Monday, March 22, 2010

DC CRIME EXPUNGEMENT POLICY: A Systemic Contradiction

On March 12th, 2010 a fellow homeless advocate and I co-hosted a meeting with the homeless during which they could learn about how crime expungement works in Washington, DC. We invited a woman from the re-entry program at the office of the public defender to speak to the group of about 25 homeless people who were hoping to get their crimes expunged so that they could re-enter the workforce. There were about a dozen other people present as well -- a couple of sociology professors and a few of their students, a reporter for DC's street paper (www.streetsense.org) and at least one man who wasn't homeless but wanted his single crime from 45 years ago expunged.

This meeting had originally been scheduled for February 12th, but was postponed due to Snowmageddon. That might've been a good thing after all; because, many of the homeless who would've come in February as an excuse to get out of the cold didn't come to the March meeting and thus avoided the upset which those of us who attended experienced. Though the room was reserved from 1 to 4 PM, the speaker from the public defender's office explained that she couldn't be there before 2 PM. So we found other issues to discuss for the first hour. Then 2 o' clock came and she wasn't there. Then 2 o' clock became 2:30 and she still wasn't there. The other organizer (herself a lawyer) and her lawyer friend had to call the public defender's office and have someone else come out. He got there around 3 o' clock. that's when things really got ugly.

Right from the get-go he explained that most of the people in the room couldn't get their crimes expunged. He told us that no felonies and only some misdemeanors could be expunged. He explained how someone could expunge their crimes (the few that can actually be expunged) and how to go about doing it. About 5 minutes into his speech, people began to walk out. I told him that they were walking out because they felt that he was just fostering hopelessness for those experiencing homelessness. The other organizer and a few other people in the room suggested that I not be too hard on him; because, he was just telling the truth. It was also said that we should pursue passage of a bill that was proposed by 2 DC councilpeople which would make it illegal for a potential employer to ask about a person's criminal past until after they are offered the job. (It was introduced and then tabled. Many Washingtonians were excited about the bill; but, the council has been silent about it since its introduction.)

There were a couple of older men in the room who were hoping to get their crimes expunged. One said that his last crime had been committed over 30 years ago. The other man who was in his 60's claimed to have committed only one crime in his life -- when he was 19 -- and that his singular crime was still being held against him.

At the age of 19, while in the military, he got into a fight and beat someone. He was disciplined but retained by the military and continued to serve his country. He finished his time and was honorably discharged. Now, some 45 years later, he attempted to purchase a gun. he was told that he would not be allowed to purchase a gun; because, he had lied on his application. As it turns out, a crime which he thought was no longer on his record actually was. Furthermore, he still can't get that crime expunged -- 45 years later with him having no additional crimes.

His story brings to mind at least 3 systemic contradictions. first and foremost, our national leaders can't solve problems without fighting.....err sending thousands of young men and women into battle to fight and die for them (the politicians). Yet, the populace is expected to solve its problems without violence. Secondly, the soldiers who come back alive are expected to renounce violence once they return to civilian life -- after being trained to kill by the military. Lastly, the subject of this story was retained by the military even after his offense and was allowed to handle high-powered munitions. whereas, now he can't buy a gun which amounts to being a pea-shooter by comparison to what he was entrusted with while in the military.

As if that's not enough, Washington, DC's crime expungement policy defeats its own purpose. One would assume that the purpose of a law that only allows very few crimes to be expunged irrespective of how many decades have passed since the crime was committed is to keep people who can't be trusted from acquiring that which should only be had by the trustworthy -- guns, jobs with much responsibility, the right to vote etc. However, this policy is keeping people from acquiring ANY employment in some cases. These people, in effect, remain imprisoned in spite of not being behind bars anymore. They have supposedly paid their debt to society and are now being charged interest on that debt. The only silver lining in this matter seems to be that, in lieu of recent economic troubles, the state governments can't afford to keep people in prison. Nonetheless, when they are released, the ex-cons are oftentimes not allowed to become full members of their society. Many people who are released from jail or prison end up in the homeless shelter, can't find work and then are tempted to return to what they know -- a life of crime. It would seem that DC's expungement policy is the primary reason for recidivism -- yet another systemic contradiction.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Snowmageddon

Spring has made an early start. The last couple of days have been beautiful. However, a few short weeks ago, quite the opposite was true. Washington had more snow this winter than in any other winter on record. They broke the 1898 seasonal record of 54.5 inches by a half inch. The snowstorms were coming back-to-back. President Obama and others had come to know the event as "Snowmageddon" or "Snowpocalypse". And the names were indeed fitting, especially for the homeless who were getting by on 1 meal per day in some cases.

About a year ago, the president chided Washington for not having that "Chicago toughness" after the city was shut down by 2 inches of snow. (Some people believe that that statement is the one correct thing that Mr. Obama has said or done since taking office.) While his statement isn't any less true this year, the considerably larger amount of snow this winter justifies the more recent city-wide shutdowns.

No matter how much the near-total shutdown of the transit system may have inconvenienced people, it was both a wise and an unavoidable decision. However, the lack of public transportation resulted in many people not being able to get to work or to other places that they needed to get to. The buses stopped running completely during the snow. The subway was only running underground. (It also has some above ground track and stations.) Many people could do little more than hibernate and wait for the plows to reach their neighborhoods and for the transit system to resume full operations.

There were businesses that closed early on the various snow days and decided against opening in some instances when it had snowed the night before. There were homes and businesses that didn't get dug out for several days. Residents who live on streets that are not busy and which had not been plowed for days actually began to threaten to kick the butts of the plow drivers if they didn't clear the street immediately. Store shelves were bare. I even heard of people fighting over snow shovels in the hardware store.

In spite of the apparent difficulty that all people in the affected areas endured, the homeless were hit harder than most by Snowmageddon. While those with houses were able to stock up on food and then lock themselves in until the storm passed, those living on the street or in shelters have nowhere to store food. Even the homeless who had money couldn't store food and had to trudge through the snow to find a restaurant that might be open for business in order to get something to eat. I had money at the time (though I don't anymore) and had to walk over a mile through treacherous snow to buy cheap meals at McDonald's -- one of the few that was open.

Fortunately, DC Central Kitchen, which feeds dinner to most of DC's homeless, is located in the basement of the shelter where I stay. So, others in that location and I knew that we had dinner coming to us, if nothing else. (As far as I know, DC Central Kitchen was able to feed all of its customers dinner every day during the storms.) However, some of the places that feed breakfast and/or lunch to many of DC's 6,500 homeless closed their doors during Snowmageddon. Furthermore, the do-gooders who often feed in the parks didn't come. This resulted in there being a sudden, sharp decline in the amount of food that was available for the homeless population. I'd begun to tell people that I had a bone to pick with whoever was spreading the rumor that homeless people don't eat when it snows. In spite of the apparent jocularity, my statement points to the need for better services during inclement weather.

In one instance, I saw several dozen homeless people sitting at the entrance to the McPherson Square Metro Station and asked someone why they hadn't stayed at the shelter, being that the shelters were kept open all day due to the weather. I was told that the men at a particular shelter had been given a bowl of watery soup that had nothing solid in it for breakfast. They'd essentially been given flavored water and had therefore come out to see if any do-gooders would come by with some solid food. Fortunately, some did. Nonetheless, this raised the question: "Why would the local government keep the shelters open and then fail to adequately feed people so that they venture out in order to eat anyway, as this is counterproductive?"

Washington, DC has a hypothermia hot line (1-800-535-7252) in place to connect people to shelter or bring them blankets if they choose to remain on the streets. While this is a service that not all cities have and which we appreciate, even those in Washington, DC didn't have it when they needed it most. Several homeless people stopped me to say that they were unable to get assistance from the hot line when they needed it during all of the snow. It stands to reason that the hypothermia vans were unable to get through the unplowed streets just like many other vehicles. After all, I saw firetrucks and ambulances getting stuck in the snow.

All of this points to a couple of grim realities. The first is that, since neither the people nor the vehicles that are employed to save lives are supernatural, they have as much difficulty coming through as any other person or vehicle during inclement weather. The other is that, during a disaster, those whose job it is to save lives must themselves run for cover or look after their own families, leaving their clientele to fend for themselves.

As a homeless advocate and a person who uses public libraries to access the Internet, I encountered problems that are not common to all homeless people. I had to reschedule meetings that I had arranged. (More than once I ended up being the only one to show up, with others not being able to get there or wrongly assuming that the meeting had been cancelled.) At one point, I was unable to access my e-mail for over a week, due to the libraries being closed. I get many important messages and was slightly worried that I might miss something important. Fortunately, others were less able to commute to the inner city than I was; so, there was nothing happening for me to miss.

This begs the question: "How can we do better next hypothermia season?" several people have asked me this question. My first suggestion is that the local unit of the Army Corps of Engineers invest in some earth movers that can be used to clear the streets quickly. Secondly, the do-gooders who feed the homeless regularly and who the homeless have come to expect should have someone in their group who has a vehicle with 4-wheel drive that can come through even during bad weather (though even 4-wheel drive has its limits). Thirdly, it is incumbent upon DC Government to compensate for the decrease in available food which occurs as a result of the do-gooders not being able to come through. Therefore, the government should see to it that a higher-than-usual amount of food is distributed during inclement weather. (Besides, Fred Swan who works for DC Government's Dept. of Human Services told me that this would happen when I spoke to him this past summer at a Winter Plan meeting; but, it didn't.)

For what it's worth to you, there is a bright side to all of this. As hungry as some of the homeless may have been, they at least knew that they could go indoors or just call for blankets to stay warm (in most cases). With the exception of the 360 men at the New York Ave. Shelter, other sheltered homeless had warm showers. Furthermore, those in DC have a legal right to shelter when the temperature is 32 or below (including the windchill factor) or 95 and above (including the heat index). And if you get to the shelter soon enough, you'll actually get a bed to sleep in. (The right-to-shelter law allows shelters to put people on cots or on bedrolls on the floor, so long as they are not put out into the cold to freeze.)

That said, hunger is the primary concern of DC's homeless during inclement weather. However, it is not wise to belittle this concern, as it is cause for people making otherwise unnecessary trips down treacherous roadways -- often on foot. It is unrealistic to think that anyone is going to be willing to eat just one meal per day or that they will remain in the shelter where the only thing that they can do oftentimes is sleep all day, as the T.V. area in most shelters only seats a small percentage of the residents and the T.V. is oftentimes so small that less than 10 people can watch it comfortably. Even I got restless and began to look for other things to do after just lying around for a couple of days.

I should reiterate that the sheltered as well as the street homeless have nowhere to store food. (The CCNV shelter actually has 2 refrigerators on a floor that holds about 300 men.) The lack of storage space is the reason that even the working homeless who have money need to venture out into the bad weather to find food -- sometimes more than once per day. It almost seems that, if we could solve the food dilemma, we'd have an adequate hypothermia system here in DC. Then we could turn our attention toward other aspects of the homeless problem -- like the need for affordable housing, affordable health care, a universal living wage and more comprehensive mental health services. At any rate, let's enjoy the warm weather while it lasts and learn from our mistakes. Hopefully next winter will be a better one for the homeless. Better yet, let's try to eradicate homelessness before then. Wishful thinking. But it's worth a try.

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