A well-known homeless man was arrested this week for sleeping on a New York City park bench, becoming perhaps the most high-profile case of the ongoing criminalization of homelessness.
“Journeyman” Leo became Internet famous in August when a local computer programmer, Patrick McConlogue, wrote an article about his plan to offer the homeless man either $100 or free computer programming lessons. Though McConologue was widely ridiculed for the tone of his piece — he later said he regretted some of the words he used — Leo chose to learn how to code and has been grateful for the opportunity. After just one month, he’d already built an app that tracks the carbon dioxide emissions one would save by carpooling; it will be released in the coming weeks. He was, for all intents, making remarkable progress towards a new career and helping get off the streets.
And yet, even for people showing such promise, the cycle of homelessness isn’t easily vanquished.
On Monday morning, the New York Police Department arrested Leo “for sleeping on a bench that he normally doesn’t sleep on.” By city ordinance, all parks are closed between the hours of 1AM and 5AM. He was charged with trespassing, a violation that could carry a fine of up to $250. If that doesn’t sound like much, try paying it off when you already don’t have enough money for bare essentials like food or shelter.
There are approximately 55,000 homeless people in New York City, a record high. There is very little affordable housing and not enough shelter beds for everyone. But even people who can’t afford a home and don’t have a shelter are biologically compelled to sleep. So making it illegal to sleep on park benches effectively criminalizes homelessness and saddles poor people with fines they can’t afford. This creates a cycle where homeless people, already struggling to scrape together enough resources to get off the street, instead have to first figure out some way to pay off their fine.
To his credit, Leo has remained remarkably good-natured about the incident. “The officer who arrested me was just following orders and was very polite,” he said, according to his Facebook page. Leo has already been released from jail, due in part to the high-profile nature of his case, a lucky break considering he is set to appear on The Today Show Wednesday morning. For many other homeless people, an arrest like this could leave them in jail for days, even if that results in missing work or other appointments.