Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of the Homeless

I had the wonderful opportunity to see a screening of the documentary “Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness” at Cambridge City Hall. The evening was made possible by Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, who brought together an audience of local social services providers who work day-in and day-out on issues touching the homeless of Cambridge. Powerful in scope, the film was very well received by all who attended.

“Under the Bridge” was filmed in Indianapolis during the summer of 2013 and chronicles the trials and tribulations of homeless people living in a makeshift camp under the Davidson Street railroad bridge. In the documentary, the homeless come together and form a community led by a mayor named Maurice. Directed by Don Sawyer and written by Stephen Talbot and John MacGibbon, this documentary provides a glance into the lives of the homeless.

As a columnist and a street newspaper vendor with a Social Services background myself, the messages of this documentary really hit close to home. I noticed a stark contrast between the lack of social services infrastructure depicted in Indianapolis and the reality of a well-structured and efficient system existing here in Cambridge. With this context in mind, I requested an interview with Vice Mayor McGovern to discuss the documentary and the issues it uncovers. He graciously accepted.

In asking McGovern to compare the approaches of Indianapolis and Cambridge to their homeless populations, he gave a candid reply: “There are some similarities expressed in this film between Indianapolis and Cambridge. The stories of the homeless in that camp are fairly consistent with the stories of our homeless. But what separates our two cities is that in Cambridge, we do care greatly about our community at large. We provide resources to service providers in Cambridge who work on issues surrounding homelessness, whereas in Indianapolis, there are none!”

Under the Bridge 2McGovern went on to describe the current state of homelessness in Cambridge. “The homeless and addicted in Cambridge have access to service provisions better than in most cities,” he said. “However, we still haven’t made a big-enough dent in lowering the homeless numbers here. This is very frustrating.” McGovern also mentioned that, previously, the homeless population did not receive adequate attention from other council members, but that is now changing for the better.

In an effort to ameliorate the homelessness situation, McGovern plans to push for more funding for wraparound services for homelessness agencies in Cambridge. “Treating the whole person and not just the syndrome” is imperative, said McGovern. As the interview concluded, I thanked McGovern for his deliberate support of what is an often-forgotten subset of the Cambridge population.

While Cambridge’s response to homelessness has been supportive, Indianapolis’s responses have been very different. In summer 2013, Indianapolis’s longtime tent city received a few complaints from distant neighbors. Rather than working with the homeless, the first response to those complaints was tantamount to fear tactics. The government sent in the US Marshals to intimidate the residents, which proved unsuccessful. After this failed, the city called in a sympathetic sergeant from the homeless police task force, who tried to reason with Mayor Maurice and his constituents. Unfortunately, the sergeant’s true intentions were to decimate the Davidson Street community and dismantle the tent city’s system of self governance. While there was tremendous TV coverage throughout this debacle, not one piece of news depicted the homeless in a positive light.

With little success resulting from the city’s initial tactics, on August 19, 2013, the City of Indianapolis, its civil servants and the police force proclaimed that all those remaining under the bridge would be charged with a criminal trespassing felony if they remained. Most of the residents ultimately dispersed farther into the woods or elsewhere. However, those who stayed, including Mayor Maurice, were arrested, jailed and charged with a felony. Thus, the criminalization of homelessness began—a clear shift in Indianapolis’s stance from ignoring the homeless to persecuting them.

It was the lack of support from city government in Indianapolis that led to the creation of the Davidson Street community in the first place. Although various faith-based groups stepped in to fill the void left by a lack of government support, some of these groups asked the homeless to convert to Christianity before they gave them life-sustaining provisions. This is clearly not right and would never have come to pass if the local government hadn’t been so inept.

The fact is, the Davidson Street community members did not choose to be homeless; and as Cambridge Vice Mayor McGovern remarked after seeing “Under the Bridge”: “Not one 10-year-old boy ever says he wants to become homeless, drug ridden, alcoholic and mentally ill when he grows up.” People do not choose to be homeless; it more often than not a result of their circumstances. Because of this, homeless people should not be stigmatized, nor should they be recklessly ignored by the government.

As “Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness” provides vital insight into the true face of homelessness, I strongly suggest that all individuals see this film as soon as it comes out. Not only will you learn about the homelessness situation in Indianapolis, you’ll surely gain a newfound perspective on how difficult homeless life can be.

Referenced by Anastasia Mathis
Edited by David Riche

Mike Thistle is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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