Legal problems can, and often do, force people into extreme poverty, homelessness included. A court case can take over a person’s life, draining time, resources and funds. Depending on the reasons behind the case, it can cost a person their reputation, job and family – justifiably or not. Any involvement with the legal system is costly and winning is often the result of simply having more resources to devote to the process. If the issue at stake is important enough, people will (and have) devote every last resource to the fight, leaving them financially destitute.
Surviving extreme poverty (homeless or housed) is a legal quagmire of vagrancy laws; restrictions based on lack of a permanent address; illegal evictions; and accusations of theft, fraud, trespassing and simply existing (e.g.: sleeping in public). Attempting to report violent attacks or rapes is practically impossible and police brutality is not uncommon.
Those are just the most commonly known legal issues facing people trying to escape extreme poverty.
Any form of legal entanglement is devastating to impoverished families. Criminal cases are common and many of them are based on racial profiling or ridiculous laws specifically designed (and selectively enforced) to criminalize the existence of poor people because those with power don’t like seeing extreme poverty in public spaces.
I wish I could say that last sentence was an exaggeration or an analogy or even representation of worst-case-scenarios that pop-up through the country. Sadly, it is the cold-hard-reality faced by people surviving extreme poverty everywhere in the United States.
There are free legal aid programs, but they are inundated with requests for help, run by a small staff of volunteers and universally refuse to even discuss anything that is considered criminal. Legal representation provided within the court system is also overloaded and poorly managed.
As the experts in mass incarceration have pointed out, simply being part of a targeted racial group almost guarantees problems with the criminal justice system, regardless of your commitment to living a good and honest life. The same can be said for people surviving poverty – particularly those faced with extreme poverty and homelessness.
Extreme poverty and homelessness will not be significantly reduced, much less solved, until prejudiced and predatory laws are eliminated, all people are provided access to quality legal assistance and addressing an issue through the court system does not require being either extremely wealthy or a willingness to face complete financial devastation.
There’s a lot of work to be done here.
I don’t have a clean or easy answer.
It must change.
Mass Incarceration and Vagrancy Law Resources:
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Mass Incarceration
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Statement to Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Human Rights Council, 38thSession
- Equal Justice Initiative (EJI): Mass Incarceration
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH): Challenges to Vagrancy, Loitering and Curfew Laws