Jean Valjean did. The main character of Victor Hugo’s brilliant novel Les Miserables was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister. Hugo’s work is more than a simple tale; it reflects a society so extreme that poverty itself is virtually a crime.
Americans’ belief in fair treatment under the law would not tolerate such cruel and unusual punishment for so small a crime. When faced with heartbreaking stories of children with fatal diseases or survivors of natural disasters Americans are generous with their money and compassion. As individuals we show heart.
And yet we seem to be sliding into an unforgiving, punitive country, one policy at a time. Cumulatively these policies are destroying the safety net we created so that no one should ever have to steal a loaf of bread.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the criminalization of homelessness. Across the country more and more cities are passing laws that shuttle the homeless to jail, instead of offering services that could help them turn their lives around. They have lost so much already – homes, personal belongings, contact with friends and family, their hope and their dignity. Laws that make them criminals for being poor and homeless now cost them their freedom.
A study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty surveyed 234 American cities on this issue.
Of the 234 cities surveyed, the report shows that:
- 40 percent prohibit sleeping in public places
- 33 percent prohibit sitting/lying in public places
If only the people passing these laws would talk to the landlords about the rents they charge. While San Francisco bans both of the above activities, its average rent costs are astronomical. In a state with a minimum wage of $8.00 per hour, it costs over $2,600 per month for a basic two bedroom apartment. I’ll save you the math. A person would have to work 325 hours each month just to pay the rent.
Things aren’t much better on the other side of the country. A two bedroom apartment in Atlanta will run you over $1,000 per month – or 89% of the gross pay of a full time worker with a minimum wage job. And if you are unlucky enough to work for a company that only has to comply with Georgia’s minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, your rent will cost about $200 more per month than you earn.
City council members in Denver, CO need to consider rent costs before they pass a proposed ban on “unauthorized camping.” According to the bill’s language, “lt shall be unlawful for any person to camp upon any public property except in any location where camping has been expressly allowed by the officer or agency having the control, management and supervision of the public property in question.”
This provision places the burden of showing the owner’s consent on the individual accused of unlawful sleeping on private property. This logic might appear reasonable, until one stands in the shoes of the homeless person. A person living on the very margins of society would have to sort through bureaucratic layers that intimidate the general population to comply with this proposed law. In addition to finding hot meal sites and places to shower, looking for work, signing up for social services or attending counseling sessions they also have to search government property records to find owners so they can ask for consent.
And, by the way, the average rent in Denver for a two bedroom apartment is over $1,200.
Homelessness has many facets but there is one contrast we can clearly make – for many Americans their earnings prospects will not support even the basic costs of housing. Until we commit to changing this equation it will be inevitable for the homeless to commit this crime of sleeping outdoors on other peoples’ property. In the words of Anatole France, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921,
“The majestic equality of the laws prohibits the rich and the poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing bread”.