Page 33 of The Street Lawyer

The statistics flowed forth with no effort whatsoever. This was his life and his profession. As a lawyer trained to keep meticulous notes, I fought the compulsion to rip open my briefcase and begin scribbling. I just listened.

"These people have minimum-wage jobs, so private housing is not even considered. They don't even dream about it. And their earned income has not kept pace with housing costs. So they fall farther and farther behind, and at the same time assistance programs take more and more hits. Get this: Only fourteen percent of disabled homeless people receive disability benefits. Fourteen percent! You'll see a lot of these cases."


We squealed to a stop at a red light, his car partially blocking the intersection. Horns erupted all around us. I slid lower in the seat, waiting for another collision. Mordecai hadn't the slightest clue that his car was impeding rush-hour traffic. He stared blanldy ahead, in another world.

"The frightening part of homelessness is what you don't see on the street. About half of all poor people spend seventy percent of their income trying to keep the housing they have. HUD says they should spend a third. There are tens of thousands of people in this city who are clinging to their roofs; one missed paycheck, one unexpected hospital visit, one unseen emergency, and they lose their housing."

"Where do they go?"

"They rarely go straight to the shelters. At first, they'll go to their families, then friends. The strain is enormous because their families and friends also have subsidized housing, and their leases restrict the number of people who can live in one unit. They're forced to violate their leases, which can lead to eviction. They move around, sometimes they leave a kid with this sister and a kid with that friend. Things go from bad to worse. A lot of homeless people are afraid of the shelters, and they are desperate to avoid them."

He paused long enough to drink his coffee. "Why?" I asked.

"Not all shelters are good. There have been assaults, robberies, even rapes."

And this was where I was expected to spend the rest of my legal career. "I forgot my gun," I said.

"You'll be okay. There are hundreds of pro bono volunteers in this city. I've never heard of one getting hurt."

"That's good to hear." We were moving again, somewhat safer.

"About half of the people have some type of substance abuse problem, like your pal DeVon Hardy. It's very common."

"What can you do for them?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. There are a few programs left, but it's hard to find a bed. We were successful in placing Hardy in a recovery unit for veterans, but he walked away. The addict decides when he wants to get sober."

"What's the drug of choice?"

"Alcohol. It's the most affordable. A lot of crack because it's cheap too. You'll see everything, but the designer drugs are too expensive."

"What will my first five cases be?"

"Anxious, aren't you?"

"Yeah, and I don't have a clue."

"Relax. The work is not complicated; it takes patience. You'll see a person who's not getting benefits, probably food stamps. A divorce. Someone with a complaint against a landlord. An employment dispute. You're guaranteed a criminal case."

"What type of criminal case?"

"Small stuff. The trend in urban America is to criminalize homelessness. The big cities have passed all sorts of laws designed to persecute those who live on the streets. Can't beg, can't sleep on a bench, can't camp under a bridge, can't store personal items in a public park, can't sit on a sidewalk, can't eat in public. Many of these have been struck down by the courts. Abraham has done some beautiful work convincing federal judges that these bad laws infringe on First Amendment rights. So the cities selectively enforce general laws, such as loitering and public drunkenness. They target the homeless. Some guy with a nice suit gets drunk in a bar and pees in an alley, no big deal. A homeless guy pees in the same alley, and he's arrested for urinating in public. Sweeps are common."

"Sweeps?"

"Yes. They'll target one area of the city, shovel up all the homeless, dump them somewhere else. Atlanta did it before the Olympics--couldn't have all those poor people begging and sleeping on park benches with the world watching--so they sent in the S.S. troops and eliminated the problem. Then the city bragged about how pretty everything looked."

"Where did they put them?"

"They damned sure didn't take them to shelters because they don't have any. They simply moved them around; dumped them in other parts of the city like manure." A quick sip of coffee as he adjusted the heater--no hands on the wheel for five seconds. "Remember, Michael, everybody has to be somewhere. These people have no alternatives. If you're hungry, you beg for food. If you're tired, then you sleep wherever you can find a spot. If you're homeless, you have to live somewhere."

"Do they arrest them?"

"Every day, and it's stupid public policy. Take a guy living on the streets, in and out of shelters, working somewhere for minimum wage, trying his best to step up and become self-sufficient. Then he gets arrested for sleeping under a bridge. He doesn't want to be sleeping under a bridge, but everybody's got to sleep somewhere. He's guilty because the city council, in its brilliance, has made it a crime to be homeless. He has to pay thirty bucks just to get out of jail, and another thirty for his fine. Sixty bucks out of a very shallow pocket. So the guy gets kicked down another notch. He's been arrested, humiliated, fined, punished, and he's supposed to see the error of his ways and go find a home. Get off the damned streets. It's happening in most of our cities."

"Wouldn't he be better off in jail?"

"Have you been to jail lately?"

"No,"

"Don't go. Cops are not trained to deal with the homeless, especially the mentally ill and the addicts. The jails are overcrowded. The criminal justice system is a nightmare to begin with, and persecuting the homeless only clogs it more. And here's the asinine part: It costs twenty-five percent more per day to keep a person in jail than to provide shelter, food, transportation, and counseling services. These, of course, would have a long-term benefit. These, of course, would make more sense. Twenty-five percent. And that doesn't include the costs of arrests and processing. Most of the cities are broke anyway, especially D.C.--that's why they're closing shelters, remember--yet they waste money by making criminals out of the homeless."

"Seems ripe for litigation," I said, though he needed no prompting.

"We're suing like crazy. Advocates all over the country are attacking these laws. Damned cities are spending more on legal fees than on building shelters for the homeless. You gotta love this country. New York, richest city in the world, can't house its people, so they sleep on the streets and panhandle on Fifth Avenue, and this upsets the sensitive New Yorkers, so they elect Rudy WhatsHisFace who promises to clean up the streets, and he gets his blue ribbon city council to outlaw homelessness, just like that--can't beg, can't sit on the sidewalk, can't be homeless--and they cut budgets like hell, close shelters and cut assistance, and at the same time they spend a bloody fortune paying New York lawyers to defend them for trying to eliminate poor people."

"How bad is Washington?"

"Not as bad as New York, but not much better, I'm afraid." We were in a part of town I would not have driven through in broad daylight in an armored vehicle two weeks ago. The storefronts were laden with black iron bars; the apartment buildings were tall, lifeless structures with laundry hanging over the railings. Each was gray-bricked, each stamped with the architectural blandness of hurried federal money.

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