Facebook Slider


Optional Member Code
Get News Alerts!
Thursday, 10 April 2014 09:08

Criminalizing People Who Live in Cars Is a New Low in the War on the Poor

  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email


8036143615 c34c5348ce m(Photo: origamidon)The war on the homeless - in which some cities have passed laws outlawing giving food to the homeless, not to mention longstanding laws against "vagrancy" - has taken a cruel turn. Now, some municipalities are outlawing living in cars and other vehicles.

People who live in cars are one step above the penury of complete homelessness. Denying them the shelter that an automobile provides is another cruel step in the war against people without economic means. Such actions give the term "the war on poverty" a whole new perspective: punishment for not having enough money to afford increasing rents.

The growing war on car dwellers is featured in an April 8 article in The Wall Street Journal: "Homeless Lose a Longtime Last Resort: Living in a Car: Cities in Silicon Valley, Elsewhere Crack Down on Vehicle Dwellers Driven Out of Apartments by Rents."

Nearly 70 cities are considering such crackdowns on people whose vehicles have become their homes, according to the Journal:

For months now, Mr. Smith [a former information technology specialist] has feared he might lose his current home, which is stationed on a street near a quiet Palo Alto park. An ordinance passed by Palo Alto last year would punish people cited for living in a vehicle with as much as a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

"You're at risk of losing everything," Mr. Smith said recently. "It's a weird feeling that until you've lived this way, you don't realize what it's like."

For the moment, the city has delayed enforcing the ban while the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers a challenge to a similar law in Los Angeles. A decision is expected in the next few months and could affect similar laws in cities including nearby San Jose and Santa Clara.

Local advocates for the homeless in Silcon Valley are fuming:

Homeless advocates say cities should do more to aid homeless people, rather than prosecute them. Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said that as homelessness increased during the recession, there has been a boost in "laws that criminalize it," such as bans on camping in public places and restrictions on sitting and lying on sidewalks.

Robert Dolci, homeless-concerns coordinator for Santa Clara County, called the vehicle-dwelling ban in Palo Alto "horrible."

"With the dearth of affordable housing for folks, sometime they have no other option," said Mr. Dolci. He said that with a low vacancy rate and rising rents, landlords aren't necessarily eager to rent to people with spotty employment and credit or limited government housing subsidies.

The laws in Silicon Valley and elsewhere that would criminalize living in a car are an outgrowth of how strongly the "frame" of economic inequality has shifted to the right.  Large swaths of the United States - including the largely socially progressive, but economically rich Silicon Valley - are, in essence, making it illegal to be destitute by passing laws against strategies that allow the homeless to survive.

This development is also a reflection of the "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) limits of liberalism.  One can believe in the rights of the homeless and extend empathy toward them in the abstract, but as long as they are "not in my backyard."

Of course, such dire conditions as using a vehicle for shelter are often integrally related to the shift of a financial system that values individual mega-wealth over economic justice. The law that passed in Palo Alto is not just lacking in compassion; it tries to sweep under the rug the systemic inequities that plague the United States. 

In Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where rents are soaring - and homeprices are skyrocketing - homelessness cannot be addressed by driving the poor into jails.

It is way past time to address the root causes of such economic distress, and treating human beings living in cars as illegal is not the way to do it.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.