Police and Homeless: An Uneasy Relationship

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Matthew Scott Jr., a former handyman, lost everything Christmas Eve of 1999 to a forgotten lit cigar that destroyed all that he had built for himself.

The Red Cross told him he was on his own, so for 11 years Scott has been living on the streets of Boston, trying to survive off of the few dollars he earns from passers-by.

Now, Scott is living in a run-down apartment on a fixed income from the government, but he still begs for money on Boylston Street on his weekends. While he is able to get by in this way, there is one persistent area of difficulty that Scott has faced—the police.

Scott said he has been in and out of jail for many reasons, but according to his story the main one is that cops want him off the streets. “A cop came up to me one night when I was sleeping on a bench and started beating me with his stick telling me to leave. I was bleeding and he didn’t care—he just kept whacking.”

Scott said he feels that cops have a hatred for the homeless and that they know they can treat them badly because no one knows or cares. “I got arrested once for having a mild heart attack and the cops just thought I was annoying everyone, but I was asking for help. They only found that out after I was in their car and they still put me in jail after.”

Michael E. Chapman, a former cab driver, said he was homeless for six years. He too said the cops treated him very badly while he was living on the streets. “If it weren’t for the cops who kept arresting me every few months for things I didn’t even do, I would have been back on my feet much quicker,” he said.

Chapman said, “Life as a homeless person sucks because people ignore you. But it’s hell with cops. They just hate you and that’s that. To them, we are their enemies and they’ll do anything to keep you away from everyone.”

I recently spoke with several housed members of the public on the street, and asked them for their thoughts on the relationship between the police and the homeless. One man, Domenick, said he knows many homeless people who are trying to scrounge up enough money to survive. “I’m cool with the homeless, they’re people just like everyone else.”

Although Domenick said he has never seen the cops mistreating a homeless person, he has heard stories and he said he feels, “It’s not right. Let them live their lives in peace like the rest of us. Cops shouldn’t hate, they should be protecting.”

Domenick told me that he has regulars to whom he gives money when he has enough to spare, and that he has gotten to know them on a personal level. “I would even call them my friends now. They tell me they go to jail all the time for stuff they don’t do and it’s so wrong.”
 
Kelsey, an Emerson sophomore majoring in marketing, said she understands that the police have to keep order. “But most of the time they take it too far and unless they’re [a homeless person] physically bothering someone, the cops should lighten up.”

She admits she is a little intimidated by homeless people and ignores them most of the time because, “It’s so hard to distinguish who needs the real help and who is just going to use my money to buy drugs and alcohol. I refuse to be an enabler.”

Greg F., a sophomore music major at Boston University, said that he feels terrible for the homeless. “I think that it’s ridiculous for people to walk by them and not give any money. It’s not going to hurt anyone to be a little generous every now and then.”

Greg said he sees mistreatment from the cops all the time but he knows there’s nothing anyone can do. “We don’t have the right to walk up to a cop and tell them to chill out. If we did, we’d be in those cuffs along with the homeless guy. It’s out of everyone’s control but the cops’.”

Megan meanwhile said she agrees that it’s sad but that she is not responsive to it anymore. She recalled a time that she saw a homeless man holding up a sign that read: “Help me get drunk”. She said she refuses to give money for that.

“Those kinds of people are just perpetuating the situation instead of responding to the help that’s being offered out there. I’ve kind of built up a numbness to the needy because there’s just so many drugged-up bums out there—the ones who ruin it for the rest, the honest ones who actually need the money.”

Megan also she has not witnessed any mistreatment by the cops and she said she believes that the cops are merely doing their job.

Public Safety Chief at Emerson University George Noonan, a man who has also worked in the Boston Police Department for 35 years, said that there is more violence and more psychological problems among the homeless of today. “But, as police officers, we must be understanding. I’m not saying bad treatment never happens, but most of the time they’re making it up. Their minds don’t operate like ours do,” he said.

According to Officer Noonan, there are certain reasons for why cops arrest the homeless: if they are disorderly, if they commit a crime, or if they break and enter into an establishment.

However, Officer Noonan asserted that they don’t normally arrest homeless individuals if they are intoxicated in public or if they are disturbing the peace. He elaborated that they don’t arrest them for these reasons because, “Not to sound demeaning, but they have psychological and mental problems. Most of the time they have no control over what they’re doing, it’s not usually a choice.”

But what happens to homeless persons who are arrested and imprisoned when they get out of jail? “Nothing,” Scott said. “We just keep on doing what we do.”

Norman Watne has been involved with Spare Change News since its inception. He is currently a vendor supervisor for the Boston turf area, and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Homeless Empowerment Project. Norman can be reached at his Spare Change News webpage at http://www.sparechangenews.net/norman.
 

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