Saturday, December 14, 2013

If Unemployment is Illegal, then we're a Nation of Outlaws

There was a time, not too long ago (before there were laws, curfews and beach patrols), when someone could sleep overnight at the public beaches in Southern California (and elsewhere). All they would need is a blanket or sleeping bag on the colder nights during the winter time.

Some beaches had public facilities, such as showers and restrooms (although, one could just as easily use the ocean). I remember one such beach that also had cement pits for which to build bonfires.

As a teenager, I remember when we'd bring our guitars and cases of beer to party all night long; and then wake up in the morning (sometimes with our significant others) to hear the sound of the surf. If one chose to, they could panhandle to buy food at the snack shops, or buy drinks at the beachfront bars. That was back in the 1960s, when they called us "hippies". But times have changed.

That might be how surfers got the name "beach bums". Although the sport of surfing first became prominent in the early 1900s (after moving from Hawaii to California), ever since the early 1950s America has had "beach bums". But I think it was back in the 1970's, when the bikers and surfers were in conflict with one another over beach "turf", and was one reason why we've had curfews on the beaches ever since then.

If the life of a true beach bum were allowed nowadays, I wonder how many unemployed Americans would be living like that in 2013? While although, not the most ideal situation, at least it could be survivable (so long as one didn't become seriously ill or disabled).

You can't even pitch a tent anywhere within the city limits (without a special temporary permit) --- or sleep in a park, or anywhere else on public property. You either have to sleep on rented or privately owned property (maybe airports, train stations and subway cars might be the exceptions in most cases).

Sometimes, one can't even loiter in one place for too long , although it's understandable not near a place of business or in a residential neighborhood (and especially not near schools). But why not overnight at a public beach or public park?

Jason Greenslate is living on food stamps in San Diego, California --- so he doesn't have to panhandle (and for now, can survive.) But most of us can't just pack a bag and hitchhike to Southern California to live on the beach, especially where there's nowhere to sleep at night after the curfew begins (Although, I suppose, maybe someone could still sleep on the beach during the day-time, and then just wander around the nearest streets during the night after the beach closes.)

TIME reports that in an effort to reduce the 17,000 homeless people in their state, Hawaii will start to offer one-way plane tickets to homeless people. To qualify, the down-and-out must complete a background check, be mentally sound and have "sufficient personal hygiene" (I'm surprised that they didn't also require them to be employed). Hawaii News Now reported that just by sending a handful of homeless people home (even for a little while), could still help the state save money on food, shelter, and medical costs.

Media pundits such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh all have beach-front mansions on the ocean --- I wonder if they would mind very much if a few of these homeless people could sleep on their private beaches.

But regardless of where one lives, whether in an urban or a rural area of America, being unemployed can be deadly --- because public policy doesn't allow for survival --- because "eye sores" have become a "blight" on those who still work (and those "bums" also scare away the tourists).

Historically, vagrancy laws made it a crime for a person to wander from place to place without any visible means of support. Basically, these laws criminalized being homeless and jobless. States regularly used vagrancy laws to arrest, prosecute, and harass homeless and poor people who were deemed "undesirable" in our society. These laws prohibited specific acts, making loitering, sleeping outside and panhandling a crime.

In the early 1900's, poor people in the South (generally African-Americans) were constantly being arrested for vagrancy. They were usually fined and sent to prison for 3 months; but because they were poor, they also couldn't pay their fines --- so then they were sentenced to an additional 3 months in prison and forced to work (to pay off their fines). And where did they work for those 6 months to pay off their fines? In coal mines, which were owned by the largest corporation in the world --- U.S. Steel.

"When we're unemployed, we're called lazy; when the whites are unemployed it's called a depression." ~ The Reverend Jesse Jackson

Since then, many vagrancy laws have been struck down because they violated the constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment --- because the "defendant" was punished for "unfortunate circumstances beyond his or her control".

Very few people desire to be homeless and unemployed (even those such as the "beach bum" Jason Greenslate), so vagrancy laws had violated the tenets of fairness to jail someone just based on financial catastrophes, medical problems or mental illness --- and even for drug and alcohol addiction.

Beginning in the 1960s, in response to constitutional challenges, many states repealed their vagrancy statutes --- but then, just replaced them with other laws such as "disorderly conduct" and "public intoxication", as well as sleeping outside and begging. Critics have charged that these newer laws only replicated the same problems of the vagrancy laws, and that states (with states rights) used them to unfairly jail and harass poor people.

Now many states are still punishing the unemployed and poor by not expanding Medicaid, attempting to drug-test them for TANF (and other anti-poverty programs) and advocating for cuts in food stamps, as well as reducing and cutting unemployment benefits.

But even if you are charged with vagrancy (being homeless and unemployed) --- or for any other crime because you are homeless or unemployed (such as pitching a tent in a Manhattan park), then you most likely wouldn't have the resources to hire a local criminal defense attorney (to either defend you or sue on your behalf).

Now in 2013, it's almost as though it's illegal for anyone to be unemployed in America. Our politicians and corporate leaders have turned our country into a nation of outlaws with over 20 million Americans unemployed who are desperately trying to survive --- while at the same time, being vilified for being poor and unemployed, as though it were their fault that millions of jobs were offshored to Asia.

See my posts so see what's it's like to be homeless:

To Be A Homeless Man

To Be A Homeless Man (Part Two)

Blaming the poor and unemployed

My related posts on homelessness

Homelessness Higher and Rising

1 in 200 Americans were in a Homeless Shelter

Down and Out in Las Vegas

KFC Fires Homeless Woman

Why Not Blame the Homeless?

* Follow the discussion at City-Data about moving to Hawaii to become a beach bum (and pick up a few good tips).

"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" ~ The New Colossus


  1. FDR on Unemployment

  2. There are more than 52,000 people in homeless shelters, including about 22,000 children — both record highs.

  3. DECEMBER 13, 2013 --- In nine of the largest 16 cities in Colorado, judges routinely issue "pay-or-serve" warrants against those too poor to pay court fines. In such cases, individuals are given a stark option: Pay up in cash or pay off fines by serving time in jail. Judges routinely ignore signs of indigence, such as the defendant is homeless...sometimes costing taxpayers more than the fines.

  4. My First Night Homeless

  5. I have a question. My son has had two citations for sleeping on the beach in Waikiki because he can't afford a hotel. He used all his money trying to secure a job. He finally has two of them (they haven't started yet), but is in jeopardy of going to jail because he can't pay his fine in time. I'd like to pay one of his $80 fines, but can't find a way to do that online. Does anyone have an idea of how to do that?