End citations for homeless people

We can do better

I had the privilege of waking up this morning in a safe apartment with enough food and enough financial security to go about my day without stress.

I had the spare time to take a walk just for my health. My walking route goes through my beautiful, manicured neighborhood and then back on Central Avenue, an up-and-coming yet still slightly gritty thoroughfare. I pass all kinds of people on my walks – from the financially comfortable residents of my neighborhood to the real and raw people who live nearby and are struggling to make ends meet.

I generally say hello to everyone I pass, especially to people who might otherwise feel invisible most of the day, like homeless folks or people in wheelchairs.

On today’s walk, as I approached the bus stop, I saw a male meter-reader cop talking to two gentlemen sitting on the bus stop bench. He was white and they were black.

Sometimes in this situation, I will walk slowly and linger to make sure the cop is being respectful, not being threatening and generally doing his job the way a proper public servant should.

I slowed down to listen as I walked past. The two gentlemen, who were doing absolutely nothing to anybody, each had an open container of beer. One was in a paper bag; the other was not. I found a place close by to lean and then watched and listened to the entire incident as it occurred.

First and foremost, yes, open containers are prohibited in public. I acknowledge that. But I also acknowledge that the world is harder for some people than others, and if there is no threat to the public, exceptions can be made. What I witnessed is exactly how people (often people of color) are sucked into the criminal justice system and go from being a harmless member of society to being a “criminal.”

Credit where credit is due: this cop acted professionally and was kind. He was not rude or aggressive in any way. That is a great start. However…

What this cop DIDN’T do was pour their beers in the trash and tell them not to drink in public again. What he did was give them each a citation for $118. He told them that this was just a citation and wouldn’t go on their criminal record UNLESS they couldn’t pay. If they didn’t pay, a warrant would be issued for their arrest.

This, people, is exactly how to turn harmless citizens into criminals. You issue them a citation that you know they can’t pay. Then you arrest them for non-payment. Now you’ve created your criminal, someone with even FEWER opportunities to thrive and succeed – or even just exist.

Then the fines multiply as they remain unpaid, and court charges are added, and pretty soon you’re arresting them on new charges of not paying the fines. This time the formerly homeless people get a new roof over their head in the form of our county jail systems, and cost the taxpayer a pretty penny while they are there.

Fining Homeless People Doesn’t Solve Any Problem – The Orange County Register

I was so angry watching this happen because I knew the officer could have just given them a warning and let them go on their way.

I followed one of the gentlemen around the corner where he had gone to finish his beer. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind telling me how much the fine was. He let me know he couldn’t pay it, and I expressed my unhappiness that he might be arrested for non-payment. I asked him if I could take a photo of his ticket with my phone and told him I’d pay the fine, and he actually said he’d rather have some money for food. I handed him $20 and continued my walk home. (UPDATE: I paid the fine on February 6, 2020)

We are not going to help people escape homelessness by giving them citations for having an open container. Take them to jail if they’re disturbing the peace, but don’t bother them if they’re just sitting there at the bus stop. These men weren’t hurting anyone or causing any sort of disturbance. And now they have the specter of a warrant over their heads.

An action step that you can take right now is to call your local police department and urge them not to give fines to people who obviously can’t pay them and who did nothing to harm society. You pay with your tax dollars when that person ends up in jail. They were costing you much less before that.

Other ways to be kind to the homeless are discussed in this New York Times article:

So we reached out to the people who best know what’s helpful and what’s not: those who have experienced homelessness themselves.

We heard from dozens of Californians, and nearly everyone who shared advice echoed the same basic request: Treat people you come across with dignity and respect. Don’t avoid eye contact, but do avoid making assumptions.

“When I was young, I judged those drinking or using on the sidewalks late at night,” wrote Joh Rathbun, of Santa Cruz. “I now know that a tall boy or two is much cheaper than rent.”

No gesture of good will is too insignificant, she added: “A small nod to recognize someone’s humanity can be monumental.”

Some practical measures you can take as told by a formerly homeless individual:

The most helpful thing by far that anyone gave me was knowledge. When I first became homeless in San Francisco, the resources most helpful to me were where to shower, where soup kitchens were, where to get medical care, and how to get food stamps. Finding out what emotional support groups are available, where to get financial and job assistance, how to get free college classes, how to secure a mailing address, and so much more, can help people.

People live on the streets in cities all across America, but the issue is pronounced in San Francisco where upwards of 36,000 people are without homes each night. This Curbed article talks about some of the ways to help the homeless there, many of which can be applied to whatever city you live in.

In this economy and with so many people hurting, we need to do better. We need to find ways to help people instead of contributing to their problems. And we must always treat people with dignity and love.


  • Thank you! In my 40+ years as an advocate and activist for the homeless (or houseless, as I prefer to use), it is always another human being stepping up and stepping in that makes all the difference.

    I’d like to speak to where you mention taking those ‘disturbing the peace’ into custody. If there is imminent physical danger, there might be just cause to do so but so many of our houseless community suffer from mental illness, lack of sleep, PTSD (resulting from the aforementioned) and need trauma informed care and intervention more than they need jail time. Many cities are developing models where first responders arrive in the form of crisis and mental health professionals who are trained in de-escalation techniques. (White Bird in Eugene, OR and its street team, CAHOOTS, is just such an organization) Let us look forward to cities all over emulating (and funding) such projects that employ trauma informed dialogue, engagement and conflict resolution with our houseless community instead of confinement – humanity over harshness.

    To learn more about White Bird and the CAHOOTS model: http://www.whitebirdclinic.org

    • Elsie Gilmore

      I completely agree that helping is always, always better than arresting. Helping people who need help should be the first response.

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