If You Prick Us

“This guy could have been mentally ill, he could have imprinted on you, raped you, killed you, or any number of other bad things.” –Comment on a Facebook page to a friend who talked with a homeless man, as related by Joanna Laine in a piece in NYU Review of Law and Social Change.


Today at a grocery store checkout in far NE Philadelphia I got into a conversation about the homeless. The cashier and the lady behind me said that the cops harass the homeless – confront them for no reason. One of them said that a woman, who causes no problem and had medical problems was harassed. A woman they both knew about said that the woman’s caretaker died and she ended up on the street.

Yesterday a homeless man was rudely run off of the Veteran’s memorial in Levittown. He was following the rules when a Bucks County guard from the nearby municipal building abruptly demanded “what are you doing here?” He replied that he was just having a snack. The guard brusquely told him he was being disrespectful and told him to leave. I don’t think the guard literally wanted to know what the homeless guy was doing but “what are you doing here?” was code for “you don’t belong here!”

Most nuisance laws directed against the homeless are unconstitutional. Advocates have challenged many of these rules in court and have won.

Here in lower Bucks County, PA, the official advocates for the homeless don’t stick up for them. On one occasion, the head librarian at the Levittown public library ordered the locks that fastened bicycles to the back rack cut because homeless people had abandoned their bikes. Some of the bikes whose locks were cut were parked and locked legally for the day.

An advocate from the Advocates for the Homeless and Those in Need (AHTN) talked with the librarian, who claimed she had made an announcement in the library about cutting the locks so that those there for the day would not have their locks cut. A reliable source told me he was in the library at the time and would have heard if an announcement was made, but no announcement was made.

Last week this Levittown librarian kicked a homeless man out of the library. Why? She said that he had been loud all week. Other people, especially bratty kids who come to the library regularly scream and run around the library as if they were at a playground and they get a free pass.

Much of the reason for the arbitrary, unconstitutional, ad hoc laws directed against homeless people is a result of hobophobia, the irrational fear and misunderstanding of homeless people. As Ms. Laine writes:

“To truly address the criminalization of homelessness, however, it is necessary to challenge not only laws but also biases that pervade our society. Fear and discomfort around homeless people is the driving force behind anti-homeless laws, and such fears are irrational and unnecessary. As the homeless-run organization Picture the Homeless proclaims, ‘Don’t Talk About Us—Talk With Us!’ The homeless must be recognized as people worthy of empathy and respect. To end the criminalization of homelessness, we must begin the humanization of homelessness.”

Stereotyping, the one-size-fits all mentality contributes to hobophobia. As is the case in other communities, there are trouble makers. On Monday night at a community dinner one particular homeless individual raised Cain (he was probably raised by wolves).  I didn’t see him at last night’s dinner; maybe he was banned from the bus.

Well, most homeless people are not raised by wolves. Many of them are just like you and I, people who are just trying to get their lives together.

Consider the lines from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”