If it's anything I hate, it's being late for an appointment, but there I was, scrambling for my keys, just 20 minutes away from a scheduled meeting with Timothy Harris, the executive director of . We were set to discuss the final details of a scheduled benefit event: a joint fundraiser held earlier this year, featuring former police chief Norm Stamper and myself discussing issues of gender, ethnicity, and poverty as they related to the (local and national) War on Drugs.
I called a cab, and hopped in to the backseat. I gave the driver the address, and he inquired whether it was a business or a restaurant of some kind.
"It's Real Change," I said.
There was a brief pause as we left the alleyway behind my building, rounded the corner, and headed up a steep hill.
Stopped at a red light, he turned halfway around in his seat to take a closer look. "You're not homeless, are you?" he blurted out.
Before I could answer, the cabbie laughed uncomfortably at the question he had just asked, and then followed it up with a comment that seemed to be his way of trying to reassure me that he wasn't trying to insult me: "I mean ... I mean ... you don't look homeless."
"I'm not," I replied. "But why do you ask?"
"Good. I can't stand homeless people," he answered back.
I was uncharacteristically shocked into a moment of silence. Seattle is known for a lot of things, but not for people who actually say all the unpleasant things they think about each other. But this Seattleite had just put his vitriol out there for me to taste. After taking a minute to process his comment, I couldn't help but prod for more information.
"Why do you hate homeless people?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Just because... well, you know, I work hard all day and they don't."
That one rated right up in the top 10 of what I've come to think of as the general public's reflexive "Why I Hate the Homeless" list. Having heard that sentiment expressed so many times, I also had a good sense of where to steer the discussion next -- without getting as outraged or angry as I would have earlier in my life. Over the years, I've worked to hone my technique for dealing with comments like these so that I try to learn about the origins of a person's prejudice as much as I seek to dispel it.
With all of that in mind, I started poking around to figure out what this man knew (and didn't know) about homelessness and poverty in America. I alluded to the ease with which any one of us in this country can lose our footing -- even in the best of times -- and end up without a job, a home, or money to pay the bills. I didn't want to lecture him or make it seem as though I was quizzing him. I really wanted get a better sense of how he saw the world around him -- and why -- and I wanted to use as much of this short cab ride to drive off a bit of the angry, judgmental sentiment he seemed to feel toward people without homes to call their own.
I asked him if he realized that millions of people in this country are homeless without any obvious visual cues.
"I don't know if you've met people like this before," I offered, "but there are homeless people all around us who go to work, who often hold down more than one job, but still can't afford to pay rent or put down a deposit," I said. "A lot of homeless people don't actually live on the street, but they're still homeless: they 'couch-surf,' live in motels, even in their cars."
"Oh, yeah, I know that," he replied immediately.
And then: "I used to live in my car."
I was incredulous. "For how long?" I inquired.
"Oh, maybe six months," he answered. "But I wasn't one of those homeless people who turn to crime or anything. I wasn't dangerous or anything."
I was utterly intrigued.
Here he was, a working-class cab driver, who had clearly ended up in some kind of financial trouble earlier in his life, to the point that he had ended up living in his car. Yet having had that experience, he still spoke as though he had never walked in his own shoes.
When I had first started talking, he had mentioned that homeless people were usually "criminals." As such, I was even more curious about what came to mind when he thought of crime and "criminals."
I inquired whether he realized that if homeless people who live on the streets are arrested for something, they tend to be arrested for minor offenses, ranging from petty theft to public intoxication and/or the "crime" of sleeping on the street. I also asked him if he had thought about the fact that actual sociopaths -- the people amidst us who are essentially incapable of feeling empathy and thus have the most potential to be truly dangerous to other living creatures -- are often quite "successful" in business, politics, and other leadership positions in legal and illicit enterprises. Had he considered, for instance, that most of the nation's serial killers have been middle-class, "respectable" citizens, who often preyed on destitute, struggling, and/or otherwise vulnerable youth and adults -- especially people living on (or making a living on) the street?
But even more to the point -- and I had to be quick and direct, because we were nearing my destination -- when he associated homeless people with crime, did he realize how many people were arrested last year? (Nearly 11 million.) Or that people in the U.S. were more likely to be arrested for drug violations -- and within that category, for the simple possession of marijuana -- than any other offense? Or that driving under the influence (not assault or robbery, as people commonly assume) was the most common reason why men were arrested in metropolitan areas? Lastly, did he know that one in 33 Americans, at this very moment, were under some form of correctional supervision?
I stopped to catch my breath, and to see if he was still paying attention.
"Actually," he said in a different tone altogether, "I did nearly a year in jail for driving under the influence... a few times."
So, the man himself hadn't just been left without a home, he'd actually been locked up in jail! Based on his admission of repeat DUIs, he had also had problems with alcohol.
The cabbie piped up with another stunning comment about his experience.
"I'll tell you," he said, "I couldn't wait to get out because of all the crazies they had locked up in jail."
He pulled up outside of Real Change. I started to pull out my dollar bills, and decided to give it one more shot: "You know, a lot of people in this country have got some kind of mental illness; people all around us struggle with emotional problems of all kinds."
He was silent, and started making change.
"Look," I said, "I've struggled with depression most of my life. So do a lot of people who end up in jail."
The cab driver's face lit up, and he turned around in his seat. "Oh! So do I! That was the thing with the DUIs!" he exclaimed. "I was drinking because I was so depressed."
What, if any, were the real differences between this cab driver and other homeless people, "criminals," or mentally ill people that this man had been so quick to judge? As our cab ride conversation revealed, the differences were mostly about societal perception and self-perception; the latter had convinced him that, despite his similar experiences, he wasn't one of "them."
Helping him to construct this particular empathy barrier was the fact that he had lived in his car, which kept him from having to sleep on the street, a park bench, or in an overcrowded night shelter. Tucked away in some parking lot, perhaps, this man was still just as homeless as any other American without a roof over his or her head, even though his marginal existence wasn't as easily noticeable to the rest of society. Consequently, he wasn't likely to have endured the same level of hostility, disdain, disgust, or danger as people face once they're living on the streets, where they can be far more easily identified, targeted, attacked, or arrested.
It's also true that the cab driver hadn't ended up with a felony conviction for his DUIs. But the prosecutor could have chosen to charge him with a felony, given the repeated nature of the offenses. The fact that he didn't end up with a felony record -- or go to state prison -- didn't make his "crime" any less severe -- or potentially deadly, for that matter. While it's likely that he lost his license for a while, he had obviously gotten it back.
To boot, without a felony conviction on his record, the cabbie wouldn't have to face the all-too-prevalent employment and housing discrimination that accompanies a person's felony record. Felony background checks are required for almost all job applications, and it continues to be nearly impossible for an applicant to be able to prove that they weren't called in for a first-round interview because they were honest and checked the "yes" box. Felony background checks are also required for acquiring professional licenses of any kind, usually resulting in denials or revocations of licensing even if the person has already done their time, and/or the nature of their crime could not possibly constitute an occupational hazard. (A former drug offender illogically denied a cosmetology license, for instance, is quite different from the former child molester logically denied a license to drive a school bus.) In Washington State, as in most others, housing discrimination is completely legal if a potential renter has ever been convicted of a felony (of any kind)--no matter what the nature of the offense, nor how long ago the sentence was served out.
All of this just touches the very tip of the iceberg of what are known as the "collateral consequences" of imprisonment. In Washington state, as in many others, there are the major hurdles involved in trying to regain the right to vote. Most people coming out of prison can forget about trying to access any form of public assistance, much less obtain federal aid to pursue higher education -- especially if the felony was drug-related. (In fact, people with felony drug offenses are the only category of offender completely excluded from federal aid for higher education and, depending on the state, from all or most forms of public assistance.)
Then there's the matter of mental illness, and the "crazies" this cab driver told me that he couldn't stand being around. There's more than a bit of truth to what he said, albeit in a derogatory manner. Mental illness is rampant in American jails and prisons, whether in the form of concealed depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or full-blown psychotic episodes. Essentially, jails and prisons have become the mental illness warehouses of the modern era, but there's not even a bit of pretense that these institutions exist to heal people from what ails them. And while not everyone doing time is mentally ill, by any means, most people in jail or prison do have some kind of mental health disorder -- and this is particularly true for incarcerated women, whose rates far exceed those of their male counterparts.
My conversation with the cab driver went better than I could have hoped in such a short period of time, because he made it unusually easy for me to draw the connections between his ostensibly "normal" life and the lives of the people he made such a point of deriding. That said, I couldn't say that I'm sure that he drove away with a clearer understanding of any of these connections. To be completely honest, it would hardly surprise me if he eventually dismissed or forgot the entire conversation.
The taxi driver -- and the rest of us -- are living in a dominant culture in which poverty, homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and addiction are still largely viewed as moral failures. And if one or more of those things lands a person in jail or prison, well, then, this is even more so the case.
This particularly uncompassionate and overtly hostile way of relating to such a significant portion of our national population isn't just unfortunate; I contend that it's damaging to the very fabric of our society. Instead of taking pointless stabs at the notion that some of us have morally superior ground over the countless millions of Americans generically labeled as "criminals," we should begin to see the large-scale incarceration of the poor and homeless, the mentally ill, and the substance addicted as a massive social failure. With 2.3 million Americans behind bars at this very moment (for a total of 7.5 million under some form of correctional supervision) -- and with at least 13 million people cycling through American jails in any given year -- we can't keep pretending that this is the problem of those undesirable, abnormal "others" in our midst.
At this point in modern American history, homelessness, mental illness, and mass incarceration--and the intersections thereof -- are very much our problem. These are our tax dollars. Like it or not, these are our family members, friends, and neighbors. We are talking about our public safety. We are dealing with our collective human and constitutional rights. For all of these reasons, and many others, this is our future at stake.
America is hardly unique in its historic willingness to imprison the poor, marginally employed, and undereducated. From the standpoint of governmental social control -- especially in the framework of a "democratic" society where control is still heavily concentrated in the hands of a very small minority -- it actually stands to reason that marginalized and unprivileged youth and adults would be the most likely people to be imprisoned. Removed from the public eye, most prisoners are rendered unseen and unheard in physical environments ripe for constitutional and human rights violations of all kinds. When the weighty factors of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and pervasive hostility toward the mentally ill are added to the mix, the likelihood of arrest and/or incarceration during one's lifetime -- as well as the likelihood of experiencing abuse behind bars -- are increased exponentially.
Although every Western nation can lay claim to the deprivation of physical freedom as a method of punishment (a mechanism to protect public safety that I believe is quite necessary where some kinds of crimes and pathologies are concerned), those of us who live in the United States of America are facing a particularly severe and senseless phenomenon of large-scale incarceration in our own backyard.
What's worse, the American criminal justice system doesn't just lock up millions of youth and adults, but also releases them with full awareness that most will be re-arrested and/or re-incarcerated (often because of a technical parole violation). There's no question that some people experience personal transformations while they're behind bars, and a few even receive adequate rehabilitation, education, or counseling while they're locked up. But for all of those people, there are many more who come out in worse shape than when they went in, whether because of an acquired infectious disease or worsened medical/mental condition, sexual violence, or the day-to-day dehumanization common to the world of American prisons.
People are also being released, sometimes decades later, into a world that has changed so dramatically that they have no idea how to catch up, much less find a place to live or work. Here in Washington State, people are released from prison with $40 in what's called "gate money," whether they have a home to return to or not. For those people who do not, there's nothing but the streets for them to return to, with all of the attendant stressors, risks, temptations, dangers, and memories of the lives they left behind.
Last year, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed something else very troubling about what was happening to the people "re-entering" our society after having served their sentences. Namely, the researchers, who focused on the Washington state prison system, found that ex-prisoners were 13 times more likely to die within the first two weeks of their release than other people of similar age, sex and ethnicity. The most likely cause of death was drug overdose, followed by suicide, heart disease, and homicide.
The researchers suggested that the reasons for the high death rates could be linked with "an existing mental illness coupled with the stress of adapting to a life in society."
What they should have added was this: "the stress of adapting to life in a society that doesn't want to have anything to do with you."
In King County (and throughout Washington state), many thousands of youth and adults are released each year right back onto our streets, without access to the help they need in order to be able to have a fighting chance at surviving in society. (to say nothing of actually succeeding at something that they like or love to do).
These past 30 years have shown us what doesn't work. What doesn't work is a system that keeps locking up people in increasing numbers, especially nonviolent offenders with drug problems and/or mental health issues.
What does work is the availability of early intervention, education, and vocational training. What does work is preventative and accessible health care, mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, as well as recovery and other social support groups. What does work is a community-building approach toward public safety and policing. And what does work is the possibility and promise of non-discrimination in education, housing, and employment where ex-prisoners are concerned.
I continue to believe that the day will come, in our lifetimes, when this kind of discrimination ceases to be as commonplace as it now is, and when we join the rest of the Western world in recognizing that a person who has been found guilty of a crime cannot continue to be punished past the point of his or her sentence.
Now, more than ever, is the time for intensified local and regional efforts to enact significant criminal justice reforms; to stem the growth of our local jail and prison populations; to increase the availability of harm reduction and drug treatment programs; to expand juvenile and mental health courts; and to emphasize gender- and culture-responsive approaches toward our diverse citizenry. In sum, now is the time for us to conceptualize and implement alternatives to the one-size-fits-all, prison-as-punishment model that we have embraced above all else. We've already paid a tremendous fiscal and social cost for an often ineffectual and dehumanizing criminal justice system. Real change isn't just possible; it's imperative.