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Homelessness Hypo: Law and Society in Constitutional Democratic Republics

Jake Barnes is a Professor of Law and Politics at an Urban Community College where he teaches a wide variety of students with different interests. Recently he was awarded a research grant and was asked to join a team who were examining the causes of homeliness in hopes to come up with some solutions. Jake did a lot of reading and came up with some pretty depressing conclusions. However, before he set out to write up his report, he decided to get out of the library and walk amongst the homeless.

Somewhere along his journey he met Teddy. Teddy explained that he had become homeless after the “dot com” crash in the early 2000s. He had a well paying job working as a computer programmer but after the crash thousands of workers were laid off and were suddenly unable to find work. At first he was angry because he had gone to college to get a degree in a practical field and was told computer science was a sure thing and that he would make at least $60,000 and much more in a few years. Suddenly he found himself thinking back to his philosophy and literature courses which told stories about things just like what was happening to him. How could this be?

At first he got by on unemployment while he tried to find another job. At each interview he would meet other computer programmers who said they could not find a job anywhere and some had taken jobs as salespersons, cashiers, or servers at restaurants. Teddy found some odd jobs that paid $100 here and there but after a few months he found himself unable to pay his rent. Then he got sick. When he got out of the hospital for pneumonia he was given a $20,000 bill and returned to his apartment to see a 3 day eviction notice. Teddy became depressed. He moved into his car and tried to find places where he could park overnight. But one night he was stopped by a police officer who cited him for unlawful parking and issued a summons to appear in court. Teddy missed the court date and soon after his car broke down. Teddy realized in that moment he was homeless, in debt, and depressed. Teddy had never done drugs. He had never had a drink. Teddy had a family but they were 2,000 miles away, older than he, and lived paycheck to paycheck.

Jake decided he needed a different perspective. He had talked to several homeless people, shelter and social workers, and observed areas where the homeless tended to gather. His research and his own observations confirmed what Teddy had explained: the process of homelessness was not sudden and did not seem to be predictable. Jake then did a ride-a-long with a police officer in Seattle, Washington. Seattle had decriminalized drug use a decade ago and there was obvious signs of public drug use in the downtown area. During the ride the police officer said, “homelessness should be a crime. I mean just look at this mess.” Jake replied, “but they seemed to have homes. Many of them are in shelter you said and thousands seem to be living in recreational vehicles and tents. They seem to be modern nomadic people,” The police officer responded, “sure, but you know what I mean.” Jake did not know what he meant but he did know what he was implying. By not living in a conventional, traditional manner the police officer thought this deviant behavior should be criminalized.

This was not new information to Jake. During his research he found that vagrancy, loitering, disturbing the peace, trespassing, and all sorts of terms were used to police populations that were not productively working. Jake wondered how these laws came to be passed. Certainly it would have been easier to provide jobs for folks than to pay police officers to chase them around the city for not having a job. The police officer he talked to made $150,000 and said that he had responded to only a handful of violent calls that year. This did not make sense to Jake. But when he returned to New York he found different problems but the same approach. People were being paid to everything but provide jobs and a home for homeless folks. Jake seemed to have the answer to the cause of homelessness and he began to write his report.

















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