By Barbara Ehrenreich, The New York Times. Posted August 19, 2009.

If you're living on the streets, engaging in the biological necessities of life --
like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering -- these acts will get you in jail.

It's too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s
almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar
Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well
advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like
sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that
there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute,
most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s.
“If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire,
you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg,
Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that
“the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to
sleep under bridges.”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty
has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more
poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on
Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances
against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and
arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or
carrying an open container of alcohol.

The report lists America’s 10 “meanest” cities — the largest of which are
Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are
springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been
considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz.,
carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is
indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person
whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply
for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely
Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a
wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is
ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai,
Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until
last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of
the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not
drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant —
for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for
sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of
the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the
homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr.
Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.”

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be
breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started
handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the
nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding
the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several
members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the
anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now
Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing.

If poverty tends to criminalize people, it is also true that
criminalization inexorably impoverishes them. Scott Lovell, another
homeless man I interviewed in Washington, earned his record by committing
a significant crime — by participating in the armed robbery of a steakhouse
when he was 15. Although Mr. Lovell dresses and speaks more like a summer
tourist from Ohio than a felon, his criminal record has made it extremely
difficult for him to find a job.

For Al Szekely, the arrest for trespassing meant a further descent down
the circles of hell. While in jail, he lost his slot in the shelter and now
sleeps outside the Verizon Center sports arena, where the big problem, in
addition to the security guards, is mosquitoes. His stick-thin arms are
covered with pink crusty sores, which he treats with a regimen of frantic

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization —
one involving debt, and the other skin color. Anyone of any color or
pre-recession financial status can fall into debt, and although we pride
ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state,
Texas, people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to
“sit out their tickets” in jail.

Often the path to legal trouble begins when one of your creditors has a
court issue a summons for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or
another. (Maybe your address has changed or you never received it.) Now
you’re in contempt of court. Or suppose you miss a payment and, before you
realize it, your car insurance lapses; then you’re stopped for something
like a broken headlight. Depending on the state, you may have your car
impounded or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible
summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” said Robert Solomon of
Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

By far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the
wrong-color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor
encounters racial profiling, but for decades whole communities have been
effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both
dark-skinned and poor, thanks to the “broken windows” or “zero tolerance”
theory of policing popularized by Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New
York City, and his police chief William Bratton.

Flick a cigarette in a heavily patrolled community of color and you’re
littering; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang
allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as
a potential suspect, according to “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of
Justice,” an eye-opening new book by Paul Butler, a former federal
prosecutor in Washington. If you seem at all evasive, which I suppose is
like looking “overly anxious” in an airport, Mr. Butler writes, the police
“can force you to stop just to investigate why you don’t want to talk to
them.” And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.”

There’s no minimum age for being sucked into what the Children’s Defense
Fund calls “the cradle-to-prison pipeline.” In New York City, a teenager
caught in public housing without an ID — say, while visiting a friend or
relative — can be charged with criminal trespassing and wind up in
juvenile detention, Mishi Faruqee, the director of youth justice programs for the
Children’s Defense Fund of New York, told me. In just the past few months,
a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes
handcuffing teenagers found on the streets during school hours.

In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much
as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level.
According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000
students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.

Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent
of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late
for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without
stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children
home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an
ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters
to school.

The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor
while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation
budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it
a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are
few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and
especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage
scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.

And if you should make the mistake of trying to escape via a brief
marijuana-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of
course is illegal too. One result is our staggering level of
incarceration, the highest in the world. Today the same number of Americans — 2.3 million
— reside in prison as in public housing.

Meanwhile, the public housing that remains has become ever more
prisonlike, with residents subjected to drug testing and random police sweeps. The
safety net, or what’s left of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

Some of the community organizers I’ve talked to around the country think
they know why “zero tolerance” policing has ratcheted up since the
recession began. Leonardo Vilchis of the Union de Vecinos, a community
organization in Los Angeles, suspects that “poor people have become a
source of revenue” for recession-starved cities, and that the police can
always find a violation leading to a fine. If so, this is a singularly
demented fund-raising strategy. At a Congressional hearing in June, the
president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
testified about the pervasive “overcriminalization of crimes that are not a risk to
public safety,” like sleeping in a cardboard box or jumping turnstiles,
which leads to expensively clogged courts and prisons.

A Pew Center study released in March found states spending a record $51.7
billion on corrections, an amount that the center judged, with an excess
of moderation, to be “too much.”

But will it be enough — the collision of rising prison populations that we
can’t afford and the criminalization of poverty — to force us to break the
mad cycle of poverty and punishment? With the number of people in poverty
increasing (some estimates suggest it’s up to 45 million to 50 million,
from 37 million in 2007) several states are beginning to ease up on the
criminalization of poverty — for example, by sending drug offenders to
treatment rather than jail, shortening probation and reducing the number
of people locked up for technical violations like missed court appointments.
But others are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of
“crimes” but also charging prisoners for their room and board — assuring
that they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s
growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public
transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be
content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor,
neither can we afford to go on tormenting them.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York
Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. A frequent contributor to the New York
Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, she is a contributing writer to Time