When it comes to sticking up for the little guy, popular culture offers a few well-established narratives: The investigation that reveals a massive cover-up. The idealistic newcomer unwilling to work within a corrupted system. Corporate malfeasance excused in the face of money, weak wills and greed.
The process of meticulous, detailed research to build not just a moral, but legal case against the status quo? It wouldn’t make a good episode of “Law & Order,” but it’s how Sara Rankin gets the job done.
Rankin, an associate professor at Seattle University, founded the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP), a group that looks into the myriad ways in which society violates the rights of homeless and low-income people.
Some are outright prohibitions on activities poor people do to survive, such as restrictions on camping in public. Others are more subtle, such as ticketing cars parked in the wee hours of the morning. Many either begin as crimes or become them as civil infractions go unaddressed and tickets go unpaid.
“What our laws reflect, in my mind, is a lack of awareness or a lack of appreciation of the way that we punish people for their poverty, a lack of an understanding that when we punish people for their poverty, it creates a revolving door that’s devastating,” Rankin said.
Obstructing that door means changing the laws to instead demonstrate society’s “higher and better” values, incorporating inclusivity rather than trying to hide the evidence of our failure to those who need help.
HRAP’s work is critical to that process, which is why Real Change has awarded it the annual Change Agent of the Year award, along with David Delgado, an activist who advocates for rights and safety of homeless people. Real Change circled back with Rankin to ask a little more about her project.
What does it mean to criminalize homelessness or poverty?
When I use that phrase, what I’m referring to are laws that prohibit or severely restrict one’s ability to engage in necessary, life-sustaining activities in public, even when that person has no reasonable alternative but to do so because of a lack of shelter.
Examples would be laws that prohibit sitting, standing, sleeping, receiving food, going to the bathroom, asking for help or protecting oneself from the elements. These are not things that any one of us could forgo for very long and be able to survive, right? But the act of surviving in public is so tightly regulated that people experiencing homelessness are really prone to get caught up in the web of these laws. They can’t avoid somehow tripping a wire that can have significant consequences.
That’s the first thing, a definitional carving out of what criminalization is. The second thing that I think is important for people to understand is when they hear the word “criminalization,” is that criminalization laws don’t have to start as a criminal charge. … Some do start as criminal charges, but many criminalization charges start as civil infractions, like tickets. Pay this fee, show up to court, avoid this area for a significant period of time. These sorts of conditions are extremely difficult for poor and homeless individuals to meet.
The last thing I would say about what I mean about criminalization is people need to understand that criminalization comes at such a significant cost. That’s not just a cost to the lives and liberties of poor men, women and children. When we’re talking about how insanely expensive it is for society as a whole. There’s a healthy collection of studies that show that it is far more expensive to criminalize poverty and homelessness than it is to help people by pursuing non-punitive alternatives like permanent supportive housing or provision of realistic mental health and substance abuse treatments. Those sorts of dimensions are important for people to understand when we talk about what it means to criminalize physical poverty.
These laws build up over time. Are they intended to discriminate against poor people, or do they discriminate by default?
I’ve been studying a lot more about unconscious bias and how to discuss White privilege because I think there’s been a lot more work on that than there has been on how to discuss socioeconomic privilege with people. I think as human beings, our understanding about how and why we discriminate — what triggers our stereotypes — is so much more developed when it comes to racism and sexism. I am not saying we are not sexist and racist — I believe we are profoundly both of those things, and more — but we tend as a society to be more aware of that as a dynamic. ... I really believe that this kind of discrimination of visibly poor people is something people are not aware of, not conscious of, they’re not looking for it. They’re not primed to be sensitive to the impact of the decisions that they make in terms of their laws and policies on visibly poor people.
If it’s bad for society and it’s bad for the individual, why do we discriminate against the visibly poor?
I think that it is really deeply embedded in our DNA. I think that our class and status distinctions are really on some level at least inconspicuous if not unconscious and they guide us to create and enforce these laws and policies that restrict the visibility of poverty. … I’ve brought up in other reports and other work that I’ve done the really compelling sociological studies that show that exposure to evidence of human struggle or desperation really commonly provokes fear, annoyance, disgust and even anger from people who witness it. I’m not talking about sociological test, but neurological test where they put probes on your brain so it doesn’t matter what you say you’re thinking, it’s the parts of your brain that are firing due to visible stimuli. Those tests show that confronted with evidence of visible poverty, it elicits higher rates of negative reactions than exposure to virtually every other marginalized trait, including those that we commonly associate with forms of discrimination like race and gender.
We have a very specific, deep-rooted fear and disgust that we’ve reserved for poverty and that I believe is frequently codified in our laws and policies.
When you ask the question about intention, what I most commonly experience when I talk to city officials or anyone else involved in the lawmaking process, or even just members of the public, they passionately resist the suggestion that any of these laws could be linked to a desire to remove evidence of visible poverty. That’s precisely what I’m saying: I think that is a huge motivator behind these laws, and it might not be the only motivator. Oftentimes you’ll hear people refer to … public safety or public health. The problem with the public safety and public health narrative is that they are almost never specifically tied to those laws in any meaningful way. There’s not compelling evidence provided to show that there is a link between the law being enacted and enforced and the interests of public safety and public health.
Some laws that discriminate have a legitimate purpose. What’s a better way to approach actual threats to public safety or public health without penalizing poor people?
It’s work. This is not something where clear lines can be drawn in the sand. The concern that I have is that what you most often see is not enough of an effort from city officials and policymakers to investigate those gray areas. It takes time. It takes time to do those things, to really think through and provide thoughtful solutions about when a law might be legitimate and when a law might have gone too far or not far enough.
That’s the very nature of the law, that’s why I became a lawyer, because those questions are so important and so compelling that an entire profession was built out of them. That’s how messy things can get.
What can policymakers do to make sure their laws don’t discriminate against visibly poor people?
I do have a little list (of policy suggestions). I find when you say things like “housing first,” even though housing first is enormously important, city officials’ eyes glaze over because they want to know something more immediate, or less ambitious, that they could be doing. So, that’s what motivated me to try to pull that list together.
One of those is to engage in that gray-area examination, to actually sit down and look at the laws that have been identified as concerning and have an intelligent discussion about if this law is drawn as narrowly as it could be. … I’ve never seen any evidence that a city has done that, at least not in response to anything we’ve ever done. They tend to look at our reports and say, “This is really interesting, maybe you’d like to go talk to the Seattle City Council about it.” Talking about it doesn’t really do anything. After you talk about it, you need to come up with some sort of action plan.
Wait, you mean you don’t want another task force?
It’s not my phrase and I don’t remember where it came from, but I love it: We have a problem with the narcotic of discussion. It makes us feel really good to discuss something to death, and it leads us to believe we’re doing something about it, but it is a narcotic influence in the sense that you’re really not. You’re just talking.
We have work arounds for laws that criminalize homelessness that allow enforcement to be discretionary. Why is it important to replace those laws altogether?
Discretion is a potentially terrifying word for people who care about social justice and civil rights. Generally speaking, discretion does not work in favor of vulnerable or marginalized groups. Generally, discretion works in favor of government or parties that are occupying some kind of position of power.
There’s an “agreement,” a discretionary agreement that the current city attorney has. … He has an agreement or an internal policy that says you know what, we’re not going to — as a general matter — turn civil infractions into misdemeanors when someone is poor or homeless. Policies, internal policies are not guaranteed to be followed. No one has to follow them. And if the administration changes there’s nothing to go back on. It also makes those things very hard to track data wise. There’s no clear way to follow civil infractions the same way you can follow misdemeanors, so it gets complicated right away if the law is not explicit.
What are the consequences of changing these laws?
Well I mean, the end goal is to have laws and policies that reflect our values as a society and that are also responsive to fiscal constraints. What I believe is that our current set of laws do not reflect what I hope is our higher and better societal values, and I don’t think they serve our fiscal constraints. You look at prison industrial complex research that’s out there, it’s pretty clear that a lot of money is made by criminalizing all sorts of people and activities. It’s a commercial enterprise, but it’s enormously expensive. So there’s a whole system that’s built up where enormous amounts of money that could be spent on non-punitive, supportive efforts across the board, education, for example, those sorts of investments societally we seem to be shortcutting, those sorts of investments, and we seem perfectly happy incarcerating more youth of color than we ever have before. It’s similar; it’s a similar sort of critique as critiques of the prison industrial complex.
If people in positions of authority want to talk about these issues and shelve them, what can average people do?
I think the No. 1 thing and the easiest thing that everyone can do is to create proximity. What I mean by that is I believe that certain kinds of discrimination are fueled by segregation. Social and emotional distance from people we tend to reject. I think that in order to create social change in those areas, people really have to get proximate to poverty and homelessness.
This is why, in my view, visible poverty is so important to remain visible. As long as chronic poverty exists, it’s so vital that it remain visible because that’s the only real chance that we have to see things with our own eyes. Ideally, what we need to do is put ourselves in positions where we are able to develop meaningful opportunities to engage with people experiencing poverty and homelessness if we’re privileged and don’t understand what that experience is.
What’s the experience of creating that proximity been for you and your students, through your work?
The Homeless Rights Advocacy Project is unfunded. Our students sign up, they sometimes get credit and sometimes don’t. It’s one of those things that’s entirely fueled by passion. Selfishly, I need to have meaning in my life. I need to have meaning in my life, and I think that’s what drives our students to participate. They don’t participate because they are getting paid mountains of money or because this is something that when it goes on their resumes employers are going to say, “Oh my goodness, you know a lot about homelessness and poverty.” They do it for reasons that are related to their passion for making a difference in the world. What proximity does is fuel that. It’s the only way to fuel that. If you’re not motivated by money, fame, ego or whatever else it is, you’re motivated by a desire to connect.
For me, proximity is not just the solution, it’s the fuel for the work that I do, and I think that’s the same for the students.