Note: Ed Cara at Grumbles & Rumbles and Alexandra Brodky at Feministing (as well as many others) covered the issue of the rape and kidnapping victim who was arrested from a feminist, anti-rape perspective. One perspective that I found to be missing from the conversation is that of the homeless. When I engaged on the matter, it seemed that many did not quite grasp what it is like to be homeless — “Why did she lie about living with her parents?” and similar questions were posed. Here to clarify the matter is Daniel Samuelson of The Writing Engine (full disclosure: he is my partner).
Many (if not all) of us know about the fabulous arguments against using the term “illegals” to refer to people. We know about the noble struggles of immigrants: how many fight poverty as well as oppressive legal and cultural systems to survive and even thrive. They are not the only people called illegal.
I am not an immigrant. Despite that, I have been illegal. Why? I’m poor and, up until very recently, I was homeless*. While there are long and exhaustive reports about the issues surrounding the laws on being homeless as well as high profile cases of cities making it illegal to be homeless (since rescinded), there is another level to the illegality of homelessness, one that isn’t so readily apparent.
To the police, the homeless are, from the moment they see us, not people but undesirable and inhuman parasites. We cannot trust the police or any other authority that derives power from the state. Accordingly, we avoid the police if we can. Outsiders and law-breakers become the people who feed us, who give us a place to sleep that isn’t cold and uncomfortable, and, sometimes, who give us a way to escape. That escape can be a sympathetic ear or substances that numb the pain and help us relax. We start by being told we’re illegal and eventually become illegal since criminals are the ones will still treat us as human.
Technically, there are programs that exist to help the homeless. Most welfare programs are not in that category. Since Clinton’s reforms, many state welfare programs require that applicants have a permanent address and a job (SNAP is one of the few exceptions). Since welfare programs are administered on the state rather than the federal level, the laws differ and are difficult to generalize. This also makes it nearly impossible for the homeless to move from any particular area since their welfare access is dependent on them staying in a situation that already disadvantages them (i.e. has left them homeless).
As for shelters, homelessness has been increasing at a breakneck pace since the 2008 housing crash. The shelters in the US were never intended to take on so many people all at once. Many of the states hit hardest by the crisis are cutting support for shelters. Other programs rely on the homeless knowing about them, which we frequently don’t. Government programs here in the US are inherently adversarial as well – we need to prove that we’re homeless, hungry, disabled.
Depending on the city, if you say you’re homeless, the authorities will drive you to the edge of town and drop you off or incarcerate you instead. When it comes to filing charges, there is no option for “transient” on government forms; you must provide an address and a phone number.
This brings us to the woman who was arrested for allegedly lying about her whereabouts. There are two likely scenarios. Either the woman provided her parents’ address (i.e. the one that she uses as contact information since she has no other information to provide), which is a fairly common scenario for homeless people, or she lives at her parents’ home on occasion and would or could not for the same reasons that she is homeless. Whichever it is, her arrest reiterates what the homeless know: that we are illegal and therefore treated differently under the law.
* Due to the laws that make it difficult for immigrants to stay employed and care for themselves, the two groups certainly intersect.