A Homeless Person is Not a Broken Window

by TJ Johnston

The term “broken windows” is used as a metaphor to describe a gateway to urban decay.

Homeless advocates and policy experts will challenge the thinking behind the criminological theory in a panel discussion on October 1 at the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco.

The Western Regional Advocacy Project is hosting the panel. The event will coincide with a conference of the International Downtown Association, an alliance of business improvement districts (BIDs), which favors broken windows-inspired policies.

The “broken windows” concept was introduced by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in a 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly. According to the theory, a city’s smaller problems should be fixed before they grow and become unmanageable, using the figurative broken window as an example. Kelling and Wilson proposed that police in cities should concentrate on maintaining order rather than responding to crime as it happens. An area that is well maintained suggests that it is also being monitored.

While BIDs and their allies in municipal and county governments subscribe to the “broken windows” theory, social scientists dispute proponents’ assertion that the appearance of disorder is directly related to serious crime. Social justice activists also criticize the theory as validating implicit biases against low-income people and minorities and portraying them as signs of blight. Such people are targeted for sweeps, said Lisa Marie Alatorre, Human Rights Organizer at the Coalition on Homelessness, which also publishes the Street Sheet.

“The BIDs are promoting discriminatory policing practices to simply remove people deemed unwanted from certain parts of town,” she said.

A recent and very public example of such policing happened in March in Berkeley. Two private security workers hired by the Downtown Berkeley Association were suspended and fired only after video showed them assaulting two homeless people in an alley in the city’s commercial district. But before the video went viral, it was the homeless people who were arrested for the assault, and they pleaded guilty to battery. Alameda County prosecutors allowed them to withdraw their pleas and dismissed the charges.

The Berkeley incident illustrated how services for public common areas become privatized when BIDs govern commercial zones with taxpayer support. That leads to BIDs viewing their relationship with the public in transactional terms, said Seth Grossman, founder of Rutgers’ Institute of Business District Management. In a recent interview with Street Spirit (reprinted in this issue of the Street Sheet), he told the East Bay-based homeless paper, “It’s a customer service district, so [BIDs] are concerned with customers. They don’t see homeless people as customers… you are either a customer or a contagion.”

When homeless people are pathologized, their needs are ignored and they are subject to crackdowns. Shayla Myers, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and scheduled speaker at the October 1 panel, told Street Sheet that people without housing shouldn’t be viewed as symptoms.

“A person who is compelled to sleep on sidewalk in your neighborhood is not a broken window that needs to be fixed,” she said. “He or she is a person who needs housing, who has civil and human rights, and who is as much as a part of your neighborhood as you are.”

But the tenor of the discussion is changing, Myers said, pointing to a recently passed ordinance in Los Angeles prohibiting storage of items in a public place as an example.

“The city council passed legislation that would make it a crime to have property in any public space in the city,” she said. “Activists and other folks around the city raised the profile of the issue and the real impact the law would have on people who are homeless. That changed the conversation from one about broken windows to one about the civil and human rights of the people who would be affected by the law.”

Anti-Broken Windows policing panel: St. Anthony’s, 121 Golden Gate Ave., SF, October 1, 2 to 4 p.m.