By Staci Wright
This is the third installment of the blog series “Simple Truths: debunking common stereotypes surrounding those experiencing homelessness.” You can find the introduction to this series here.
Another stereotype that I would like to discuss is the idea that “All homeless people are criminals.” This statement, in itself, is inaccurate and worded incorrectly. Let’s take the phrase and re-word it two different ways that are a bit more accurate.
- Crime can be a cause of homelessness
- Homelessness can be a cause of crime
Crime can be a cause of homelessness:
We all know that little box that we have to check when filling out a job application: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony, crime or misdemeanor?” Many people are fortunate enough to be able to check “no” for this question and therefore do not require further review. Though, for many others, this box makes the difference between gaining employment and remaining unemployed. Those with criminal backgrounds, from non-violent crimes to misdemeanor traffic violations to felonies, are required to answer “yes” to this question no matter how long ago the conviction was made.
With today’s digital age, the application process becomes very impersonal and is done mostly online. When an applicant checks “yes” to this question, the employer has the opportunity to inquire about the conviction or conduct a background check. But, what if the employer has over a hundred applicants? Do you really think they will take the time to do this or do you think they will simply push that application to the bottom of the list? The answer, of course, varies from company to company but for many their application is disregarded and they often don’t get the chance to prove themselves during an interview; even if they are a perfect candidate for the job.
Thankfully, things are being done about this and giving ex-offenders the chance to show their qualifications and skills before being asked about their criminal records. This effort is called “Ban the Box.” According to their website, 1 in 4 people living in the United States has a conviction history. By doing away with the conviction question, it helps level the employment opportunities between applicants and employers can choose the best candidates based on their qualifications and not on their criminal records. Over 45 cities and counties have removed this question from their employment applications; including Atlanta! The Ban the box campaign is still in motion and they will not stop until everyone is provided a fair chance for employment.
Homelessness can be a cause of crime:
With full shelters and inadequate affordable housing, those experiencing chronic homelessness are sometimes left with no other option but to sleep in public view and panhandle for money. Though, many cities have developed ordinances that are intended to help clean up the streets. These ordinances vary depending on the location but may include: street sweeps, curfews, anti-panhandling, anti-camping, and anti-loitering laws. When these non-violent ordinances are ignored, arrests sometimes occur and criminal records begin to stack up.
When experiencing chronic homelessness, one may commit non-violent crimes in order to survive. Often times, people turn to shop-lifting and burglary in order to acquire daily living essentials such as food, water, clothing and other basic items. They may also shop-lift items so they may sell them for money. In a journal written by the University of California Press they found that while those experiencing homelessness have a higher arrest rate, their offenses were non-violent crimes such as public intoxication, theft, violation of city ordinances and burglary. These violations were often-times an aftereffect of experiencing homelessness. In another related article, Sheffield Hallam University surveyed more than 400 people experiencing chronic homelessness and found that a fifth of them have committed a crime to get off the streets. They would rather spend a night in jail where there is shelter, food, water and toilets, than spend another night on the streets. The article also found that almost a fifth of women take up prostitution in order to spend a night off the streets. In total, nearly 30 percent of those experiencing chronic homelessness have admitted to committing a crime in order to spend a night off the streets.
When all is said and done, there are those who have criminal records before experiencing homelessness and there are those who obtain a record while or after experiencing homelessness. Though simply stating that “All homeless people are criminals” does not take into consideration all the underlying issues of why they are in their situation and how they can’t seem to overcome it. But we don’t assume that everyone who works in construction is a criminal. We don’t assume that everyone with tattoos is a criminal. So, we should not assume that everyone experiencing homelessness are criminals either.
Last year over 4,400 unique persons stayed at Gateway Center in their journey towards self-sufficiency and out of homelessness. $10 provides meals for a day for one client. Every dollar counts. Make a donation today.