Why homeless people are choosing to go to jail: ‘I kept reoffending’

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Homeless people who are resistant to shelters face a cruel choice: living rough in the cold or spending time behind bars

by Wilson Criscione

CHRIS CARVER waits in the courtroom for two hours before his name is called. Spokane municipal judge Mary Logan tells him to stand: “We’re dealing with your case now.”

He struggles to his feet. His beard is shabby. Branch-like tattoos wind around his eyes. He flashes a boyish grin through weary eyes.

Judge Logan faces him from the bench, an American flag draped behind her: “So, Mr Carver, you want to waive your right to have an attorney represent you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So that is your right, Mr Carver, to do that,” the judge says. “I always wonder why, when you … qualify to have counsel assigned at no expense to you–”

Carver interrupts: “Because it’s a maximum penalty of a year in jail, and that ain’t nothing to me, ma’am.”

homeless
Chris Carver

“I’m sorry, what?” the judge asks.

Carver continues: “I’m homeless, out there on the streets and everything. A year is nothing to me … I don’t know what else to do.”

The judge presses: “I would hate for you to think that jail is your home away from home.”

Carver shrugs: “I’m homeless out there, so … ”

It was early February of a particularly cold winter in Spokane, in eastern Washington state, when Chris Carver decided he would rather go to jail than ride out the next couple of months on the streets.

The charges against him were serious enough: criminal trespass, defecating in a church stairwell, malicious mischief for throwing a skateboard at a car that drove through the alley where he was sleeping. A public defender probably could have helped him avoid extended jail time.

But Carver’s choice – purposefully, knowingly torpedoing his chance at freedom – fails to shock those who regularly work with the chronically homeless. They say they have seen it many, many times. Only occasionally does it make the news.

homelessIn January 2021, an Indiana man refused to leave a hospital until police booked him.

In Mississippi, right before Christmas in 2019, a homeless man broke windows so he could spend the night in jail. And in 2018, a Washington man robbed his fourth bank in search of a long prison sentence.

Still, even assuming these are outlier cases in the spectrum of homelessness, people like Carver represent an urgent policy challenge increasingly facing communities across the country: how do cities deal with shelter-resistant, street-hardened people, the ones often demonized by politicians as living proof that US cities are dying?

No one believes that employing jails as temporary housing is smart or humane; nor does it make economic sense, as it is more expensive than other options. The fact that it is happening at all proves that something has gone horribly wrong, housing advocates say.

“It’s a national climate that has deprioritized housing, and it’s created incredibly cruel choices for folks who are experiencing any form of instability,” says Marc Dones, head of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority in Seattle.

Courtesy: Guardian News & Media Ltd. To read full text of this edited version, click here.

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Photograph courtesy: Erick Doxey/InvestigateWest
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