Resisting the Criminalization of Homeless Lives

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Credit: Paula Lomazzi, Director of Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee.

By David Roddy

Since December 9, 2014, over 100 of Sacramento’s poor and homeless have lined up every Tuesday for a free organic meal outside the doors of City Hall hosted by the Community Dinner Project, organized by Occupy Sacramento. The food line starts two hours before city council is called to session. Hundreds of Sacramento's poor line the sidewalk in front of City Hall to share a hot meal. Although these dinners take place on city property, the event is not sanctioned by the city government. In fact, it is expressly forbidden.

In October of 2013, the City passed an ordinance requiring all community groups to obtain a permit before sharing food with the homeless. The Community Dinner Project addresses this and other community issues by providing a hot meal and an environment for discussion. Participants are then encouraged to attend the city council meeting and speak during public comment.

This new ordinance is part of a growing body of laws targeting the poor. On top of laws against panhandling, it is now illegal to camp in public and private spaces. It is illegal  to carry “camp paraphernalia”- such as sleeping bags- in public spaces. Sleeping in parked cars, or resting in public parks after sunset, are also ticketable offenses.

In 2012, an appointee from the United Nations Human Rights Council decried the city’s crackdown on tent encampments, as well as the lack of access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities for the homeless in Sacramento. This was a clear warning that Sacramento is in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But since then police repression of the poor has only accelerated: arrests for homeless violations in Sacramento jumped 140% between 2013 and 2014. And it isn't just Sacramento: A 2014 study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found significant increases in laws targeting the poor between 2011 and 2014 across the United States.

The Community Dinner Project is challenging a deeply rooted historical trend, as the transformation of destitution into criminal activity is as old as capitalism itself. In 16th century Europe, anti-vagrancy laws had beggars and vagrants branded, beaten, and imprisoned. In Capital, Karl Marx argues that these laws set the capitalist machine in motion: “Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.”

The “Bloody Codes” of 19th century Britain increased the crimes eligible for capital punishment. These laws threatened survival outside of wage labor. They focused on petty property crimes such as rabbit stealing, unlicensed hunting, and begging (5). This pattern of criminalizing “surplus” humans contains a presupposition-- that in capitalism everyone has an opportunity to sell themselves to an employer. Poverty is then viewed as a lifestyle choice. A Los Angeles Times editorial opposing the California Homeless Bill of Rights lamented that such a measure would “sanction the culture of homelessness or to offer blanket approval for a way of life that society generally agrees should be ended.” A statement eerily reminiscent of Marx’s observation that the emerging bourgeois “treated them as 'voluntary' criminals. It assumes that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.”

In the United States, vagrancy laws formed the backbone of the post-Reconstruction “Black Codes” enacted in the South. These laws defined vagrants as any black person “who was guilty of theft, had run away, was drunk, was wanton in conduct or speech, had neglected job or family, handled money carelessly, and ... all other idle and disorderly persons." Angela Davis notes that “vagrancy was coded as a black crime, one punishable by incarceration and forced labor, sometimes on the very plantations that previously had thrived on slave labor.”

The professionalization of police forces in 19th century American cities brought large numbers of people into the disciplinary control of the state, with mass numbers of arrests following the establishment of urban police departments. Activist and author Kristian Williams argues that the majority of such arrests “were related to public drunkenness, vagrancy, loitering, disorderly conduct, or being a ‘suspicious person’...the greatest portion of the actual business of law enforcement did not concern the protection of life and property, but the controlling of poor people, their habits and their manners.” Thus, the criminalization of poverty is deeply tied to the formation of the police force as a means to discipline the vast urban “reserve army of labor.”


Following the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North and West in the first half of the 20th century, and the decline in manufacturing jobs coupled with white suburbanization in the second half led to an increasing racialization this “surplus population,” creating continuity between the modern policing of the poor and the Black Codes of the post-Reconstruction South. Little surprise that black people are disproportionately homeless in the 21st century.

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court declared that Jacksonville, Florida’s vagrancy law was unconstitutionally vague, ending the explicit illegalization of the status of being homeless. However, the creation of laws forbidding panhandling or sleeping outside implicitly criminalized homelessness, carrying on the legacy of vagrancy laws today. The accelerated passing of statutes since the 2008 financial collapse has brought renewed vigor to the ability of police to harass the poor. Journalist Aaron Cantú notes that “as recession- and austerity-battered cities look for ways to revive their economies, they’re offering huge tax incentives for companies to build entertainment complexes, hotels and retail chains in their downtown districts in the hopes that the relocation will spur a renaissance.”

Tellingly, Sacramento PD’s crackdown on homeless feedings and encampments has followed step-in-step with the development of a downtown arena. Laws built to control “surplus populations:” from enclosed peasants to freed slaves to those trapped in the wastelands of deindustrialized cities, are now repurposed to cleanse urban centers of the poor to ensure the comfort of wealthy investors.

Despite the historical entrenchment of laws surrounding concepts of vagrancy in America, the Community Dinner Project has been able to not only openly violate the city’s ordinance against unauthorized distribution of food to the poor and homeless, but also win concessions such as access to previously locked restrooms in a downtown park. Community organizer and homeless rights advocate James Lee “Faygo” Clark  states the project has “successfully got the bathrooms [opened] in Cesar Chavez plaza, got the repeal of anti-homeless ordinances on the agenda, and created a welcoming forum for the community to speak to the city council, all while guaranteeing an organic meal for the community."

David Andre, a military veteran describes his road to homelessness: “I worked in a sugar mill and learned what I could, in my 20th year at Campbell Soup Company I had a stroke, I worked ‘til I was taken off work by the company. I lost everything including the small house I was buying a mile from the factory.” This factory has since shut down. Now an active organizer of the Community Dinner Project, he says that “it has given me a voice to cause address of the terrible condition I find myself part of. We can make it better for everybody who wills change for our common good, feeding the hungry and addressing human rights issues at city hall has opened the public toilets at Cesar Chavez Park and is addressing the plague of institutionalized police brutality against unneeded workers.”

The Community Dinner Project uses direct action and civil disobedience by holding the illegal dinners, hosting street theater, speaking at city council meetings, and disrupting them when necessary, to leverage for a series of specific demands. In the process they have directly addressed the needs of their participants. This strategy is working. It should be a model for activists organizing in other urban areas as we resist the neoliberal progeny of vagrancy laws.

 DavidRoddyAID_100.jpg David Roddy is a member of the National Political Committee of DSA and is active in the Sacramento local.

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