The United States has a long history of
using mean-spirited and often brutal laws to keep “certain” people out
of public spaces and out of public consciousness. Jim Crow laws
segregated the South after the Civil War and Sundown Towns forced people
to leave town before the sun set.
California’s anti-Okie law in the 1930s forbade poor Dustbowl
immigrants from entering the state and Ugly Laws (on the books in
Chicago until the 1970s) swept the country and criminalized people with
disabilities for allowing themselves to be seen in public.
Today, such laws target mostly homeless people and are commonly
called “quality of life laws” or “nuisance crimes.” They criminalize
sleeping, standing, sitting, and even food-sharing. Just like the laws
from our past, they deny people their right to exist in local
In June of this year, Rhode Island took a meaningful stand against
this criminalization, and passed the first statewide Homeless Bill of
Rights in the country. The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) — a
West Coast grassroots network of homeless people’s organizations — is
now launching simultaneous campaigns in California and Oregon. Rhode
Island will only be the beginning.
Today’s “quality of life” laws and ordinances have their roots in the
broken-windows theory. This theory holds that one poor person in a
neighborhood is like the first unrepaired broken window — and if the
“window” is not immediately fixed or removed, it is a signal that no one
cares. As a result, disorder will flourish, and the community will go
to hell in a handbasket.
For this theory to make sense, you first have to step away from
thinking of people, or at least poor people, as human beings. You need
to objectify them. You need to see them as dusty broken windows in a
vacant building. That is why we now have Business Improvement Districts
(BIDs) with police enforcement to keep the neighborhood flourishing by
keeping poor, unsightly people out of it.
We have gone from the days when people could be told “you can’t sit
at this lunch counter” to “you can’t sit on this sidewalk.” We’ve gone
from “don’t let the sun set on you here” to “this public park closes at
dusk” and from “you’re on the wrong side of the tracks” to “it is
illegal to hang out” on this street or corner.
Unless we organize, it isn’t going to get much better anytime soon.
Since 1982, the federal government has cut up to $52 billion a year from
affordable housing and pushed hundreds of thousands of people into the
shelter system or onto the street. At present, we have three million
people a year without homes.
1982 also marked the beginning of homelessness as a “crime wave” that
would consume the efforts of local and state police forces over the
next three decades. Millions of people across the country are cited in
crime statistics just for sitting, lying down, hanging out, and —
perhaps worst of all — sleeping.
WRAP and our allies recently conducted outreach to more than 700
homeless people in 13 cities. We found that 77 percent of people had
been arrested, cited, or harassed for sleeping, 75 percent for
loitering, and 73 percent for sitting on a sidewalk.
We’re right back to Jim Crow laws, Sundown Towns, Ugly Laws and
Anti-Okie Laws — laws that profess to “uphold the locally accepted
obligations of civility.” Such laws have always been used by people in
power against those on the outside. In other words, today’s Business
Improvement Districts and Broken Window Laws are, at their core, a
reincarnation of various phases of American history that are now
regarded as shameful.
And they reflect a political voice now openly entering the political
and media mainstream that dismisses social justice as economically
irrelevant and poor people as humanly irrelevant.
This is not about caring for or even advocating for “those people.”
This is about all of us. As Aboriginal leader Lilla Watson said, “If you
have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have
come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work
together.” If you are not homeless, if you are not the target now, then
understand that you are next. Isolated and fragmented, we lose this
But we are no longer isolated and fragmented. On April 1, 2012, WRAP
and USCAI (US Canadian Alliance of Inhabitants) sponsored a Day of
Action in 17 cities. We are one of hundreds of organizations and allies,
from Massachusetts to New York and from Tennessee to California, all
separate but all working together to give meaning to social justice and
protect the civil and human rights of all of us.
We can only win this struggle if we use our collective strengths in
organizing, outreach, research, public education, artwork, and direct
actions. We are continuing to expand our network of organizations and we
will ultimately bring down the whole oppressive system of policing
poverty and treating poor people as “broken windows” to be discarded and
To join our campaign for a Homeless Bill of Rights in California and
Oregon contact WRAP at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will hook you up with
organizers working in both of these states or others as this movement
continues to grow.