The rights of all America citizens - life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and freedom of speech - are guaranteed by our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Discrimination is prohibited and punishable by law. The majority of American citizens do not have a need to contemplate their rights daily, as they are too busy living their lives. However, for homeless individuals, having basic civil rights is a mere fantasy.
Homeless individuals face constant discrimination from the general public, privately-owned businesses and, last but not least, the police. The preconceived notion that the general public entertains is that all homeless people are categorically the same - substance abusers or psychiatrically ill. The reality is that some homeless individuals do fit those molds, but generalizing this particular segment of society is an inherent discrimination.
Many members of the general population could not endure homelessness. The greatest difficulty for law-abiding homeless individuals is not climate changes but the attitudes and corresponding actions the general population takes toward them.
Most non-homeless individuals vehemently believe the homeless are a disposable commodity and should be contained in segregated environments such as shelters or hospitals.
Why shelters are scary
As the general public has learned with our most recent tragedies, our social service agencies can misrepresent the programs they are advocating and misappropriate funds.
Shelter environments are both psychologically and medically unhealthy. There are rows of cots with virtual strangers sleeping approximately two feet from one another.
Shelters fulfill the purpose of a protective roof from the elements. But many homeless people are apprehensive of shelters, and justifiably so. Shelters fall into two categories - either those that are operated with inadequate supervision or those that have stringent rules and regulations rooted in a prison mentality. There is no middle ground.
Inadequate ventilation and a lack of properly sanitized facilities, such as the showers where as many as 50 individuals wash in a row, would most definitely elicit closure by health officials if the building served any other population.
Many of the homeless sleeping in shelters contract illnesses, as well as body and head lice. Many are fearful of sleeping in shelters as there are residents who are psychiatrically ill and hallucinate, are prone to violence, or steal possessions from other guests.
Shelter food comes from one of three sources - it's either second-hand, left over from restaurants and about to go stale, food that is donated, or volunteers who cook the food in their homes and bring it to the shelter. Dietary concerns and choices are non-existent.
Maintaining personal hygiene is a constant hardship for the homeless. Those who consider hygiene a priority have to spend hours a day attempting to utilize public facilities, as both the general public and the police deem them unwelcome.
The homeless who are apathetic about their hygiene often contract illness, have parasites and emit offensive odors.
Two years ago, an elderly woman who had been living in the streets opted to sleep in a shelter for a few days due to the frigid temperatures. A few days later, she re-emerged frightened, upset and ill. She had been threatened and pushed down the stairs by her roommates and her few possessions were stolen. She had also contracted a parasitic infection, which caused a bright red painful rash on her extremities, back, and stomach.
A staff member at one of the homeless shelters contracted impetigo subsequent to using a telephone immediately after a resident used it.
The concept of warehousing "the undesirables" as we did in the 1940s and 1950s to the mentally ill and the poor still exists. If we turn to the yellow pages of our phone book or access our computers, there is a comprehensive list of social service organizations which claim to address all of society's needs, like adoption services, teen programs, or homeless organizations.
However, many of these organizations, including those for the homeless, have vast discrepancies between their claims and how they actually service their clients.
Living on the streets and choosing not to live in a shelter offers a sense of freedom in terms of options, such as choosing one's own bedtime, bathroom-time, diet, and the freedom of movement to avoid an unwelcome intruder.
The most significant problem of street life is the police. Some police criminalize homelessness and believe that the homeless do not have rights. Homeless individuals are routinely stopped and interrogated simply because they are homeless. They are denied access to public restrooms and threatened and ticketed, or arrested for engaging in life-sustaining activities such as sitting, resting, sleeping, or sorting belongings. Some individuals are simply chased out of municipalities by the police just because they are homeless.
Repeatedly, I have been followed and interrogated by the police in a specific municipality in western Union County. Although those at the Central Transportation Center had previously ID'd me and determined that I did not have any criminal history, warrants, or a psychiatric history, they continued to consistently harass me. When I proceeded to interrogate the police in that Union County municipality as to their reasoning, they stated, "You are not a problem. We have no problem with you" and they have admitted to following me around and bothering me.
The transit police in that town encouraged local police to harass me. A church there also called the police when homeless people have entered. Apparently, the church no longer serves as a sanctuary for the poor and oppressed, and the police transport the homeless to other municipalities, analogous to biblical times when the lepers were exiled to leper colonies.
When I exercise my freedom of speech regarding the police, the repercussions are forthcoming.
The police are not expected to be social workers for the homeless and it genuinely must be very disconcerting that they are forced to deal with the segment of the homeless population that engages in disruptive and criminal behavior.
However, the law-abiding homeless population should be treated by the police as they would treat an address-holding citizen. Life on the street is inherently difficult and constant unwarranted police intervention only exacerbates the difficulties and serves to solidify the wall between the homeless population and the police. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. This means protecting a homeless individual who is performing life sustaining activities in public, such as sleeping and resting, when no other place exists for them to do it.
The Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause protects a homeless individual from being ejected from public restroom facilities and parks, etc.
Part of the homeless population consists of senior citizens who have worked all of their lives. Some of them are war veterans who find themselves in this predicament. When an individual is 60 to 80 years old and living on the streets - where do you go? What do you do? How do you survive? These lost souls often are the recipients of police harassment.
Homelessness is a real problem that needs real solutions. The rhetoric that "help" is offered to all who seek it is not a reality. We need to re-educate ourselves about the notions we presently entertain regarding the homeless population and replace some of our present responses to this issue. It is human nature to want safety and security. Few individuals choose to be homeless, and many individuals do not want to be imprisoned in a system supposedly designed to help them, but instead allots them no personal choices whatsoever - even regarding their basic needs.
All citizens have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so now it is time to help those that have lost that right regain it.
I have interviewed approximately six police officers who have specifically stated, "Homeless people do not have rights."
M.K. is a former social worker who is currently homeless and is an advocate for homeless rights.