Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 4: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Outrages]

The Erickson Report, Page 4: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Outrages]

Turning to our Outrages, here's an outrage you probably didn't even know was one: so-called "chronic nuisance" laws.

Towns and cities across the country are passing local laws that punish landlords and tenants when crimes occur on a property.

Approximately 2,000 municipalities in the United States have such "chronic nuisance" ordinances on the books. The ordinances are usually extremely vague, sometimes defining nuisance behavior as whatever city officials decide is an “annoyance” or an “inconvenience.” A majority of such laws rely on an “excessive” number of 911 calls to make that determination, all of which leave doors wide open for discriminatory enforcement.

That's because upon citation for being a "nuisance," property owners typically are instructed to "abate the nuisance" or face steep penalties, up to in different places thousands of dollars in fines, revocation of rental permits, or even seizure of the property. Many landlords respond by evicting the tenant, refusing to renew their lease, or demanding tenants not call 911 - because the laws make no distinction between a tenant that is a nuisance and a tenant that is a victim, so getting rid of the tenant is often the easiest and cheapest way to deal with it.

The result is that the people most hurt by these ordinances are poor, handicapped, elderly, and/or people of color - that is, people with fewer resources to fight back and fewer options to pursue - and most particularly survivors of domestic violence, forced to choose between enduring threats and violence or risking homelessness.

You want some examples? Here are three:

- One woman was evicted from her home after the City of Bedford, Ohio, labeled her a nuisance and fined her landlord $250. Her crime? Calling 911 on two occasions because her boyfriend threatened to commit suicide.

- A tenant in Neenah, Wisconsin, was evicted after police responded to two calls within four months. The police were called during the first incident because the tenant’s boyfriend overdosed on heroin.

- A man living with AIDS in Portland, Oregon, was too sick to clean his yard. A city inspector decided the yard was a nuisance. Portland issued a warrant against him while he was hospitalized for meningitis, charging him nearly $2000 for the clean-up. He didn't have the money and had to sell his home to satisfy the debt.

Too many people facing emergencies - a loved one is experiencing an opioid overdose or a mental health crisis or they themselves are the victims of domestic abuse or some other crime - too many people facing emergencies feel that they can’t call 911 because the end result will be that they lose their homes.

In 2016 the Obama administration called on local governments to repeal chronic nuisance ordinances and said it’d issue guidance on how enforcement of such ordinances could discriminate against people with disabilities and thus violate the Fair Housing Act. But they never followed through. The guidance never came. And now, of course, there's no way in hell it'll happen before 18 months from now at the soonest. Tweetie-pie's DOJ has said it won’t even force municipalities to follow existing federal guidelines.

Proponents of these laws argue they are necessary to deter crime and protect public safety but how in hell you do that by discouraging people from calling for help is far beyond my comprehension.

Activists have fought back with lawsuits and pressuring local lawmakers, with some success - but fighting something like this town by town is a discouragingly long undertaking. Happily, in May New York became the 10th state to pass a law saying you can't be evicted for calling 911. But that is a long way from putting an end to this outrage.


This next one is largely taken from Alternet's piece on this, so I want to give them most of the credit.

Okay. You send your child to school. Your kid gets lunch at school. Maybe you don't have the resources or the time to prepare a lunch or maybe they prefer school food, which if true means schools have much better food than when I was going but never mind.

Anyway, your child accrues a school lunch “debt.” Maybe it’s because you’re financially struggling and have to prioritize other bills, like maybe medicine or rent or food for dinner. Maybe you gave your child money for lunch and they forgot to hand it in or they lost it or someone stole it and they were too embarrassed or ashamed to say so. For whatever reason, the debt increases.

What does the school do? If your child attends the Wyoming Valley West School District in Kingston, Pennsylvania, they send you a threatening letter saying that if the debt is not paid, you could lose your child.

About one thousand parents received a letter with just this thinly veiled threat. The letter informs parents that, “Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch” - although how they knew about breakfast I have no idea - and alleges that failing to provide your child with food - as in, not packing them lunch or paying for a school meal - could result in parents being sent to Dependency Court.

“If you are taken to Dependency court," the letter reads, "the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

Making this obscene threat - remember, we are talking about a school lunch here - making it even worse is that the Wyoming Valley’s Cafeteria Purchase Charging and Insufficient Funds Policy (something obviously written by a government committee) doesn’t mention anything about going to court. Joseph Muth, the director of federal programs for the school district and the author of the letter, made it up.

Happily, no one outside the district is backing up the school's threat. In fact, County Manager David Pedri issued a statement saying
Foster care is to be utilized only when absolutely needed - when a child has been abused, is in need or has suffered a tragedy. It is NOT to be utilized to scare parents into paying school lunch bills.
And Joanne Van Saun, who runs the Luzerne County Children and Youth Services feels her agency was weaponized to threaten families, calling the letter "totally inappropriate and unnecessary."

It’s true, schools want to collect the money and in some school districts around the country that have such policies, the total debt for all families across the whole district can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

So I understand having a collections policy.  And indeed, Wyoming Valley West has one: If the debt gets big enough - $10, to be specific - the parents get a weekly automated phone call until it's paid. Which might be annoying but is is a far far cry from shaming kids by giving them PBandJ sandwiches instead of the regular lunch or, much worse, threatening families with taking away their children. That is simply unconscionable.

Even more unconscionable is the fact that this should be an issue at all. It's unconscionable that a family should ever be in a position to be unable to afford meals for their children. The thread of hunger - or to use the technical term, "food insecurity" - that weaves through our nation remains a moral and ethical outrage and cases like this, where people are threatened and shamed - and I hope Joseph Muth gets fired - when people are threatened and shamed for their struggles, well it just serves to put that outrage in ever starker relief.

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