Justice

This Police Department's Viral Warning About Homeless People Is Causing a Huge Debate

July 28th 2017

By:
Kyle Fitzpatrick

The realities of homelessness are dire.

On a single night, over 560,000 people experience homelessness, a problem that is related to unemployment, housing costs, domestic abuse, and more. Homelessness isn’t an individual problem but representative of so many societal crises.

Recently, the Wyoming Police Department caught heat for a Facebook post that many believe is insensitive to the issues surrounding homelessness.

The Cheyenne, Wyoming Police Department shared a photo on Facebook announcing that they had arrested “a transient for public intoxication.”

The Department noted the person in question had gathered $234.94 in cash from panhandling and that those who gave money should have donated to a local charity instead of “feeding someone's alcohol addiction.”

People were furious with the post and made sure the department knew.

The original post gathered over 35K reactions, 47K shares, and 7.9K comments. Many were critical of how the department handled the matter, specifically for telling people how they should or should not help.

The matter didn’t end there: the department clarified their point in a lengthier Facebook post to defend their treatment of the person. This too was met with criticism.

 

 

 

 

Critics said the post conflated addiction with homelessness while portraying direct giving as harmful.

Eve Garrow, activist and Homelessness Policy Analyst at the ACLU of Southern California, sees this as a multi-tiered problem. “This police department is promoting the wrong diagnosis of the problem,” Garrow tells ATTN:. “People are generally not homeless because they suffer from alcohol or drug addiction.”

"While many homeless people do report having a substance abuse issue, most report that the addiction occurred after they became homeless and was not the cause of their homelessness," The Tampa Hillsborough Homelessness Initiative reports on its website. "Often times, people experiencing homelessness turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to dull the realities that come with living on the street."

“The main reasons people face homelessness are because they cannot afford to live,” Garrow continues. “We have an affordable housing crisis in this country.” An example of this is how three in four families who are renting property and qualify for government housing programs don’t get any help.

TJ Johnston, Reporter and Assistant Editor for “Street Sheet,” a publication of the Coalition On Homeless, told ATTN: said this isn’t just a Cheyenne-specific problem. “It’s duplicated in other areas of the country,” Johnston told ATTN:, noting that businesses took out billboards in San Francisco that sought to deter people from donating money directly to the homeless.

Garrow also expressed concern with how such behaviors by public figures set a dangerous precedent.

“When [myths about the homeless] are promoted by the government and by police departments, it takes on a great deal of legitimacy and that makes it more dangerous,” Garrow says.

Instead, the department could have taken the opportunity to teach instead of scold both givers and receivers. “The best models I’ve seen is when officers who are spokespeople for their department address community groups that educate on homelessness,” Garrow adds. “Educating the residents of particular municipalities that homelessness is not a crime, that the root causes are a lack of affordable housing and living wage jobs.”

For homeless advocates in Wyoming, this situation highlights advances and setbacks.

Rachel Bennett is the Director of the Wyoming Coalition for the Homeless and has seen the Cheyenne police trying to help with programs like Operation Change.

“It is designed to divert homeless individuals that might normally go to jail to a treatment facility instead,” Bennett told ATTN:. “I've heard mixed reviews from folks about this, both from the nonprofit side and from the homeless themselves ... I like the idea of getting them help in some way that is not in a jail cell.”

While it’s been reported that there has been an overall decline in homelessness, some cities have seen increases–and Bennett sees this in Cheyenne. “I have to say that I've only seen an increase,” Bennett told ATTN:. “Every year I see 500 to 700 more homeless than I did the previous year.”

“Wherever it is declining, it's not here,” Bennett says. “That's all I know.”

People who are homeless need help – and shaming helps no one.

“It is difficult for most people to see homelessness and despair and not feel compelled to help the person that is right in front of them,” Bennett told ATTN. “I hope the society we live in never stops feeling the need to help someone in despair.”

“If people stop helping, I feel like we are really in trouble,” Bennett added.