To say that there are not criminals roaming the streets at all hours of the day and night would do a severe disservice to the truth. But to assume from that observation that every homeless person is a criminal is pejorative, if you ask me.
Take my best female friend, whom I shall call Lillian, for example. She was recently in the Berkeley City Jail for four days.
If you knew Lillian, you would realize that the fact that she was sent to jail is sick. The woman has had two serious strokes. As a result, she doesn’t speak normally. She has to speak at a louder volume than most, and it takes her a long time to find the words. During the period of time when she is looking to find words, her face makes unusual contortions. But I can guarantee you that her highly intelligent mind knows exactly what she is intending to say. Her neuro-physiological condition only makes her speaking very difficult and uncomfortable.
This woman has never used drugs other than marijuana, nor does she drink alcohol. People think she is stupid because of her stroke. I have even heard people say: “She needs to get off the meth.” I know this person, and others who know her will affirm that she has never used methamphetamine. I am one of the few people who has bothered to get to know her well enough to realize that she is actually quite brilliant.
So how did she end up in jail? She was sleeping in a parking lot on Berkeley’s Bancroft Way, near Peet’s Coffee and Tea. This is where she meets her payee in the morning—the person who hangs onto her social security benefits so that they are not stolen, and so she does not misplace them. Three Berkeley City Police cars pull up, tell her she is charged with trespassing, and handcuff her. She tries to explain, in her odd way of forming words: “I was only trying to sleep.” She is then charged with resisting arrest.
Two days ago, she came to my spot to say she had been in jail for four days. She’s laughing, because she thinks it’s hilarious that someone like her would be sent to jail for something she does every single night; that is to say, sleep. She couldn’t wait to tell me, because, as she says: “I knew you would be sensitive enough to be outraged on my behalf, and insensitive enough to think it was hilarious.”
People who are “stupid” do not come up with such statements. But it’s not hilarious, really. These idiot cops couldn’t tell the difference between a 50-something woman with a serious physical disability, and an irresponsible crook or drug addict invading UC campus property. That is just plain sick.
What is the world coming to? It’s getting to where, if you see someone approaching in a wheelchair with a missing leg, you don’t think: “Oh, that’s awful. I wonder how he lost his leg?” You either think: “There’s another hustler, and what does he want from me?” Or else you think: “Look at that screwed up degenerate scum bag.” I swear to God, on a stack of Holy Bibles—this is not the America that I was brought up in.
I am not even asking America to open up her eyes to the plight of her own people. Her eyes are well wide open enough. I ask America to open up her heart—because I am old enough to remember when America was a compassionate nation.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.