Apr 25, 2017

Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Public Space and Passing for Wealthy

This article originally appeared on the Love Wins Community Center blog.

Even though there are almost no public bathrooms in downtown Raleigh, I can stride through any restaurant or coffee-shop towards their bathroom and nobody would think to stop me. This is because I pass for wealthy. I am white, have all my teeth, wear clothes that I picked out, and am usually reasonably clean. A barista sizing me up in the doorway would conclude that I am middle-class, could afford to eat there, and am probably hurrying to a table where I am meeting a friend. Passing for wealthy also carries the manipulative privilege of Threatening to Complain. If the barista were to accost me and tell me that they didn’t have a public bathroom, I could throw a hissy fit and announce that they had just lost a faithful customer. Just to clarify, I have never done this, but only because I have never been stopped when using the bathroom in a restaurant.

Not only am I culturally allowed to be in this public place, my privilege allows me to push its boundaries with impunity. This has made me realize that the concept of “public space” really only applies to the middle-class, or those who can pass as such. Before I started working at Love Wins I was unaware that somebody could be arrested for being homeless, but it is a frustrating reality. If you live outside there are very few places where you are legally allowed to be (if any.) If you are caught sleeping on the street, in the park, behind a building, in a yard, under an overpass, or anywhere else, you can be charged with second-degree trespass. North Carolina law states that, “A person commits the offense of second degree trespass if, without authorization, he enters or remains on premises of another: (1) After he has been notified not to enter or remain there by the owner, by a person in charge of the premises, by a lawful occupant, or by another authorized person; or (2) That are posted, in a manner reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders, with notice not to enter the premises.” [source] This faulty logic is extrapolated to other charges such as prostitution. Criminalizing prostitution does nothing to help solve the problem of exploitation or make the community safer; it only removes vulnerable people from public view and forces them further underground.

Every morning before we open up the center, I look through mugshots from the night before to see if anybody from our community was arrested. If I recognize somebody, I feel concern rather than fear because I know that so many of the charges have to do with simple lack of privacy. My friend Tom was excited to go out drinking on Friday night, just like the rest of Raleigh, but because he didn’t have money to go to a bar or throw up in an Uber he was arrested for second-degree trespass and public intoxication. If a public intoxication charge was really just about being drunk in public there would be no beer festivals, jam band concerts, or bars at sports arenas. The less money/privilege you have, the less privacy you have. Living a life in public means going to a public library to use a computer, taking showers in public facilities, eating at a crowded soup kitchen, riding the bus, and being unwelcome in public places because you can’t pass for wealthy.

As a kid I thought that churches always remained open so that people could sleep on the pews and “take shelter” in that romantic Disney Hunchback of Notre Dame way. There is also the sentimental perception that homeless people construct tiny houses out of cardboard and sleep in alleys. In reality, conspicuous poverty is criminalized in cities. It’s why so many people take to the woods with tents, tarps and sleeping bags instead of spending the night in crowded, dangerous shelters that kick you out early in the morning. I know that having my own space makes me feel more human, less anxious, and able to recharge before I go back out into the world. If that safe space was taken away from me I would certainly endure driving rain, camps of strangers, and raccoon roommates in order to get it back.

Living literally “on the street” is in some ways an oxymoron; if you are homeless you are not allowed to exist anywhere in public unless you are on your feet, on your way to somewhere else. And even if you are given space, it can be taken away just as easily. My friend Jade, who has a permit to stand by the side of the road and “fly a sign” to ask for spare change, is told by police to make herself scarce when a politician or celebrity comes to town. They don’t want her presence, a visual reminder of poverty and inequality, making Raleigh look bad.

The core of Love Wins’ mission is to offer “a place to be,” where everyone is welcome. It’s the first phrase out of my mouth whenever people come in to ask about our program (there isn’t one) or services (they vary depending on our resources.) People come here to take naps, sit and talk, gossip with their friends, drink coffee, talk to themselves in the mirror, make PB&Js, charge their phone, use the landline, read, chain-smoke outside, soliloquize to anybody who will listen, take a sink-bath in the bathroom, and a multitude of other things. We do this because one of the most immediately apparent realities of homelessness is that no public space is meant for you, not even the sidewalk. You will be hustled out of coffee-shops, public bathrooms, stoops, buses, churches, libraries (if you fall asleep or sit on the floor), and told to keep moving or you will be arrested. But we believe that existence should never be a crime.