residents with to much money and no real idea on how to help humanity because of the “I, ME, MINE’ thought processing .

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