CJC just criminalizes the poor


OPINION Two SF police officers stood; another was in the car at the curb, door ajar, lights flashing onto the sidewalk. It was 3:00 p.m. and the lights, the three police officers, and the squad car were all focused on one small man huddled next to a shopping cart and a torn Hefty bag, shining steel handcuffs glittering off his deep brown wrists. The man said nothing as they arrested him. His "crime": sitting, standing, sleeping while houseless in San Francisco.

It's illegal to be houseless in the United States. In fact, arguably it's illegal to be poor in a nation that has somehow equated urban messiness with the presence of youth, adults, and elders sitting, standing, and convening in public and cleanliness with emptiness and the lack of people, color, and things. Since the new $2.7 million Community Justice Center (CJC) — a.k.a. the poverty court — opened in San Francisco, police have been out in droves drumming up customers.

There are so many wrong things about the CJC, beginning with criminalizing people in poverty just for being poor. As a poverty scholar and formerly houseless child and young adult who was incarcerated for the sole act of living without a home, I can say for a fact: it didn't matter how many times you arrested me or my Boricua houseless mama — it didn't take us out of homelessness. In fact, it made our situation more compounded, more complicated, more intractable.

The city is grappling with a $350 million budget deficit — it has been cutting back and closing vital emergency services for houseless people, like the Tenderloin Resource Center (TARC) and Caduceus, for example, which does truly revolutionary work with houseless folks who struggle with a psychological disability.

But I think one of the most terrifying aspects of the CJC is the institutionalization of a new form of criminalized service provision. This stems from the idea that the delivery of services, advocacy, mental health, physical health, and housing are somehow more urgently needed, deserved, or valid if they are triggered by arrest and adjudication.

At the hour of 3:00 p.m., near the corner of Hyde and Larkin streets, the system was triggered by Richie, a 56-year-old who used to hold down a construction job until he was laid off. Arresting him didn't get Richie a job. The CJC didn't get Richie a job. But, the folks there would argue, they referred him to job training and a temporary shelter bed. And guess what? Other organizations that didn't arrest Richie also referred him to job training and a temporary shelter bed.

My mother and I didn't get affordable housing, mental health services, or access to free child-care for my infant son because I was arrested.

Acts of revolutionary legal advocacy, art, support networks, and political awareness, like the ones I learned through the Suitcase Clinic, POOR Magazine, WRAP, the Coalition on Homelessness, and People Organized to Win Employment Rights, were what took me out of the sorrow and desperation and depth of struggle of poverty.

Criminalization, arrest, and adjudication of people in poverty really accomplishes only one thing: it brings the prison industrial complex to a neighborhood near you. *

Tiny a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia is the author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America and the cofounder of POOR Magazine/PoorNewsNetwork.