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Herb Opalek: The crime of being poor

Herb Opalek

It is tragic how low we have sunk in this country when dealing with poverty and homelessness.

In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation," details how poverty and homelessness are being legally mistreated in our country.

It is a fact, a new report informs us, that since 2006 the number of city, county, and state ordinances against those publicly poor has been rising.

These would include ticketing and arrests for such minor infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol on the public streets.

Having visited Las Vegas one would suppose that the constabulary must spend a lot of time policing those who have open Budweiser and Coors on the Strip.

How do they go about recognizing who are the poor in that desert mecca of gold and glitz? Their statute states that a poor person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive public assistance.

Wow, coming from New York, I know many a rich person who dressed slovenly and poorly while sauntering through Central Park. If they visited Vegas and wore that sort of garment, I hope that they carried their bank passbooks with them to prove their worth. Else, in the style of Alice's Mad Hatter, off to jail with them.

Even faith-based and social service charities have been hit hard while trying to hand out free food in public parks. Quite a few cities have passed laws against food sharing in public areas. More cities are considering laws of this nature. So where do we feed these people?

Ehrenreich writes that race often plays a role in criminalizing the poor. She states that by far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong-color skin.

Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor encounters racial profiling, but for decades whole communities have been effectively profiled for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor, thanks to the broken windows or zero tolerance theory of policing popularized by Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York City, and his police chief William Bratton.

Here in Merced we have restrained ourselves from criminalizing our poor and homeless. Yes, there have been threats to arrest the homeless who camped out on railroad, Merced Irrigation District and city property. But threats have not brought about cruel policing by our guardians in blue.

Homelessness and poverty seem to be growing on a daily basis in Merced. I know that we at the rescue mission are receiving more and more requests as are the other agencies that deal with these issues.

Thank God we have not become jaded like Honolulu; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Grand Junction, Colo.; Tempe, Ariz.; and of course Las Vegas where bans on begging and crackdowns on homelessness are the rule of the day.

Merced has a great opportunity to swim against this rising tide of indifference and callousness to the poor and homeless.

All it takes is people of good will and full cooperation between community benefit organizations, the faith based community, and city and county governments. We can be humane while protecting the rights of all our citizenry.

Let us continue this public debate without rancor or recrimination. Our voices of mercy, grace, and love must triumph.

Herb Opalek is CEO of the Merced Rescue Mission.

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