Our Voices

A Disappearing Act: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Robert F. Kennedy summed it up best: “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” The United States houses the most billionaires in the world, yet hundreds of thousands remain without shelter or homes across the nation. And disturbingly, instead of leveraging American talents and resources to provide long-term solutions to this problem, so-called progressive leaders are doubling down on failed policies of the past. In California and New York, new government programs use old tactics of policing, incarceration, and institutionalization in a failed attempt to disappear homelessness from public view.

In December 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams ordered NYPD beat officers to remove people they deem mentally ill from the streets and subways by involuntarily hospitalizing them. Only months earlier, Adams ordered the destruction of homeless encampments across the city, demolishing around 245 encampment sites, a policy shift toward homelessness that he continues to implement today. People targeted by the encampment sweeps lose what little personal items they own, including clothes, sleeping bags, and sentimental items. One person caught in the crosshairs of a sweep reported that he was thrown on his head, cuffed to a hospital bed, and later taken to jail. Prior to the sweeps, service providers could have helped address the root causes of homelessness by enrolling people in encampments in voluntary programs that provide medical services or food to eat. Now, their time and resources are instead spent in scavenger hunts for homeless New Yorkers forced to seek a new place to sleep daily to avoid arrest.

But New York is not unique in criminalization of the homeless, mentally ill, and other marginalized groups. In September 2022, San Francisco Mayor London Breed was sued by homeless city residents for her policy of brutal encampment sweeps. In July 2022, hundreds of people protested a Los Angeles anti-camping ordinance that criminalized sleeping in parts of the city. Reflecting a deeply entrenched hypocrisy, politicians publicly proclaim the need for a humanitarian approach to homelessness, but propose budget cuts to crucial social services that might lift people out of homelessness once and for all. Meanwhile, they quietly adopt inhumane policies like police sweeps and forced hospitalizations in an attempt to disappear people from constituents’ sight without addressing the deeper social problems that lead to homelessness in the first place.

One example of this contradictory stance is California’s newly adopted CARE court, set to launch in October 2023. Although presented as a new treatment model for mentally ill people, CARE court dangerously increases the scope of police and judicial power by giving beat officers the ability to funnel people they encounter on patrol into a compulsory scheme of court-based mental health assessment. Judges that deem people to have an untreated mental health disorder that they refuse to voluntarily treat can subject them to up to 2 years of court surveillance, including conservatorship and court-ordered medication.

Successful medical care depends on consent and compassion, wherein an autonomous patient willingly agrees to accept treatment from a professional who is ethically sworn to do no harm. In contrast, our legal system measures success by compulsion and captivity. Police, judges, and prosecutors are trained to view punishment and incarceration as the solution to conflict, relying on the fallacy that the more people we lock away, the safer we are. This same fallacy taints CARE court provisions that condition mental health and medical attention, resources, and services on forced interactions with the police and court system.

Justification for compulsory mental health programming is shrouded in benevolent language: isn’t this an attempt to bring more compassionate tools to our criminal legal system? But if the state was truly interested in helping people who live in the streets, wouldn’t it be wiser to invest in resources that prevent them from ending up there in the first place? And is a police officer or a judge, untrained in diagnosis and unbound to the ethical rules of the practice of medicine, really the best person to make private medical decisions for someone? These questions help us see what is truly at the core of compulsory mental health interventions led by the criminal legal system: disappearing people. Granting police the power to initiate compulsory mental health treatment for people living without stable housing is driven by discomfort at seeing poverty, not the cruelty of state sanctioned poverty itself. By forcing marginalized groups out of public view, the public, and the stakeholders failing to alleviate these problems, can merely pretend the issue does not exist.

Rather than turning a blind eye, we must take action, be intentional, and, most importantly, treat people with dignity and respect. State and local leaders can put more resources towards permanent housing and expanding access to free and low-cost medical and mental health care. Police departments and prosecutors can use discretion by refusing to enforce laws that criminalize loitering, sleeping in public, and jaywalking. Politicians can repeal those laws, which are currently selectively wielded to punish a person’s homelessness. As alternative courts proliferate, community groups can implement court watch programs for public oversight to ensure that judges are responsibly using their authority. And each of us can commit to holding our representatives accountable to lawmaking that guarantees livable wages.

Professor Angela Davis noted that “Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” But “[p]risons do not disappear social problems. They disappear human beings.” Mayors across the country that look to police power to solve social problems will end up with policies that render certain groups of people invisible by forcibly caging them. In doing so, they not only fail to address root causes of these problems, they exacerbate them.