This Crow Won’t Fly

The United States has a long history of using mean-spirited and often brutal laws to keep “certain” people out of public spaces and out of public consciousness.  Jim Crow laws segregated the South after the Civil War and Sundown Towns forced people to leave town before the sun set. The anti-Okie law of 1930s California forbade poor Dustbowl immigrants from entering the state and Ugly Laws (on the books in Chicago until the 1970s) swept the country and criminalized people with disabilities for allowing themselves to be seen in public.

Today, such laws target mostly homeless people and are commonly called “quality of life” or “nuisance crimes.”  They criminalize sleeping, standing, sitting, and even food-sharing.  Just like the laws from our past, they deny people their right to exist in local communities.

In June of this year, Rhode Island took a meaningful stand against this criminalization, and passed the first statewide Homeless Bill of Rights in the country. The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP)—a West Coast grassroots network of homeless people’s organizations—is now launching simultaneous campaigns in California and Oregon. Rhode Island will only be the beginning.

Today’s “quality of life” laws and ordinances have their roots in the broken-windows theory.  This theory holds that one poor person in a neighborhood is like a first unrepaired broken window and if the “window” is not immediately fixed or removed, it is a signal that no one cares, disorder will flourish, and the community will go to hell in a handbasket.

For this theory to make sense, you first have to step away from thinking of people, or at least poor people, as human beings. You need to objectify them. You need to see them as dusty broken windows in a vacant building.  That is why we now have Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) with police enforcement to keep that neighborhood flourishing by keeping poor, unsightly people out of it.

We have gone from the days where people could be told “you can’t sit at this lunch counter” to “you can’t sit on this sidewalk,” from “don’t let the sun set on you here” to “this public park closes at dusk” and from “you’re on the wrong side of the tracks” to “it is illegal to hang out” on this street or corner.

Unless we organize, it isn’t going to get much better soon.   Since 1982, the federal government has cut up to $52 billion a year from affordable housing and pushed hundreds of thousands of people into the  shelter system or into the street.  Today we continue to have three million people a year without homes.  1982 also marked the beginning of homelessness as a “crime wave” that would consume the efforts of local and state police forces over the next three decades.  Millions of people across the country sitting, lying down, hanging out, and — perhaps worst of all – sleeping are cited in crime statistics.

WRAP and our allies recently conducted outreach to over 700 homeless people in 13 cities; we found 77% of people had been arrested, cited, or harassed for sleeping, 75% for loitering, and 73% for sitting on a sidewalk.

We are right back to Jim Crow Laws, Sundown Towns, Ugly Laws and Anti-Okie Laws, local laws that profess to “uphold the locally accepted obligations of civility.” Such laws have always been used by people in power against those on the outside. In other words, today’s Business Improvement Districts and Broken Window Laws are, at their core, a reincarnation of various phases of American history none of us is proud of.

And they reflect a political voice now openly entering the political and media mainstream that dismisses social justice as economically irrelevant and poor people as humanly irrelevant

This is not about caring for or even advocating for “those people.” This is about all of us. As Aboriginal leader Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  If you are not homeless, if you are not the target now, then understand that you are next. Isolated and fragmented, we lose this fight.

But we are no longer isolated and fragmented.  On April 1, WRAP and USCAI (US Canadian Alliance of Inhabitants) sponsored a  Day of Action in 17 cities.  We are one of hundreds of organizations and allies, from Massachusetts to NewYork and from Tennessee to California, all separate but all working together to give meaning to social justice and protect the civil and human rights of all of us.

We can only win this struggle if we use our collective strengths, organizing, outreach, research, public education, artwork, and direct actions. We are continuing to expand our network of organizations and cities and we will ultimately bring down the whole oppressive system of policing poverty and treating poor people as “broken windows” to be discarded and replaced.

To join our campaign for a Homeless Bill of Rights in both California and Oregon contact WRAP at and we will hook you up with organizers working in both of these states or others as this movement continues to grow.

This entry was posted in Actions, Advocacy, Affordable Housing, Civil & Human Rights, Federal Government, Legislation, Local Government, National Allies, Organizing, Poverty, Social Justice Artwork, Without Housing, Without Rights, WRAP in the News. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to This Crow Won’t Fly

  1. E. David Bivens says:

    I am a new comer to the skid row area. I found myself living in this area after going through a program at the Weingart center. Living there gave me an opportunity to witness something I found very disturbing. Just before entering the Weingart center, I happening to pass the corner of 6th and San Pedro Street, it was raining that morning, approximately 7am, I noticed a young lady standing just off the corner not far from the Union Rescue Mission (URM), with three young children, one in a stroller the other two standing. The middle child was crying as she stood there in the rain. This really caught my attention. I began to ask questions about their condition. I started to see more and more young families hanging around the URM in the morning as well as at night. I found that there are approximately 50 families living at the mission and at that time everyone was asked to leave so the rooms can be cleaned. I began to talk to a social worker about what I was seeing, and what I felt was going on. I was told that no one wants children down here on Skid Row. I said we can’t continue to turn a blind eye to the fact that these kids are here and suffering because no one wants them here. They suffer for no reason of their own; they are innocent victims of circumstances of their parents. In fact they are discriminated against because of who and what they are. They see all the conditions around them and they need to understand that these conditions are not normal, nor is it alright.
    Families are one of the most important parts of our society here in America, but not so here in Los Angeles on Skid Row.
    Family Housing!
    As an AmeriCorps Hope For The Homeless member, I work in the downtown area of Los Angeles. We are faced with a housing crisis, not only for singles, but for families as well! I have been attending LATTC for the last two years, during this time I came to meet a young man raising his four boys, ages from 15 years old to 5 years old on his own (single parent). I happen to see them at
    the Union Rescue Mission (URM) a little over a week ago. They are now living in the mission. As I was leaving school last night I just happened to run into him. He called me and explained what was happening with him and his family; their stay at the mission will be cut short from 90 to 45 days. He said that the URM is trying to get rid of all the families (50+) and he asked for help. After working down here dealing with this issue, I understand the problems trying to place families; a father with four teenage boys becomes an impossible task!
    How or how can this man get help when all doors are closing on him?

  2. Matthew D Mooney says:

    Hi i am a homeless person who has been living on the streets for neerly 18 years as of last year i seem to have come up against a major problem that is very comelicated and may sound a little crazy this involves being herassed for being gay also i have been herassed by some one that i used to be friends with things have gotten out of hand this person has connections with law inforcement so i can’t seem to get the proper help i need from law enforcement and feel as though i am being pushed out of my own tawn i am not sure what rights i have with this but feel free to email me i would like to hear back from you this is a long story i wish there was somone in you group that i could talk to in person i live in sacramento if there is a place that is connected with your group in sacramento please let me know and give a detaild location of where it is thank you cincerly matthew.

  3. Matthew D Mooney says:

    hi i would like to know if you have any locations in the sacramento area were i could speek with some one face to face i am homeless and feel as though my rights are being attacked i need to know as much info asap if you could email me back that would be much appreciated thank you sincerly matthew.

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