- Politics and Social Issues
The Crime of Poverty - The Homeless
Poverty on the Street
August 11, 2011
There is no law on the books making poverty a crime. There is no law which includes the words "poor," "homeless," or "poverty" anywhere in this land.
No, laws targeting the poor use words like "loitering" or "transient" or something similar. There are even laws that prohibit charitable organizations from feeding the homeless. These laws require any organization that gives away free food to acquire a health permit. Those permits are never issued.
Levels of Homelessness
There are many levels of poverty. Homelessness is the absolute rock bottom, but even here there are levels of poverty.
Homeless that sleep in a camper or car are a step above those who have nothing but a shopping cart or wheeled grocery carrier. The homeless without even belongings, owning only the clothes on their backs, are a further step down on the homeless list. These people are at very bottom.
They are all risk. Death is a very tangible reality. Escaping this level of poverty seems impossible and these days, with drastic cuts in social programs, it is very close to impossible to get off of the street.
Social programs, those programs to help and revitalize these wasted lives have been cut from the budget in may locales. Here in California in particular.
"We have weapons of mass destruction we have to address here at home. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Unemployment is a weapon of mass destruction." - Dennis Kucinich
Who Are They?
The Not So Sane and the Sane
Many aren't just homeless, they are also mentally ill. Either their families have abandoned them as hopeless or they have left the comfort of family life because they are incapable of making rational, logical decisions.
Kelly Thomas, the thirty-seven year old schizophrenic who died five days after a police encounter is a prime example. Homelessness is not just debilitating and demeaning; it can be downright deadly.
Many are simply down on their luck and don't experience any mental disabilities. But I've often wondered if starting out sane is no guarantee of losing one's mind when times get so bad that you end up owning only what you are wearing.
No matter how they got to this level of poverty it really doesn't matter as much as the type of treatment they can expect on the street.
That treatment includes continued harassment from law enforcement, mistreatment from a few angry people in the community, harassment from businesses in the area, and even from each other though this last is rare.
The next few sections will highlight some of the cases I've witnessed or heard of. Everything related here is has happened. This is no work of fiction.
“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?” - Mohandas Gandhi
James and the Shopping Cart
I was working a food line in Venice, California (really part of Los Angeles). It looked like we were going to feed about fifty people. The number is hard to gauge; people keep coming up as you are feeding them, some more than once, so getting an accurate count can be tough.
One of those in line had a shopping cart from a store nearby. It was loaded with his belongings. As a recent homeless he had a nice suit, a suitcase and some other more valuable items in that cart. This is how you can tell a recent "graduate" to homelessness. They have more valuable things than those who've been out there three months or more.
Los Angeles had recently passed a law regarding "re-purposed" shopping carts. The carts are to be confiscated and the person using it ticketed.
As we were handing out food three police officers approached; they asked the crowd who was using the shopping cart. The man whose belongings were in it stepped forward and "confessed to the crime." On of the officers had him remove all of his belongings while another wrote him a ticket for having the cart. I was told the ticket was for $160.00.
The next week I did not see the man again. I asked what had happened to him and his belongings. I was told that about half of this stuff had been stolen since he didn't have anywhere to keep it and that he had decided not to hang around that area any more. This is the whole point of that law by the way; move the homeless elsewhere.
A month later I had still not seen the man; one of the people in the line told me, when asked, that he was facing a bench warrant because he did not pay the ticket and was laying low. The next time he was "busted" in Santa Monica he would go to jail for not paying the ticket.
I mean, I don't think I'm alone when I look at the homeless person or the bum or the psychotic or the drunk or the drug addict or the criminal and see their baby pictures in my mind's eye. You don't think they were cute like every other baby? - Dustin Hoffman
The Mass Harrassment of "Food not Bombs" Homeless
Santa Monica, California passed a number of "anti-homeless" laws in 2002. Some of these were deemed too vague and were overturned. Each time this happened Santa Monica city council simply passed a new law to replace the old even though the wording was nearly identical. Each time a court case will have to be brought to challenge the law and in the interim people will be deprived of their property by police action.
One of the laws prohibits a person from leaving a bag or backpack on public property for more than ten minutes.
Food Line Harrassment
Shortly after this law was passed the above named organization was handing out food to a long line of homeless. Santa Monica police swooped in while everyone was being fed and with a portable dumpster picked up every backpack and bag left on the sidewalk by those in line.
The items ended up in the city dump.
Health Permit Required
Santa Monica also now has a law that prohibits charitable organizations from handing out food without a health permit. The health department typically hands out a select number of permits per year and there are never enough left over for those charitable organizations.
Santa Monica is going to rid itself of homeless no matter what it takes.
Ruben Sandoval's Trial by Fire
On January 2, 2010 sixty-four year old Ruben Sandoval suffered third degree burns on his hands and face when a local business employee attempted to discourage Ruben from "hanging around" the auto repair business. Manuel Medina doused Ruben's shopping cart with gasoline and set it ablaze. The cart was full of Sandoval's clothing, blankets and food.
What Medina did not realize was that he had also spilled some of the gasoline on Sandoval.
Sandoval's medical expenses have run one point five million dollars and the business was found liable.
Ruben Sandoval is a military veteran.
Manuel Medina is serving a five year prison sentence; procescutors sought an eleven year sentence.
Ruben will suffer pain and the shame of disfigurement for the rest of his life.
"[This is p]art of a long history of people attacking vulnerable homeless individuals in Los Angeles. They think the person is less than human because they happen to be homeless. I don't know how you could do that to another human being." - Andy Bales
John's Death by Fire
In 2008 a man known only as John or "Grundy," in the Koreatwon area was doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Business owners in the area said "John" never asked for money nor bothered anyone, but people handed him money just the same.
John had been a fixture here for close to twenty years.
John was later identified as John Robert McGraham who once worked at the Ambasador Hotel. When that establishment closed John was out of a job. He fell into a deep depression.
Despite his family attempting to help with a therapist; it didn't work. They also had him committed, but John released himself against medical advice. He eventually ended up in Koreatown where he became a fixture.
His sisters visited him regularly bringing him food, money and clothing. They were surprised to learn, after John's death, that the neighborhood had adopted him too.
Eyewitness reports are that two young men exited a Honda sedan and doused John with gasoline. When John tried to flee they followed him and doused him with more gasoline. Before leaving the area one of the young men struck a match and threw it at John. Before anyone could get to John with an extinguisher it was too late. An autopsy revealed that he had third degree burns over ninety percent of his body.
John's murderer(s) remains at large.
Seven out of 10 Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless. - Pras Michel
Mary's Disappearing Wheelchair
Mary had some mental health problems. I never did find out exactly what those were, but you don't really ask those kinds of questions of the homeless.
The best thing you can do is try to make sure they are healthy and fed and try to treat them as normally as possible. They have enough on their minds without being reminded of their state of affairs.
One of our regulars was Mary. She used a wheelchair to cart her belongings around on. At least this way she was not likely to lose her belongings or be ticketed for using a shopping cart. She was very pretty, but life on the street had done something to her. She wasn't very fit and seemed older than her years.
She hadn't shaved in the better part of a year, but other than that she kept herself clean. It was hard talking to her though, not out of embarrassment, but because she seemed to struggle to find the right words for even the most ordinary of conversations.
Someone told me she'd been in an auto accident, suffered brain damage, and had been so badly injured that she couldn't work; shortly after she had lost everything.
After one of many Santa Monica police harassment activities Mary moved to another county. I never did learn how she got there, but what I did find out was that she was arrested for loitering shortly after arriving in the new town. The police would not let her take her wheelchair to jail with her so she had to abandon it with all of her possessions as well.
When she was released both the wheelchair and the belongings had disappeared. The police had moved her from one level of homelessness to a lower one.
Mary's possessions now consisted entirely of the clothes on her back.
“People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.” - Sheila McKechnie
Fullerton Wrongful Death Suit
July 5, 2012
Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas' father and retired police officer today filed a wrongful death suit against the city of Fullerton and the Fullerton Police Department.
Kelly Thomas, Beaten to Death
Kelly Thomas had recently been taking his medication; when he started feeling better he stopped and once again ended up on the street.
Kelly was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Despite having a loving father and mother and a standing invitation to come home, Kelly always ended up in a homeless situation. Kelly's dad, a retired Orange count Sheriff's Deputy, says that friends would tell him where they'd seen Kelly last. He'd go there and try to talk his son into coming home, usually without success.
Ron Thomas stated that Kelly's condition was cyclical at best. He would take his meds, start feeling better, stop taking his meds because he felt better and then end up on the street.
On July 5, 2011 Fullerton police responded to the report of cars being broken into. They spotted Kelly Thomas, shirtless, sitting in the area the crime was reported. They attempt to search him and he put up a fight. Eventually six Fullerton police officers were involved in subduing him. Thomas died five days later on July 10, 2011.
The responding police never reported finding any cars that had been damaged or broken into.
The Fullerton police chief said his officers did nothing wrong, but would not answer specific questions about the incident to the press. He is now on medical leave. While on medical leave he cannot be fired.
Witnesses say two officers were on top of Kelly attempting to subdue him. Two more officers arrived and shot him once each with a taser. Finally two more officers arrived. Witnesses described a beating with a police flashlight and boots.
Other witnesses reported that Thomas was no longer moving or resisting when officers kicked and beat him on the back of the head and neck.
Kelly Thomas had a long record with Orange County Health Services. He was described as "paranoid schizophrenic." The county was seeking to have him committed when this incident happened.
Kelly Thomas will not see his thirty-eighth birthday.
In an unusual move for Fullerton, a town known for "tough-love" and conservative views, residents have taken to the streets with signs. A recent city council meeting meet with an overflow crowd of residents demanding answers. This is not going to go away or be swept away by delay or silence.
Autopsy results are still being held from public review. The police department can delay the release of this report a number of months pending an internal investigation. I predict that the delay will have little effect on public outrage.
Cash Settlement Offer or Hush Money
In what I consider an astounding move, the city of Fullerton has offered Ron Thomas $900,000 to settle any possible case with the city. Mr. Thomas has not responded to the offer.
I find this astounding since the autopsy results are being promoted as "inconclusive," and not yet ready for release. The Fullerton Police Department has not issued it's findings. The District Attorney's office has not concluded its own investigation, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has not made any conclusions of it's own. Yes, the FBI is now involved. Likely any charge from that quarter will involve denying someone (Kelly) his civil rights.
To my way of thinking the amount represents "hush money."
September 21, 2011
Santa Ana county District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced charges are being filed today against two officers involved in the arrest of Kelly Thomas. Officer Manuel Ramos is being charged with felony second degree murder and, additionally, felony involuntary manslaughter. A second officer, Jay Cicinelli is being charged with involuntary manslaughter and an additional charge of excessive force.
In making the charges Rackauckas cited Kelly Thomas' cause of death to be asphyxiation due to excessive sustained pressure being placed on Thomas' chest. Other injuries were mitigating factors in Thomas's death.
Rackauckas went on to say: "In Orange County, we generally trust our law enforcement and we have good reason to, We must do everything we can to ensure that we protect this trust, including, if necessary, prosecuting police officers who violate the law."
This announcements come after Santa Ana residents have demonstrated, demanding answers, for ten weeks without interruption.
The next in this series of articles will be about the homeless with shelter. But a car or a camper is no guarantee against harassment as you will see.
So no, poverty is not a crime, but you'd never know that by the way the poor are often treated. Worse a homeless person can be subjected to the ultimate penalty, without a trial or a jury of his/her peers.
How one human can deem another not worthy of life is beyond me, particularly if the abject is simply poor.
This is the country where every citizen can expect equal treatment, a fair hearing, and an even shot at a good life..unless they are poor.
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