Thursday, March 14, 2013

Criminalizing the homeless

Sec. 39-2. - Disturbing or removing contents of containers.
It is unlawful for any person to intentionally, knowingly or recklessly handle, scavenge from, disturb, or remove any contents of any bin, bag, or other container that has been placed for collection of garbage, trash or recyclable materials at the designated location for pickup by the department, or for pickup by any other public or private collection service.
It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the accused is the person who placed or caused the bin, bag or container to be placed for collection or that the accused is an agent or employee of the city.

That's the text of a Houston city ordinance that prohibits folks from digging around in someone else's trash. Now we can forget for a second that when I put something in my trash can I'm throwing it out because I don't want or need it anymore. I've put out old stuff with our recycling and there are times it's gone before I even go to bed.

The courts have used that argument to allow the police to dig through your trash can when they're looking for  something they can use against you. And it was so nice of the city council to give a blanket defense to the police. Notice that nowhere in the ordinance does it state that the agent or employee of the city has to be carrying out the duties of his or her job. Nope. It's enough that they get a paycheck signed by the City Controller every other week.

This is statute that James Kelly violated. Mr. Kelly is homeless. He was scavenging for food. Someone with the police department made the decision that what Mr. Kelly really needed was a ticket that calls for a fine between $50 and $2,000. Because that'll really solve the problem.

In response to public outcry about ticketing a homeless man for dumpster diving, city officials pointed out that the prohibition on dumpster diving is on the books (and, therefore, just had to be enforced because we just can't have laws on the books that we're not arresting or citing people for breaking). Well that's all well and good, Annise Parker.

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, said tickets for violations of the ordinance are written only in response to complaints that garbage has been removed and left outside of trash containers. 
"I know on the face of it, it sounds very cruel," the union leader said, stressing that most police officers would not cite someone for simply taking food from a dumpster.

The homeless get in the way. They don't dress nicely. They don't look clean. They're always hustling for something or the other. They sleep all over the place. Having homeless folks on the streets is a cold splash of water in the face of those who want to promote Houston as a world-class city.

But, they're there. Some of them are mentally ill. Some of them are drug addicts. Some of them were living paycheck-to-paycheck when they lost their job. Instead of criminalizing their behavior and trying to sweep them under the rug, why don't we do something to combat the growing number of homeless folks sleeping out on the streets every night?

But doing something to help doesn't mean issuing tickets for those rummaging through the trash looking for something to eat just because there's an ordinance on the books that says you can do it. We need to be asking ourselves what are the economic and social conditions that lead to homelessness - not devising schemes to hide them away in the corners so that no one knows they're around.

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