In Taking Stock: Housing, Homeless, and Reentry, Caterina Gouvis Roman and Jeremy Travis released a 126-page document on the difficulty faced by the homeless with a criminal record in obtaining housing. Roman and Travis (2004:11) state, “a tenth of the population coming into prisons have recently been homeless, and at least the same percent of those who leave prisons end up homeless, for at least a while.” While this work has its merits, the numbers for the state of Virginia are grossly underestimated when discussing the mark of a criminal record and its consequentiality for the homeless and beyond.
This work, among others, contributes to the overall discourse on conceptualizing the homeless as the drug addicted, dangerous, and delinquent “other,” a triad of “d’s,” through which society can easily keep them at a distance and in doing so, selectively provide assistance and resources based on their “worthiness” to the community. The “deranged” are often included in this triad of stereotyped homeless, which further alienates such populations from the community, and more importantly, alienates the community from the realities faced by the homeless in an increasingly punitive state. Criminological literature falls short in providing a holistic account of the homeless with a criminal record, particularly as it connects to a life of homelessness prior to receiving a criminal record.
The impact of tough on crime policies on the community is often discussed and debated. Nearly a decade after Roman and Travis’ (2004) released document, cities heavily debate encampment bans to regulate and criminalize space(s) in which the homeless reside. Police practices currently employ rational choice theory, situation crime prevention models, and broken windows theory in regulating and controlling space in the city; often among the few spaces in which the homeless find refuge at night. Situational crime prevention models and broken windows theory reflect local neighborhood association meetings and campaigns to control their parks (and benches and trash cans) by sanitizing the image of homeless congregation from the community. In doing so, it is apparent society is claiming this space as worthy for only the clean, risk free, ordered, and abled individual to congregate and bask. While a great deal is left to be researched and advocated, a point of serious consideration is why criminologists stop at re-entry without discussion of policing the homeless? And why criminologists stop at policing without any discussion of re-entry of the homeless?
Norfolk, Virginia is a city in which the county lines blur together visually, yet their constructed boundaries remain critical to the homeless. With a population in the greater Hampton Roads area reaching nearly 1.5 million, Norfolk is a key place for the homeless and all “othered” types. Norfolk has the largest sex offender population, the largest homeless population, and the largest number of released inmates in the state. From tourism in the summer at Virginia Beach Oceanfront, to it’s hotbed as a military community, the homeless are situated within a rapidly changing South Hampton Roads population, and are often pushed to Norfolk – the notoriously less economically well-off city of those in the area.
The homeless are lost in the transition of local life. Yet, simultaneously at the forefront of victimization by local punitive politics, the homeless and the homeless with a criminal record, are a relatively visible population that the community seeks to make invisible.
This leaves me with a shared thought and point of critique for a community (as well as a nation), in which aims to successfully address the issue of homelessness experienced by men, women, children, veterans, and other labels that indicate their worth to our chosen charity’s attention. As the holidays approach, donations for the needy creep at our every consumption adventure (Wal-Mart and Harris Teeter come to mind). We continue to provide charities for the homeless during this time and even to host events such as Project Homeless Connect, however the focus and current climate for providing services is dividing, categorizing and contradictory in itself.
To highlight a few:
First, the contradiction exists between providing services for the needy (i.e., those without food, shelter, and water) yet excluding them from the worthiness in which we hold our neighborhoods – they can get their resources, but not here, or there, and certainly not in public spaces for people to see and be reminded.
Second, the contradiction exists between wishing to keep our streets safe from the dirty, dangerous, delinquent, and deranged homeless, while simultaneously neglecting them from services that take them off the streets as well as actively defunding said shelters where fundamental, although limited, resources are being provided (as prison beds are overcrowded, so too are shelters).
Researchers of all intersections with the issues raised above need to seriously consider what space in the city means to the homeless, what it means to the every day community member, how these politics are played out in practice and policy, and perhaps how it relates to the revolving door crisis faced in an era of mass incarceration.
This blog, along with my dissertation, is inspired by the homeless who walk the streets of my neighborhood each day as I sit typing in this corporatized coffee hub, to which they would face harassment by society for the very same [paid] action. I would like to extend special thanks to Carl, Kevin, Gary, and Travis for discussing and reviewing this topic and my ideas at great length.
Lindsey Upton, PhD Candidate
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Old Dominion University
Travis, Jeremy, and Caterina Gouvis Roman. (2004). Taking Stock: Housing, Homelessness, and Prisoner Reentry. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.