Oklahoma City Is Ready To Criminalize Poverty — Just In Time For Christmas

If there’s one thing rich jerks hate, it’s seeing poor people. Poor people make them feel guilty for being so rich. So what is a rich jerk to do? Well, in Oklahoma City they passed an ordinance to begin fining panhandlers $500. If panhandlers can’t pay their fines, they will go to jail. If you go to jail you begin what John Oliver called the endless municipal cycle of being screwed.

Councilwoman Meg Salyer was the one who introduced the new ordinance because she got sick of people calling her office annoyed by the panhandlers. But, Councilman Ed Shadid said that panhandling is evidence that the city has failed to invest in services to help those who find themselves out on the street. Indeed, the city has a homeless problem as more and more mental health facilities have been closed due to budget cuts.

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Councilman Pete White said in one council meeting, “The other thing I’m concerned about is the number of social service agencies I heard from, not one of them said this is a good idea… All across the map they all said this is not a good idea.”

Perhaps that is because this is a really bad idea and will likely end with more and more people digging deeper and deeper into poverty and in Oklahoma City jails. Currently Oklahoma has an all-out crisis when it comes to jails that are overflowing. So, adding to the overcrowding with people who can’t pay fines is what is in store from this law.

“It is the wrong direction to criminalize panhandlers in an attempt to address the real problems that have been raised.” Said Sundra Flansburg, president of the Voices Organized in Civic Engagement (VOICE) Education Fund said in a release. “That approach will only cause an added load to our police officers, who need to be addressing more serious concerns.”

“It seems counterproductive to fine a person begging to make ends meet.” Says Eric Jergensen, with Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House and a leader with VOICE. “Providing services to address the things bringing people to the corners would be a better use of public funds.”

Jergensen is spot on; let’s instead look for actual solutions that are a little more empathetic to the problem than criminalizing poverty. From a 2014 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty:

Criminalization measures waste limited state and local resources. Rather than addressing the causes of homelessness and helping people escape life on the streets, criminalization ‘creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back. … Arrests, incarceration, fines, and convictions prolong homelessness by creating new, sometimes nearly insurmountable barriers to obtaining employment and stable housing.

This law also seems heartless and immoral, and to pass something like it less than three weeks before Christmas is inhumane if not downright barbaric. I’d hate to see what these people would have done if Mary and Joseph couldn’t pay their bill at the Inn. Jesus would probably have been turned into a child worker in Oklahoma City.

The ordinance passed 7 to 2. The Oklahoma City Council is official Scrooge.


Feature image via Flickr creative commons.

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