The Exploitation and Criminalization of Poverty in America

Aramark is in the news again, and this time it’s not about their failed Michigan prison food service contract, but it’s just as reprehensible.

The Exploitation and Criminalization of the Homeless

hobo signQUESTION: Do you know what the symbol to the left means?

Unless you were a depression-era hobo, and we’re guessing you weren’t, it probably holds no significance.

In that bygone era, it was one of many “signs” left by hobos on curbs, walls and trees to alert their fellow vagabonds of local conditions — places to avoid, vicious dogs, kind ladies, and in this case, “work for food.” Frequently, farms and churches would be the ones offering the sustenance for labor exchange.

Well, apparently it’s back, but with a modern and ominous high-tech twist.

In the Tampa Bay area, the New Life Pentecostal Church, led by Pastor Tom Atchison, opened a homeless shelter in 2002 named New Beginnings. Atchison offers roof and rations to the homeless for $600 a month — and for those unable to pay cash, he provides them with what he calls “work therapy.”

The pastor feels that hard labor is just the ticket for the multiple difficulties faced by the chronically homeless — including those often suffering from mental and physical illness, frequently coupled with drug and alcohol addiction. The shelter lacks a clinically trained professional to assist those in need, but not to worry, the Tampa Bay Times reports they do employ a former motorcycle gang leader to counsel the indigent, addicted and ill.

The kinds of “jobs” typically filled by New Beginnings’ residents are positions in Jesus loves hobosconstruction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving and painting. Among them also are assignments working the food concession stands at nearby Raymond James Stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rays and Lightening’s games.

Atchison justifies his “work therapy” approach claiming it’s modeled after a perfectly legal Salvation Army program.

Labor lawyers disagree though, citing the lack of records kept on the number of hours worked, and the dearth of documentation proving the compensation was at least equal to the prevailing $7.25 minimum wage. Plus, there’s another troubling aspect to the arrangement — as reported in the Tampa Bay Times:

The Salvation Army’s program is legal, experts said, because its members work only for the Salvation Army. When Atchison sends his men to provide labor to for-profit companies, they said, he may be breaking the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The work was farmed-out to a for-profit entity — you guessed it — Aramark Corporation.

Using labor in exchange for food and shelter, while under-compensating workers, was found illegal in a 1998 ruling in a case involving a similar program in New York. (The precedent-setting ruling was made by a federal court judge by the name of Sonya Sotomayor, who now sits on the highest court in the nation.)

So, here’s the new hobo sign of our times, found on the Raymond James Stadium website — an offer from Aramark to run their concessions for a small cut of their profits.

Raymond James Stadium

Catherine Ruckelshaus, of the National Employment Law Project told the Tampa Bay Times “This is outrageous. These workers are doing a job. They need to be treated with dignity.”

South of Tampa, the City of Fort Lauderdale has a different, but equally egregious plan for their homeless population. They recently passed an ordinance making it illegal to feed homeless people in public places. The city has twice arrested 90-year old Arnold Abbott for offering food to those living on the street. He’s not about to stop though.

Other communities across the country have been enacting laws making it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks, among other things. The National Coalition for the Homeless describes the problem as a civil rights issue:

Unfortunately, over the past 25 years, cities across the country have penalized people who are forced to carryout out life-sustaining activities on the street and in public spaces; despite the fact these communities lack adequate affordable housing and shelter space. Ultimately, many of these measures are designed to move homeless persons out of sight, and at times out of a given city.

Some Good Shelters Fight an Epidemic of Homelessness in Michigan

Homelessness remains no small problem for our nation, with between five and six hundred thousand individuals living on the streets at any given time. And at this time of year, many are struggling with the additional burden of coping with temperatures that kill.

Shelter Temp graphic

Michigan alone, has 86,000 homeless people — most are families, and one in three are children.

The Manistee Safe Harbor program didn’t open its doors until Nov. 12th this year, on a night the temperature dipped down to 28 degrees. The program is run by volunteers from a number of churches in the county. They rotate taking-in the homeless from church to church, which makes it difficult for those in need to find the current facility. The program is the only one in Manistee County and it provides just night-time shelter, leaving the community’s homeless population to fend for themselves during the bone-chilling daylight hours of the winter months.

Traverse City has a similar Safe Harbor program sponsored by a number of churches. They too opened their doors when temperatures plummeted in early November. The city has a homeless population of 93 as of the last count. None of the participating churches possess the capacity to house that number, so program leaders are in the process of securing a permanent facility in a central location with a projected 90 bed capacity.

The Northern Michigan community has been split in an often bitter battle over the permanent facility. Residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed location worry that it will attract additional homeless to the city from the five county area, which is estimated to have just under 600 people without homes.

(Breaking: Glen Burkes, a 41-year old Grand Traverse County homeless man was hit and killed crossing the street on his way to a church shelter yesterday evening. The driver was not ticketed. It is believed the victim was intoxicated, and wearing dark clothing. So, now they apparently have 92 souls in need of care.)

The Community Housing Network, a Michigan-based advocacy group, cites the following as the most common reasons for homelessness in the state: lack of affordable housing, lack of a living wage, healthcare crises, mental illness, and the ongoing foreclosure crisis. Chronic homelessness often goes hand-in-hand with mental illness and addiction.

Homelessness, Mental Illness and Bad Public Policy

Dr. Robert Okin, a practicing clinical psychiatrist from the UCSF School of Medicine, has extensively researched the homelessness epidemic in America, focusing particularly on those suffering from mental conditions. He spent two years documenting the stories of people living on the streets of San Francisco, which he chronicled in his book, Silent Voices: People With Mental Illness on the Street

Okin dates much of the current problem back to the 1970’s when a policy shift shuttered mental institutions across the nation, putting people out on the street without the necessary resources to support their transition back into the community. Okin explained to Diane Rhem in a recent interview:

“There was a promise that when institutions were closed, that the money from the institutions would follow them into the community — a promise absolutely not kept.

[They] entered communities that were not prepared to accept them — that were actively hostile to them.”

Okin is crystal clear on the point that suitable housing must come first. Those in need, especially the mentally ill and those with various addiction problems, cannot receive meaningful assistance and treatment while living underneath bridges and in doorways.

Exploitive labor practices and the criminalization of poverty and mental illness are a moral cancer spreading across our nation. It’s high time that our public policy decisions reflect a position of empathy.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Here’s a link to the Michigan Homeless Shelter Directory (HSD) database.

The above photo of graffiti was taken at Grand Traverse Commons, in Traverse City, Michigan. A homeless man, John Keena, died in the woods nearby in 2010. The building bearing the sentiment is a shuttered structure that was previously part of the Traverse City State Hospital, where the mentally ill had formerly been housed, often by force. The hospital’s residents were released around 1980, leaving many to roam the streets of the community.

Structures at the site are undergoing renovation. Included among the multiple uses is affordable workforce housing. Visit The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.


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