(Photo by Leroy Skalstad from Pixabay)
I work as a case manager for Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program for chronically homeless men. Recently, I attended a meeting of emergency shelter providers hosted by the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services.
During this meeting, we were reminded that as part of the city’s shift towards low-barrier shelter, we are moving away from shelter management models that “police” shelter guests through strict rules, requirements, tests, etc. This policy change is necessary to bring more dignity into the shelter experience, while also making it easier to encourage shelter-resistant individuals to enter shelter. But it doesn’t go far enough, because while there may not be a government directive telling us to police our guests, we still confront the impulse, even the desire, to police them—and emergency shelter power structures enable this behavior.
After the meeting, as I reflected on what the policing mentality looks like in emergency shelter, I realized that this is not a race-neutral or a gender-neutral question. Homelessness in America is disproportionately Black and male. In the United States in 2018, the vast majority of the homeless population was individual homeless adults, 70% of whom were male, while 40% of the overall homeless population was Black or African- American — compared to the 13% of the U.S. population they represent.
Meanwhile, 81% of the people served by the Philadelphia shelter system in 2018 identified as Black and 54% identified as male. This picture becomes even more complex when we consider the fact that the majority of people studying to become Social Workers, many of whom will work in homeless services, are white.
This means that the question of how emergency shelters police their guests is actually a question about how white people police Black men, and what happens to Black men during those encounters. When we consider it in these terms, what is happening in emergency shelters is part of a very serious national conversation about racism, policing, and racial justice.
Here is how I am approaching that conversation in the Church Shelter Program and how it fits into our ongoing efforts to work towards racial justice in emergency shelter.
Changing rules isn’t enough
First, it’s important to be clear about the ways that policies and institutions may change, while the underlying power structures and impulses may not. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished the institution of slavery, but did not abolish racism, white supremacy, or the impulse to enslave Black Americans. As a result, after the Civil War, many state legislatures created “Black Code Laws” that defined new criminal offenses including “vagrancy” and “loitering,” which then enabled the arrest and imprisonment of large numbers of formerly enslaved Black people. Once imprisoned, the state then sold or leased them to perform manual labor—essentially recreating the institution of slavery.
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Let’s take another example. Between 1877 and 1950, more than four thousand lynchings occurred in the United States5. Lynchings were public spectacles of White supremacy and had the tacit, if not explicit, support of government officials—with some lynchings even occurring on courthouse lawns6. As Bryan Stevenson — director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy — has written, “the decline in lynchings in America relied heavily on the increased use of capital punishment,” to such an extent that the death penalty is more or less considered “the legacy of lynching.” Black people comprise 13% of the U.S. population, yet close to 42% of people on death row are Black, while 34% of the people executed through the death penalty since 1976 were Black. The process of executing Black people in America has changed, but the impulse to do it and the power structure permitting it have not.
Which brings me back to my earlier point.
In the past, the emergency shelter power structure enabled and permitted staff to establish formal rules and institutions that policed the lives of shelter guests (i.e. mandatory sobriety, mandatory savings, mandatory shelter fees, strict curfews, etc.). The shift to low-demand shelter management has meant shelters are supposed to consolidate and remove these rules and institutions as much as possible. However, this policy directive has not changed the basic power structure in emergency shelter—the one in which staff have all the power, staff write the rules, staff determine which rules get removed, and if you disobey staff there will be consequences.
Furthermore, a directive to change rules does not necessarily change the underlying impulse to police Black men. As the examples of slavery, convict leasing, lynching, and capital punishment demonstrate, racist behaviors have a tendency to evolve. The impulse to police Black men in emergency shelter is alive and well. To better understand it and why it is problematic, we need to take a look at its roots.
Policing in the United States—like slavery, convict leasing, lynching, and capital punishment— demonstrates a particular feature of the American imagination: the association of Blackness with criminality, which then becomes the justification for the policing, imprisonment, enslavement, and death of Black people. In fact, American policing has its roots in slave patrols, which:
“[E]merged during slavery as the enforcement arm of the slave codes. Slave codes were the laws that regulated slave life, including where and when they could gather, what activities they were prohibited from engaging in, and the types of punishment they would receive for violating the codes. Patrollers, who were usually white slaveholders, observed and regulated all aspects of black life. […] The slave patrols were used to search slave cabins, keep slaves off the roadway, and ensure there were no gatherings of slaves. At their core, slave patrols were devised to thwart any activity that might upend the institution of slavery, especially escapes or uprisings.” (Russell-Brown, Katheryn. Making Implicit Bias Explicit: Black Men and the Police. Page 140)
After the Civil War, the “slave patrol” became obsolete — so the former slave patrollers simply began to police the movements and activities of newly freed Black individuals. We can trace a line from here through enforcement of Black Code laws, through enforcement of Jim Crow laws, through crackdowns on civil rights protests, through the War on Drugs, through “broken windows” policing, through “stop-and-frisk,” all the way up to the present day killings of unarmed Black men by police. Throughout American history, the impulse to police and control Black bodies has remained intact.
I see it clearly in homeless services. Having worked with hundreds of chronically homeless men who have stayed in all of Philadelphia’s shelters for men, and having heard their stories of life in shelter, I do not think it is unreasonable to say that:
In emergency shelter, staff enforce the shelter code of conduct, the rules that regulate Black shelter guests’ lives, including where and when they can gather, what activities they are prohibited from engaging in, and the types of punishment they can receive for violating the code. Staff observe and regulate all aspects of Black life in shelter — if and when you sleep, wake, eat, bathe, and take your medication. Staff may search guests’ sleeping areas and belongings, grant or restrict access to any part of the shelter, and work to ensure there are no suspicious gatherings of guests. At their core, shelter staff try to thwart any activity that might upend the shelter, especially disobedience or uprisings.
As I said: the “slave patrol” became obsolete, but the impulse to police and control Black bodies has remained intact. Each time we assume a policing role in our work, we become complicit in reenacting and reinforcing a longstanding, racist cultural narrative of policing Black men and Black boys.
Although I do not work with Black boys, it is important to include their experience here for three reasons:
- Each of the Black men I work with was at one time a boy whose experiences of racism matter.
- Kristin Henning — director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown Law — has noted that “Black boys are policed like no one else, not even Black men”.
- Black boys carry these childhood experiences, perceptions, and expectations of police with them into adulthood, where they continue to be disproportionately arrested, detained, killed, or injured by the police.
I believe these things also impact their encounters with individuals who fulfill policing roles, such as emergency shelter staff-members.
When Black men enter the shelter where I work, they carry with them a vast array of direct, vicarious, and collective memories and impressions of the police and the act of policing. When they encounter me, I trigger these memories and impressions because the traditional conceptualization of my job requires me to behave in a way that neatly corresponds with the way a police officer behaves.
In order to work towards racial justice in emergency shelter, I must recognize what this looks like and what it means.
Taking a closer look at parallels
According to Renée McDonald Hutchins, co-director of the Clinical Law Program and a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law:
“Policemen are indeed specifically trained to be suspicious, to perceive events or changes in the physical surroundings that indicate the occurrence or probability of disorder. Police officers are also on the alert for disrespect. Studies and anecdotal evidence confirm that a police officer’s decision to detain a person is guided by how disrespected the officer feels by the subject. These tendencies toward suspicion and high attention to disrespect operate simultaneously within a cultural atmosphere where stereotypes of young black men as dangerous, violent, aggressive, and criminal are prevalent.” (Hutchins, Renée McDonald. Racial Profiling: The Law, the Policy, and the Practice. Page 109)
In my experience working in homeless services, it is accurate to say the following:
Emergency shelter staff are indeed specifically trained to be suspicious, to perceive events or changes in the physical surroundings that indicate the occurrence or probability of disorder. Shelter staff are also on the alert for disrespect. A shelter staff-member’s decision to punish or discharge a guest to the streets is often guided by how disrespected the staff-member feels by the subject. These tendencies toward suspicion and high attention to disrespect operate simultaneously within a cultural atmosphere where homeless men are disproportionately Black, while stereotypes of Black men and boys as dangerous, violent, aggressive, and criminal are prevalent.
Emergency shelter staff are trained to think, see, and react like the police because we share a similar goal: maintain social order in the environment we have power over. Now let’s look at the experience of Black males engaging with police and shelter staff as we try to achieve that goal.
As described and documented by Kristin Henning in Boys to Men: The Role of Policing in the Socialization of Black Boys, in the United States, the police may use the notion of “reasonable articulable suspicion” to stop Black males for “the vaguest of descriptions. Black boys running. Two black males in jeans, one in a gray hoodie. Black male in athletic gear. Black male with bicycle.” During these encounters, Black males do not have cultural permission to question police officers’ conduct or ask for explanations of the officers’ behavior.
When Black males do question the police, the “police perceive disrespect in simple questions like ‘What did I do?’ and ‘Why are you stopping me?’” and respond with increasing animosity and force. During such encounters, it is common for officers to make arrests for “offenses with overly broad statutory definitions, such as resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, disturbing the peace, and disorderly conduct,” Henning writes. Although police misconduct could be reported, Black boys in particular do not trust formal grievance procedures — especially given numerous cases of police not being held accountable for mistreatment or violence against Black males. Furthermore, fear of police mistreatment and violence “is now the norm for black boys.”
In my experience, this dynamic is just as true in emergency shelter settings. Under the guise of “maintaining security and social order,” staff are empowered to stop, search, question, and detain our mostly Black shelter guests on the vaguest of descriptions. Shelter guest running suspiciously. Shelter guest with pant legs rolled up suspiciously. Shelter guest with his hood up indoors.
In addition, shelter guests do not have cultural permission to question a staff member’s authority or decisions. Like the police, staff members also perceive disrespect and “non-compliance” when guests do question their decisions. Staff may then escalate in order to maintain power and status. During an encounter with a staff member that is escalating, the shelter guest may be “charged” with broadly defined infractions that are identical to offenses the police would charge them with: non-compliance, assault, disturbing the peace, and disorderly conduct.
Many shelters do have formal grievance procedures; however, in my experience, shelter guests are reluctant to file grievances against shelter staff because they expect their complaints to be ignored or to prompt retaliation.
For all intents and purposes, the experiences our Black male guests have in emergency shelter are identical to the experiences they have had with police officers throughout the course of their lives — experiences marked by fear, mistreatment, abuse of power, and disempowerment.
Emergency shelter staff behave like the police in part because shelters operate with a power structure that permits and enables this behavior. Within this power structure, the men in our shelters are treated at best like guests; at worst, they are treated like detainees, inmates, or slaves who are completely beholden to what the staff-members decide. Staff then attempt to justify this power structure by appealing to the same racist logic that has historically justified policing: the association of Blackness with criminality, suspicion, and danger.
How do we effect real change?
It is not enough to change the policy directives that inform what kinds of rules shelters do and do not have.
We must proactively change the entire power structure in emergency shelter so that the Black men in our shelters are treated like men — like full human beings, equal citizens under the law, people who deserve dignity and respect, people with a right to participate in making the rules they must live by.
These are precisely the changes we have been making in the Church Shelter Program and that I have written about previously. To embody an anti-racist approach to shelter, we need to think beyond surface-level policies and institutions. We need to explicitly name and examine the underlying impulses, behaviors, and power structures.
We don’t just need “low-demand” shelter. We need an end to the racist policing of Black men in shelter.-30-
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