One of the city’s homeless service providers has called a recent undercover sting and subsequent media release by the Charleston Police Department efforts to “criminalize and publicly shame the homeless.”
Covenant House and its board of directors are “greatly concerned” about mass arrests and attempted mis-characterization of homeless people, the release said.
Covenant House’s statement came Thursday, a day after city police put out a press release announcing an undercover sting to address what it called “quality of life issues” on the city’s East End.
The press release included pictures of each of the 19 people arrested, their names, ages and addresses, what charges they face and other information. Ten of the 19 people were homeless and four people possessed needles, the press release said.
“We know many of these faces, and they are faces of deep poverty, addiction, and untreated mental illness,” Covenant House said in the statement. “We call on the city leaders, city council, and the Chief of Police to work with providers and citizens to find alternative methods and long-term solutions to incarceration.”
Covenant House director Ellen Allen said she thinks police have transitioned to criminalizing people who have no resources or recourse.
“These are human beings and we know them all,” Allen said. “I mean they’re extremely poor. I think over half of them are homeless and the rest of them have severe mental health and behavioral health issues.
“They’re getting arrested over and over and they’re back out and we just have to do better,” she said. “And I don’t know exactly how we do that, but we will not accept criminalization of the homeless and that’s where we’re heading. I think we’ve crossed into that sphere.”
Allen said Wednesday’s media release seemed to have a different feeling than others because it included photos and stated which people were homeless and which people were in possession of needles.
She blamed media outlets that broadcast the pictures as helping spread the wrong message. The Gazette-Mail did not report about Wednesday’s sting.
“This seems like a cooperative effort between the media and the police department to shame these people,” Allen said.
Allen said though the charges were petty, they’ll make it difficult for the people arrested to get into public housing.
“They’re destined to a life of homelessness,” she said.
Allen said the region has got to come together to provide residential help for homeless people.
Lt. Autumn Davis, a public information officer for the police department, denied that the police were criminalizing homelessness.
She said the police officers arrested people who committed crimes, regardless of their addresses. Six of the people who were arrested had warrants out for their arrest and others committed “on the spot” violations such as open container violations and trespassing, she said.
“We’re not shaming anyone; we’re just enforcing the law,” Davis said. “I think there has to be an understanding that our role as the police is different than that of service providers for the homeless. They do what they do and we enforce laws and arrest individuals who have committed crimes.”
Davis said the “quality of life” violations that the sting targeted included open container violations, trespassing, drug possession, public urination, indecent exposure, and public drunkenness.
Davis denied that there were “mass incarcerations” of homeless people. Of the 10 homeless people, only one went to jail, Davis said.
Davis said since the start of these police “stings,” media releases about them have included pictures of the people arrested.
Covenant House is one of several agencies that are part of the city’s Homeless Task Force, a group made up of city council members, police and city officials, service providers, churches and others.
Allen said she’s expressed to the task force her concerns about the direction police efforts have been headed but the task force has yet to take up the issue in discussion.