The Revolving Door of Criminalization

The other night, my friend, Jill (not her real name), one of the most vulnerable people I know on the street, called me for a ride from Antioch Pike and Harding. She’s past 50, and she has been suffering PTSD from an terrible incident from this past spring. And why is she calling me at 8:30pm, other than that I have been working to help her get housing and care? Because on this stormy night, she has no one else to call, and the police have just let her out of jail far from anywhere (as they typically do people released from jail), when buses don’t run reliably to the part of town she is staying in. And why was she in jail? Because she was at Room in the Inn and a guy stole some $20 from her, and she called the police, only instead of arresting him, they discovered she had a warrant out for her arrest and so arrested her instead. And why did she have a warrant out for her arrest? Because a couple of months ago she was walking back from Room in the Inn the couple of miles to where she stays when it started raining, so she ducked under the awning of a downtown church to wait out the thunderstorm, and a Metro cop saw her and graciously gave her–she has no money–a citation that she can’t pay instead of hauling her into jail that very night. And on what grounds did she get a citation? Because sometimes the church understands it to be a Christian duty to have anyone seeking shelter on their property arrested automatically for trespassing (a so-called “trespass waiver”). And why did she not pay the fine? Besides the fact that she has no money to pay fines and court costs, like most of the homeless in Nashville? Because at the time of the court date, she was hospitalized for the severe PTSD and so had been unavailable to attend to pay the court costs and fines she could not afford and did not deserve.donotpassgo

This scenario of petty criminalization repeats itself dozens of times per week in Nashville, pushing people further and further into desperation and homelessness. Not everyone on the street, of course, suffers from PTSD from a terrible incident as an adult. Some were abused as children. Others neglected, or bullied, or raped. Some are depressed and anxious because of losing a job and difficulty in supporting a family. Or suffered PTSD while fighting for our country. Or any of those thousand little ways our lives have of falling apart. Most often they lack support circles. And our best answer to their problems is to fine or arrest them at every turn, lock them up for non-payment of court costs and fines, then arrest them again a while later, starting the whole cycle over again. Criminalizing people experiencing homelessness costs us–Nashville alone– millions in court costs and futile policing, and it costs people who are already suffering their dignity, their recovery, and sometimes their lives. It also costs us our humanity.

Samuel Lester

OTN Outreach