Poverty Is Not A Crime - Local Campaign

Submitted by admin on Fri, 10/03/2008 - 16:15

Caty Simon of Freedom Center is coordinating Freedom Center's involvement with the Poverty Is Not A Crime campaign, to stop the city from adopting anti-panhandling laws.

Get latest info at the Povery Is Not A Crime Blog here.

Listen to the recent WXOJ Madness Radio show on the campaign.

Read the UMASS Daily Collegian on the campaign

Read Tommy Devine's blog, with photos and videos of the protest

The Valley Advocate also recently ran a Letter to the Editor from Caty Simon

IndyMedia also covered the protest, read it here

Original Valley Advocate article about the proposed ordinance

2003 Gazette Article about Freedom Center members Satirical "Say No To Shop Owners" poster

Caty Simon 11-23-08 Letter to the Springfield Republican newspaper on MassLive.com

ABC local news coverage 11-23-08

local blogger coverage, including video and Caty Simon interview

another Daily Collegian UMASS store

Here his an excerpt from some of the educational work Caty is doing for this campaign:


The punishment is fines, fines that start at more than a hundred
dollars, and, of course, incarceration for those who can't pay--making
it literally a crime to be desperately poor. Poverty Is Not A Crime's
brochure discusses this absurdity, as well as the fact that there are
already laws against harassment on the books, so laws against
panhandling itself are totally unneccessary--plus, my part of the
brochure draws attention to the fact that there aren't any reported
incidents of violent crime from panhandlers, and instead, homeless
people are much more likely to be victims of violence. Middle class
people are much, much more likely to suffer from violence from
domestic abuse or be attacked by someone they know, a friend or a
coworker. As for stereotypes about homeless people, here's the
unedited version of my part of the brochure:

"They'll Just Spend It On Drugs: The Homeless, Drugs, and Mental Illness"

When we discuss homeless people and mental illness, we often end up
putting the proverbial chicken before the egg, confusing cause and

First of all, poor people's emotional problems are often
exaggerated in our perception of them--even among professionals.
(Perhaps especially among professionals.) Many studies have shown that
psychiatrists, when faced with files containing the very same
symptoms, will diagnose different cases with more severe mental
illnesses if the person under discussion is a person of color or lower
class. Thus, a white, upper middle class person is labeled with
depression, while a homeless black person, displaying the *very same*

symptoms, is deemed "paranoid schizophrenic." We also overlook the

simple fact that oppression creates emotional disturbance. We still
know very little about the emotional problems we call "mental
illness", and the science we base what we do know on is still very
shaky--studies funded by pharmaceutical companies with obviously
vested interests, or studies that tell us very little, or are flawed
in execution. But one of the few things we do know is that trauma
*does* rewire the brain. There are few experiences as traumatic as
poverty and homelessness, being hungry and exposed to the elements,
wearing the same clothes for months and being unshaven and dirty,
going through the humiliation of begging, and being stigmatized and
looked down on wherever one goes. Thus, homelessness is not caused by
craziness and incompetence--it is homelessness itself that makes
people disturbed and traumatized. it is ludicrous to think that mental
illness leads people into homelessness--many people diagnosed with
mental illness, no matter how dysfunctional they are, live well,
depending on what kind of economic resources they have. And many
people "saner" than you or I become homeless when no low income
housing is available, when they lose their jobs, or when welfare can
no longer pay for rising rents, grocery bills, and gas. In an economy
like this one, to blame homelessness on people's mental health is to
overlook the elephant in the room.

Finally, even when the homeless are
ex-mental patients, the symptoms they display may not be effects of
their "illness", but scars from mistreatment in the mental health
system. The strange, jerky tics we often associate with schizophrenia,
for example, are not schizophrenia but a common side effect of
anti-psychotic medication, brain damage called "tartive dyskenesia."
Psychiatric medication often comes with side effects that cause
emotional problems themselves---for more on this and the science
behind it, read Pulitzer prize winning Boston Globe journalist Robert
Whittaker's book, _Mad In America_.

As for drugs and homelessness, let's try a thought experiment. If you
were homeless and poor, without the support network you now have (or
with it, but they're all homeless and poor too)--after a long day of
panhandling, what would you spend money on? Whatever you earned
wouldn't be enough for first-last-and-securities on an apartment. It
probably wouldn't be enough for a h/motel room for the night--unless
maybe it was the day before Christmas (lots of shoppers with Xmas
spirit) and you didn't eat... (And often, b/c of the severe, draconian
governance and mistreatment/peer-on-peer crime within a shelter, you
don't want to go there either.) You don't have a place to store and
refrigerate food, so you can't buy food cheap in bulk, and you have no
place to cook, so it has to be prepared food--so you often have to
waste  money on fast food or diner food.  So after eating, you don't
have much money at all left over. What would YOU spend money on? If
you had, maybe, at most $15? If you had no other resources? What? It's
very difficult to make "good" choices in that situation--you don't
have the wherewithal to do so. So maybe, sometimes you'd succumb, and,
besides some food, buy something that would at least make you feel
better. Many people we know, even you, or I, might turn their social
drinking into a daily bottle, or their occasional bowl of marijuana or
party line of cocaine into something more intense and regular. This
type of desperate use of intoxicants could be *anyone's* crutch in
these circumstances.

But let's put it in perspective. It is a statistical fact that *most*
illicit drugs are consumed by white, middle or upper middle class
people, simply because they have the money for them.  Go to any
treatment center and you'll find people from every class, race, and
situation in life. Drug and alcohol use is not specific to the
homeless by a long shot, and most of the time, use among this
population is sporadic, because they just can't make enough of an
income to support any kind of habit. When they do use, it might be
more likely to be a binge, because it's easy to fall into a
nihilistic, self-destructive attitude when one is in such a hellish
position. But don't fall for the lies: homeless people are not
violent, not even when under the influence of drugs or alcohol. (I've
never heard anyone talk about any violent incidents regarding
panhandlers in Northampton, and neither has anyone I know--except
online. And even online, all of the accounts are about feeling
threatened, rather than any actual violence or intimidation--people
are panicked by propaganda that the homeless are dangerous--very
useful for Main St. businesses that are trying to clear the street for
the tourists---and their own classism.) In fact, the only intoxicant
that has even been significantly statistically connected to violence
at all is alcohol, and even then,  we're  more than twenty times more
likely  to be attacked, robbed, or raped by someone we know. Violent
crime almost always occurs between friends and coworkers or in
domestic violence contexts. Homeless people are much more likely to be
*victims* of violence---especially when they're made more vulnerable
by being intoxicated. If you're under the influence, you can't stay in
a shelter, even though you are more likely to be attacked in your
drunkenness, and in the winter, more likely to freeze to death because
you're numb to the cold. (Several people die that way in Springfield
every year.)

But again, put it in perspective. The people in Northampton who
consume the most drugs and alcohol are probably affluent young adults.
Homeless people just can't afford any intoxicants on more than an
occasional basis. Many homeless people are as sober as church ladies,
and just struggling to get by, never mind getting high.

What's most important is for us to understand the agendas behind
painting panhandlers as mentally ill drug users:

Labeling panhandlers as mentally ill and drug addicted can become a
classic case of blame-the-victim. If it's poor people's bad habits and
chaotic lives that led them to homelessness, then that frees us from
our social responsibility. This glosses over the collapse of social
services in this country over the last 15 years, the huge dearth of
low income housing and the fact that welfare only pays for a week's
survival out of a month with today's cost of living, especially in
Northampton. Barbara Ehrenreich in _Nickled and Dimed_ and many other
cite the fact that statistically poor and/or homeless people work in a
number of jobs throughout their lives---we are not dealing here with
Ronald Reagan's specter of the lazy, entitled Welfare Queen but with
the problems of a depressed economy, regionally and nationally, where
blue collar work is shipped abroad to sweatshops where labor only
costs pennies for the hour. Again, picture yourself homeless, even
picture yourself using mind altering substances to get through the day
and acting erratically because of the stress--would therapy, rehab,
and psych drugs magically feed, clothe, and shelter you? Would any of
these things work to stabilize you when your daily life was still such
a nightmare of deprivation? Would you have to be in treatment before
you *deserved* housing and enough income to survive? Powerful people
with agendas are playing sleight-of-hand with the issues, making us
see a psychological problem instead of a brutally simple socioeconomic

When we see homeless people as junkie madmen, businesses and
politicians that want to clear space for the tourist trade can make NO
PANHANDLERS seem as sensible and innocuous a message as DON'T FEED THE
ANIMALS. The more deviant, alien, crazy, and *unlike you* the person
asking you for change is made to seem, the harder it is to identify
with them, to remember that they are probably hungry and cold, and
yes, they do need the money for food, clothes, and other basic