The NYPD Union's decision to encourage their officers to take pictures of the homeless and post them online is causing a firestorm of controversy in New York City. I'm a firm believer that the bulk of the officers on the street are good men and women who do a tough and thankless job, but the decision by the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) to encourage its members to photograph the city's homeless and post the pictures online is shameful.
If Jesus had an iPhone would he had taken pictures to show how poorly the Romans dealt with their poor populations?
This bumbling, stumbling moment by the SBA is at least spurring a discussion on the appropriate way to deal with homelessness in New York and in cities all over the country.
For many in this country the homeless are an invisible population. The majority of us turn away when we come across them on the streets. They are at times the object of scorn or even violence, and referred to as "bums" or "vagrants." Many are people with mental health problems or drug and alcohol issues who have troubled pasts.
However, alcoholism, addition and mental health don't tell the whole story.
I know firsthand the pain of being among the homeless population. I experienced homelessness for several months along with my mother and brother at the age of nine.
Our only crime was being poor and lacking opportunities. We were a family that had been working poor for generations, but after my grandmother's disabling injury which made it impossible for her to continue her work as a domestic, our life fell apart. For those living on the edge of "making it," the consequences of something going wrong, even that is in no way or fault, are catastrophic.
I was one of the homeless that people looked past, the dirty little girl who was too thin and smelled some days because we could not find a place to stay. I'm sure some people looked upon us as a nuisance and wished we would disappear. But the only way to make the homeless population disappear isn't to jail them or send them to a more remote part of the city, it's to house them. That's how I was able to break my family's cycle of living in poverty.
Even in the lowest of times, my family and I always mattered. Homeless people matter because they are human beings who should enjoy the freedom of being a citizen in this country whether they have a home or not. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, wives and husbands. This is a human rights issue.
The police, who should be providing protection to a vulnerable population, have chosen to use them to make political points against the Mayor of New York and it is appalling. Instead of trying to help the homeless locate desperately needed services, the homeless have now become the symbol of what is wrong with New York City, instead of blaming a system that allows people in the richest country in the world to sleep on the streets. That says more about our priorities as a country than it does about the character of the homeless.
Homelessness is a symptom of the larger issues of poverty that continues to be a tether, restricting our true economic growth potential as a country. The ability of families like mine to get off the street and build a self-sustaining future, as I have been able to do is hampered by the lack of quality public education, affordable housing and adequate social services to address issues like mental health and drug and alcohol issues.
If we continue to kick the can down the road by merely criminalizing the poor and homeless, we will only increase the financial and human capital costs for future generations. America will continue to have the highest incarceration rates in the developed world and be less competitive with other countries.
The NYPD Union and the New York City Mayor's office have an opportunity to come together and regain a slice of moral high ground. They can both do this by treating the homeless as people that need help rather than a problem to be carted away in a paddy wagon. They can start by asking, what would Jesus do? If they're not sure, Pope Francis can help answer that question when he visits in a few weeks.