All I want for Christmas is social and economic justice

This is not a joyous day for too many of us.
Some of us are without loved ones, perhaps for the first time.
Some of us are without a job and therefore without the means to participate in the way convention tells us we must — there is joy in giving, so we must consume, consume, consume, spend, spend, spend.
I spent a part of yesterday — Christmas Eve — talking to people who don’t even have a home, nevermind a tree all lit up in splendor.
We live in a time of historic economic and social inequality. Those of us who have something are encouraged to belittle and discriminate against people who have less — even against people who have nothing at all.
I’m working on an article about how cash bail keeps people incarcerated because we in this culture assume poverty equals guilt, if not of the crime for which we throw you in jail, then of being “lazy,” of wanting a “handout.”
One woman said to me, “I don’t have any way of knowing the date or even the time. I live under a bridge.”
But she spent 23 days in jail for the crime of missing a court date for sleeping in public.
“I cried a lot,” she told me. “But what can I do?”
Another young man has been homeless ever since he was released from foster care seven years ago with no skills and no help.
“I had marijuana paraphernalia,” he told me.
No pot, just the paraphernalia.
And he landed in jail for weeks, without a conviction.
We’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country, but poor people are thrown in jail and left there because they can’t come up with a few hundred dollars to pay the bondsman.
That $100 you have to come up with for the $1,000 bond routinely set for people who trespass or fall asleep on a park bench in the sun, that $100 is food for a month. That $100 is a quarter of a disability check for someone with a mental illness who could be stabilized and more than happy to contribute to society if they just had a place to call home.
Instead, we follow them until they fall asleep, exhausted, on a park bench and arrest them for sleeping in public. That arrest then bans them from the city’s parks, and if they so much as sit on a park bench to rest, they can be arrested again for trespass.
Rev. Amy Cantrell, who operates BeLoved House in Asheville, NC, says she has seen police follow people they know are homeless and arrest them as soon as they sit down.
Amy works with people who society considers disposable and every year, a dozen or more die.
The year my son died from medical neglect, one of them was a man named Tommy McMahon. It was February and it was cold. We had just learned that morning that Mike’s cancer was back and we were in Cary with him. He was napping and my husband and I were in a motel near his house when I got a call from a colleague who asked for some sources for a news story about a homeless man who had died the night before.
Tommy had gone to the emergency room with difficulty breathing and was diagnosed with pneumonia. They gave him some antibiotics and released him to the streets. It was in the 20s that night and he was sick, so he balked at going back out. Someone called the police and Tommy was brought to jail, where he died that night, alone in his cell.
I think of Tommy every year at this time — when the days are shortest and the nights are longest and coldest, when I know people are out in the cold with nowhere to go to get warm.
I think of Tommy when I see a homeless person being harassed and told to leave a place of business because they don’t have enough money to be considered worthy of society’s respect.
I think of Tommy when I see a tent in the woods along the side of the road and I know the police might show up and slash it because it’s illegal to camp just about anywhere they might pitch a tent against the cold and rain.
I think of Tommy when I see someone huddled in a doorway and I know they’ll be told to move along so the sight of them doesn’t disturb customers.
I think of Tommy when I remember that, although my son died of medical neglect, at least he had a warm bed and people who loved him.
I think of Tommy when I remember that the person I follow was born in a stable because no one would give his parents a warm place to be on that night.
I like to think Tommy is in a warm and loving place now, that his soul is nurtured and fed, even though his body was not.
On Christmas, I think of the people who have nothing because it seems nobody else wants to.
Today, I’ll celebrate by serving lunch to people who have little to nothing. I’ll hug them and I’ll tell them I care — because I do.
My sister and my son aren’t with us anymore. Neither is Tommy McMahon. But there are more than enough people with whom to celebrate the birth of a poor child who would change the world, and I don’t need to buy — or get — a new Buick to do it.
All I need is the spirit of the one whose birth we celebrate, the one who told us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick and welcome the stranger.
May your day be as blessed as mine.

Decriminalizing homelessness

A homeless woman in California begs for help for herself and her child.

In most cities, it’s a crime to be homeless.

People who don’t have housing are chased out of parks and out from under bridges; they’re shooed away from coffee shops, even when it’s freezing or steamy hot outside. In many communities, police slash their tents — anything to get rid of the reminder that not everyone is doing well.

Last month in Rhode Island, though, the state passed a Homeless Bill of Rights, assuring that people will be treated with dignity whether or not they have a place to call home. The new law prohibits governments, police, healthcare workers, landlords or employers from treating homeless people unfairly because of their housing status.

That’s a huge leap, considering most places are taking more steps to criminalize homelessness by passing laws against sleeping on the street, loitering and panhandling.

Here in Asheville, I have talked to homeless people who came here because they heard this is a kind city. In many ways it is, but it has laws against sleeping in public places and panhandling.

People who don’t have homes usually don’t have jobs either because so many employers now do background checks and deny employment to anyone with bad credit, nevermind someone who has no home.

Heather Johnson, a civil rights attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty told Huffington Post that her organization has noticed a sharp increase in laws around the country prohibiting panhandling, sleeping outdoors or loitering.

“We’ve seen a lot of egregious examples lately,” she said. “People are having their civil rights violated every day in cities across the country.”

The Denver City Council voted in May to prohibit eating or sleeping on public or private property without permission. In Dallas, city officials prohibit people from giving food to the homeless unless they register with the city first. Officials in Berkeley, Calif., have proposed a ban on sitting on sidewalks.

So, where are these people supposed to go? What are they supposed to do?

I’ve met a number of people who are homeless. Most have really tragic stories. Many are veterans who came back from war unable to cope with everyday life and denied the care they needed.

I’ve met women who were beaten by their husbands or boyfriends, who can’t go back to that relationship but have nowhere else to turn.

I know many people who have a mental illness but can’t get the care they need. Some of them lost their insurance because they lost their jobs.

I don’t know of anyone who is homeless by choice. I do know a number of very sad stories of misfortune that could happen to any of the rest of us.

Rhode Island got it right. How about the rest of the nation?

 

 

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