Somehow I missed The Jungle in high school.
When I read Upton Sinclair’s classic as a young adult it changed things. While most readers recall the horrifying details of Chicago’s turn-of-the-century meatpacking industry I saw myself in Jurgis Rudkus.
I was one mistake from being him.
In retrospect my 20s ended up going really well. Yet looking back at it I was no different than Jurgis. Like Jurgis, I’d come to Chicago and wedged myself in. First I painted dorm rooms for $4.80/hour. Then I took a second job scooping ice cream for rich people on Oak Street at $5.50/hour to make enough money to pay my school bill. A year or so later that ice cream job lead me to meeting an executive at a company in the loop… who offered me a job in her office one day. It was a temporary low-level job but it was a foot in the door paying $7.00/hour so I said yes. And from there I moved up. Through a combination of luck and hard work I progressed and progressed and progressed.
So there I was. 23 or 24. A newlywed in a polo shirt, slacks, and a fancy watch… identifying with Jurgis. I couldn’t get past the fact that Kristen and I were a few bad decisions and a few bad breaks away from being him. Lose my job, lose our Ukrainian Village apartment, our car, everything. It was a cautionary novel and I took it seriously.
Like I said earlier The Jungle changed things for me. It made me a bit more cautious at work. A bit less adventurous at securing things for others and a bit more aggressive to secure things, like finishing my degree, for myself.
In many ways I’m a long way from Jurgis. But in many more I’m still not that far away.
Arresting the Homeless
Kevin Faulconer, the mayor of San Diego, is having homeless people arrested.
Whereas, he’s done very little (read: nothing) to stop the rapid gentrification of poorer neighborhoods resulting in skyrocketing rents and long-time tenants being evicted by HGTV-inspired wanna-be flippers out to make quick cash displacing people. Whereas, he’s done even less to stop deep-pocketed developers from converting 10,000 low-cost single-room occupancy units in the downtown area into posh Airbnb mini-hotels for visiting tourists. Whereas, while he knew of Hepatitis A cases among the homeless encampments downtown he did nothing to provide sanitation— the only thing that’d stop it’s spread– until people died and the county declared an emergency.
Instead Kevin Faulconer, after doing nothing for the majority of his term, the mayor of America’s Finest City is having homeless people arrested for the crime of being homeless in his city.
270 in September alone.
On Sept. 19, five people were arrested on 17th Street, and 10 people were arrested the next day. Another six were arrested Sept. 21, and 14 were arrested Sept. 23.
Among the people arrested was Lisa Shankle, a Navy veteran who said she served in Operation Desert Storm from 1988 to 1991.
“We were just sitting there resting,” she said, recalling the night when an officer approached her while she was in a tent on a sidewalk along Commercial Street. “We were not doing anything. I have a clean record, but because I have priors, I was arrested.”
By priors, Shankle meant she had three prior citations for encroachment. Like many homeless people who are ticketed, she didn’t go to court, leading to her arrest.
Friends, this is harassment. And since San Diego is a “strong mayor” city… these orders are coming from the mayor’s office itself. Treating homelessness as a police matter instead of a social matter is Kevin Faulconer’s decision.
Issuing someone a ticket for sleeping on the sidewalk (a low-level misdemeanor) than returning to arrest that person because they failed to appear in court (an arrest-able misdemeanor) is a trap designed to land that person in jail, further spiraling them into poverty with court costs and unemployable because of a criminal record or worse, finding few options other than committing petty crimes to pay legal fees or other attempts to stay out of jail.
All of that because you lost your job and couldn’t pay the rent. Or because their landlord died and the the homeowners kids sold the house they were renting to a flipper. Or because you were evicted when the management company wanted to remodel and doubled your rent. Or because you needed to move but couldn’t find a landlord willing to take your Section 8 voucher.
The city of San Diego is arresting people for the crime of being too poor to afford housing.
So, to review, the city does nothing to prevent the homeless population from growing. While city leaders have repeatedly perpetrated a lie that homeless people move here from far away studies show that most of our homeless population are native to San Diego, “77 percent of the area’s homeless population were living in San Diego when they became homeless.” In other words, they are homeless because the network of social systems created to help them has failed them.
And now Kevin Faulconer is cementing their poverty by having them arrested.
We Are All Like Jurgis Rudkus Somehow
At the center of this idea– that you can arrest someone for the crime of being poor– is to de-humanize the poor among us. We do this when we perpetrate the lie that people are homeless because of addition to drugs or alcohol. (Only 14% of San Diego’s homeless report they struggle with addition) We do this when we assume all homeless people are lazy or unemployed or mentally ill.
There are lots of ways we de-humanize the homeless among us.
But we can re-humanize the homeless when we remember that, like Jurgis Rudkus, each of us makes 1,000 right decisions for our families and yet just 2 or 3 bad breaks will have us spiraling out-of-control just the same.
You and I are no better than Jurgis. You and I are just not Jurgis right now.
Friends, it is not a crime to be poor. We must stop criminalizing homelessness but instead strengthen the social net to prevent struggling people from being displaced in the first place.