Discrimination, Harassment, Criminalization, and Abuse: The Daily Horror of Homelessness

Cory V. Clark 
RINF Alternative News

Imagine yourself with only a few dollars in your pocket, it’s 19 degrees outside, you’ve already been kicked out of the Metro entrance, one of the few places you have to protect yourself from the deadly cold, you’re freezing; where do you go?

If you are like many of the homeless this winter and during poorer weather throughout the rest of the year in the District, you go to a local  coffee shop, the chances are you spend a lot of your money there in fact, because even when you’re not trying to stay out of the weather you use it for its wireless internet and bathrooms, or to be able to relax and spend time with friends without being subjected to harassment, as well.

“Coffee shops are one of the few places you’re able to feel normal, safe from the threat of weather, the police and anyone else who might want to harass the most vulnerable members of society, they have nowhere else,” Peter Young, 28 said.

For the the homeless this attempt at being a normal functioning member of society has been stripped from them establishment by establishment. It starts with having to pay to use the restroom and then moves on to shorter and shorter time limits, finally being denied services and being told your business isn’t welcomed in that establishment, or having the police called on you for the simple crime of being homeless.

At a McDonald’s on the corner of New York Avenue and 13th Street in Washington DC these restrictions have led to hundreds of incidents of homeless people being forced to defecate on themselves or urinate in public over the past year.

“I’ve been in the Starbucks on the corner of 15th and K street and watched management tell elderly people who were obviously poor they could use the bathroom, because they didn’t buy anything, these were men and women in at least their 60s, they even called the police on one old man,” Finger said. “Where were they supposed to go everything was closed.”

“I walked into a Starbucks in October, waited in line and got a large coffee, sat down at a table, the manager on duty walked right up to me and asked me why I was still in her store, so I threw my coffee on the floor and walked out, it was outrageous,” Brett Glidewell, 25, said, ” I don’t understand why I was the one she came up to, there were other people who had been there longer than I had, I had just gotten my coffee, and it was slow for Christ sake.”

It would be one thing if this policy wasn’t reserved solely for those perceived to be “undesirable,” or of a type “unwelcome” as an Assistant Manager at  Pret A Manger referred to the restaurant’s homeless customers during an attempted interview with him.

“If people are buying things why does it matter if they are homeless or not, People in suits sit in Pret for hours on end often times having bought just a small coffee, but people who buy coffee and food throughout the day aren’t welcome, Maria Marshal, 36, an Event Planner who frequents the Pret A Manger at the corner of 17th and K Street, said.

“Sure there are poor and homeless people that do things like sleep, wash up in the bathroom, but to go after a whole class of people, because of a ha ndful of people is absurd, are they going to tell businessmen who have their meetings in coffee shops that they can’t hold their meetings because they take up too many chairs and have their paperwork everywhere, no of course not, so why are you going to tell a homeless person who bought the same things that the businessperson bought, they can’t hang out with their friends while they enjoy their coffee or work,” Michael Young, 36, an e ngineer with C. B. Richard — Ellis said.

However; homeless discrimination doesn’t stop with private establishments, it extends into political and criminal justice spheres; as well, even the advocates of the homeless tend to discriminate against them.

“That McDonald’s is the only place open after ten in the evening, there aren’t any public restrooms in the city after five, if I don’t have any money, where am I to go, I’m a woman, I can’t just squat in between a car,” says  Marquita, a homeless woman who lives near the White House.

“Earlier this year I experienced my first taste of homeless discrimination when me, my fiance and a friend decided to go to Cosi for some coffee, my fiance went out to have a cigarette and was told that he couldn’t smoke out by the road but had to move 50 feet from the restaurant when the sign and the law in DC is 25 feet from the entrance, he was banned when he stood up to the manager,” said Danielle Finger, a 25-year-old homeless artist, co-founder of The People Power Project and activist.

“As this was going on one of the employees came up to me and the gentleman I was talking to and told me I had to leave, she said I had too many bags. I only had two small bags, then there was my fiance’s rucksack with his camera gear and laptop, that was it. It was clear that the reason we were being targeted was because we were homeless, the employee said she was going to call the police, but my fiance had already done so on the manger for the discrimination he was receiving outside, the police sided with the manager and said they didn’t have a choice,” says Finger.

Over the course of the summer Starbucks began instituting policies similar to other establishments including restricting use of the restroom and time limits, although Starbucks claims they apply these new rules to everyone the reality of daily life tells another story, as homeless people are singled out while their housed counterparts are left alone to use the restroom as they please whether they make purchases or not, are allowed to sit in the seating area as long as they like again whether they purchase or not.

“An unfortunate trend in cities around the country over the past 25 years has been to turn to the criminal-justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. The measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violating these laws,” according to a report by The National Coalition for the homeless and The National Law center on Homeless & poverty, titled A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.

Government bodies are becoming more bold in their criminalization of the homeless as was the case of Columbia South Carolina where they openly declared it to be illegal to be homeless, going so far as to imprison the homeless that refused the option of going to the one over-crowded shelter on the outskirts of the city.

In Philadelphia where Mayor Nutter unilaterally banned feeding the homeless in the parks of the city, though the courts have stricken down the laws in both of these cases, in other cities this hasn’t happened yet; such is the case with the ban on feeding the homeless in Orlando, Florida.

As the nation turns its attention to Housing for All and Housing First Models such as the successful plan being implemented in Utah, which boast a complete end to chronic homelessness by next year, by simply giving apartments and caseworkers to the homeless with no strings attached.

“It’s cheaper for the state to just provide housing for everyone as opposed to cycling people in and out of jails, hospitals and shelters.  We found it cost the state more than 18 thousand dollars per person with the way things were before we started this program; we have it down to 11 thousand per person, per year,” a source inside Utah Governor’s office said.

“I went to a housing for all rally on Saturday and me and my partner were the only two people who actually currently lived on the streets in the whole room of over 500 people.  Here are all the people calling for housing for all but have they actually reached out to the homeless on the streets to find out what their needs are in the process?  All of these people out here are individuals with individual needs, and they haven’t done anything to reach out to  them,” said Finger.

If they had I bet that rally wouldn’t have gone as they had planned.  Mayor Grey and the city Council spent the whole time patting themselves for what they’ve done which was jack, and for getting 187 million in funding for housing per year out of which they expect to only create 10,000 housing units for the 70,000 people currently on the waiting list for housing, and they say that will end homelessness by 2020, bullshit,” Glidewell said.

“I go to places to get the services I need to help me get out of  this situation and I’m treated like I’m five years old or mentally handicapped, I’m in my 60s I don’t need some snot-nosed brat talking to me like I’m a child or stupid, and then you can’t even get everything you need in one place you have to go to ten other places and get ten other case workers it’s ridiculous, and god forbid I’ve had enough of it and raise my voice to one of these people after dealing with this all day, they want to call the police as if I don’t have a right to be upset,” Marquita said.

Discrimination against the homeless is not very different from that experience by different minority groups in the past, such as blacks, women, and the LGBTQ community; in fact it’s a combination of of all of these with the economic status and lack of housing to compound preexisting prejudices.

“Not only do we as a society need to be guaranteeing full human rights whether food, clean water and air, housing, healthcare and education for all but we need to get down to brass tacks and confront discriminatory policies and thinking across the board,” Finger said.

Cory V. Clark is a photographer and writer, who’s focus is on civil unrest, the Occupy Movement, Anarchism, other non – two party or anti-status quo movemnts. I tend to focus on direct action, news and analysis, occationally delving into opinion.