Profiling leads to community decline

This month was my husband’s birthday, and I decided to get him a nice bottle of whiskey. I went to the wine shop in Noe Valley to do so, and while I was paying for the bottle, a black woman walked by outside, chatting loudly with her husband. The shopkeeper looked at me and said, “I have been getting that all day.”

I think she saw a white woman, conservatively dressed, and assumed I would commiserate. The shopkeeper went on to say in a conspiratorial voice, “I even had a homeless woman come in earlier today. Well, I wasn’t sure she was homeless, but she didn’t have any teeth so I quickly asked her to leave.”

I got hot and said some things, and thought of even better things to say after I left, but mostly I kept wondering how exactly that made that poor woman feel. She was probably self conscious about losing her teeth and probably felt so devalued and dehumanized as to not even be able to shop at a local store. I went back and complained to the owner, and he said he would address the issue. While he admitted to a certain level of profiling, he said he is often surprised at who purchases items.

This is just one example, but for homeless people this kind of profiling happens all the time, whether it is the man with a serious medical complication that is assumed to be drunk by pedestrians or the woman who gets beaten badly and released from the hospital without even getting the blood cleaned off her face. Disrespected, abused, ignored, denied, dehumanized — these are all descriptions of what impoverished people face every day.

In the midst of all that hatred, there is deep love coming from our neighborhoods, from really kind people who reach out, who get the painful effects of poverty, who want to see something different. These are the folks who bring a blanket and place it on someone sleeping outside on a cold night, or offer a hot plate of food from their table. They get frustrated and sad that more isn’t being done to address this severe housing crisis that is literally killing people.

It simply is not acceptable to look at someone and determine something about them based on how they look — to assume because someone is poor, that they would steal for example or to assume someone who appears to have money would not pilfer.

This past week, George Kelling, the co-author of “Broken Windows” spoke in San Francisco. “Broken Windows” advocates that if you focus on nuisance and things that make people feel unsafe, the community will feel more safe. In their original 1982 article, co-authors Kelling and James Wilson, talk about “the fear of being bothered by disorderly people.” They are not talking about people who are committing violence, or crimes, but poor people, panhandlers, rowdy teenager, prostitutes, loiterers and what they call the mentally disturbed. Fear of disorder, rather then reducing crime is at the heart of broken windows policing. Wilson and Kelling argue that order is established not by fighting crime but by eliminating disorder. The “broken window” is the metaphor for community decline, the physical and visible signs of poverty. In other words — if you look poor, you are a problem.

The theory has been used to justify biased police practices around the country and is largely blamed for the disproportionate number of people of color in our criminal justice system for petty offenses. It has had a disastrous effect on homeless people. Instead of using valuable tax dollars to house our people and address the disparity between income and housing costs, millions of dollars have been funneled to managing the homeless crisis by the police, not to mention the skyrocketing health care costs of keeping humans homeless.

While it would be cheaper to simply house people, our entrenched cultural ethos tells us that homeless people are a separate species worthy of scorn, and our very laws represent that ethos — it is illegal to sit and rest on a sidewalk if you are poor, for example. Getting people to stop behaving in classist and racist ways is pretty tough, but gradually we have seen attitudes change on a number of social issues through a great deal of community organizing. For a start, however, we should halt the use of racially coded theories in our public policy. Broken windows break lives.

Jennifer Friedenbach executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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