The High Price of a Free Meal

It sucks to be homeless in Brownsville, Texas.  First, because you’re homeless, which isn’t a great way to be under any circumstances. Second, because a non-profit agency, the Good Neighbor Settlement House on East Tyler Street, has cut a deal with the police to give you up.  From the Brownsville Herald :

Officials believed Jeffrey Paul Cutlip to be like any other homeless person roaming the streets of Brownsville looking for a place to shower and to get a bite to eat.

Then Cutlip made local and national news when, according to police, he confessed in Brownsville to various murders dating as far back as the 1970s in Oregon. Furthermore, a search revealed that Cutlip was listed as a sexual predator in Oregon’s sex offender inquiry system for convictions in 1982.

Cutlip turned out to be a confessed murderer, and nobody at the shelter knew. 

“He (Cutlip) had slipped below the radar,” Rosales said. “We did not know who the gentleman was. We had no idea he was wanted.”

Apparently, the local police decided that this can’t happen. While it’s understandable that they aren’t thrilled at the prospect that they have a murderer in their community who had “slipped below the radar,” they were determined that it never happen again. So a deal was struck.

In an attempt to identify people wanted by the law, the Brownsville Police Department and Good Neighbor Settlement House have signed an agreement whereby the police department will install a system to ID people going through the non-profit agency for services, officials said.

The system will help identify people wanted by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. It also will help identify people if they are injured and require assistance, Rosales said.

Hungry? Thirsty? Cold? Tired?  No problem. As soon as you’re conclusively identified, your criminal history is checked and your cleared to be a homeless person of sufficiently sterling character, you will be welcome.  And if your background doesn’t meet our standards, you will still get food to eat, just at the hoosegow rather than the shelter.  Because it didn’t suck enough to be homeless before.

Using the basic necessities of survival as a wedge to control the poor is a time-honored American tradition.  After all, who better to coerce than the poor and hungry. It’s not like they have any clout to fight, or anybody with clout cares. 

In this case, one criminal appeared in their midst, though there is no indication that he did anything wrong at the Good Neighbor Settlement House to warrant their concern. But even one criminal is one too many. Think of the children?  And so neighborly cooperation ended with the shelter giving up the rights of those they purport to serve in order to keep the police, and community happy. 

There is a fair argument to be made that this is a non-profit, a voluntary organization that helps the poor. Thus, they are under no duty to provide food or shelter, and can put whatever restrictions they want on the charity they offer. After all, it’s not Good Neighbor’s fault the person is poor and homeless, and anyone who prefers to remain anonymous doesn’t have to enjoy their bounty.

It’s also worth noting that efforts like Good Neighbor have a reasonable concern that those invited in aren’t of the sort that will harm others. This too is a fair concern, as the poor are not only regularly treated, well, poorly, but are also the victims of crime themselves.  Protecting the poor from crime and violence is a worthy cause too.

The problem, of course, is the trade off of basic civil liberties, the right to be left alone, for subsistence.  Maybe Brownsville has so many shelters and food kitchens that the deal struck with Good Neighbor won’t leave anyone starving to death.  Maybe this one-off solution to a one-murderer problem won’t have any impact, or put them on a slippery slope where the poor lose all control over their rights for a cheese sandwich. 

But if the choice is starvation or relinquishment of basic constitutional rights, then it’s a problem. 

The use of poverty and hunger as a means of compelled law enforcement identification doesn’t seem to bother a great many people.  Some are unsympathetic because they think the poor did something to deserve to be poor, and are therefore unworthy of any rights. Some don’t care because they perceive the only people actually affected to be “criminals,” and don’t think them worthy of right. Most, I suspect, don’t care because it doesn’t affect them, and they’re more than happy to have the rights of others given away if it makes their lives even the tiniest bit safer. 

However, the desire of police to make their job easier at the expense of constitutional rights, starts with the least powerful among us.  Even poor people, hungry people, have the right to be left alone.  Assuming one believes they really shouldn’t be left to starve in the streets in the greatest nation on earth, making their survival contingent on surrendering basic rights to police is wrong in itself, and puts everyone on a slippery slope.

So yeah, it sucks to be homeless in Brownsville. It sucks even worse if you’ve got something to hide and are forced to choose between life and jail.  But at least the Good Neighbor Settlement House and the police are friends again.

5 comments on “The High Price of a Free Meal

  1. Catherine Mulcahey

    Could background checks for being in a homeless shelter lead to background checks for owning a gun?

  2. Bruce Godfrey

    I do not believe that one has a reasonable expectation of privacy from an innkeeper (closely common-law analog of a homeless shelter, probably), paid or unpaid, as regards the police. Innkeepers had heightened duties of care at common law in tort but were not fiduciaries (unlike attorneys, clergy, etc.)

    On the other hand, it feels unseemly and the chilling effect of someone sleeping on the street and starving because he doesn’t know if he has some misdemeanor warrant for jaywalking is unsettling.

    Brownsville is almost the southernmost US city on the continent, border Mexico; between homeless citizens from elsewhere in the US looking for mild winters and undocumented immigrants in difficult straits looking for lodging north of the line, one suspects that Brownsville’s homeless population is substantial.

  3. SHG

    Many people confuse the Good Neighbor Settlement House with the Fairmont Hotel, despite a somewhat different reservation policy and purpose.

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