Profiting Off The Poor

by Kelly Dahlman-Oeth

I’ve been arrested two weeks in a row for practicing nonviolent civil disobedience as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. The first arrest happened in the second week of the campaign. When the building closed at 5:30, the other protestors left peacefully and respectfully. The Washington State Patrol then gave the remaining 19 of us multiple warnings over a 3-hour time period. They then cuffed us, read us our Miranda rights and gently escorted us to the basement of the Legislative Building in Olympia, Washington, where they booked us and charged us with criminal trespassing (Misdemeanor 2). 

The following Monday, 16 of us were arrested after sitting down in a circle around a police vehicle. Again, we sat for almost 3 hours and received multiple warnings. We were then arrested and booked in the Les Schwab parking lot, where we were charged with pedestrian obstruction of pedestrian and vehicular access (misdemeanor 1.)

On Tuesday morning, I pulled into the back parking lot between Ronald United Methodist church and Hopelink and Ronald Commons, (permanent affordable and low-income housing for 60 households.) As I often do, I saw someone wrapped up in a sleeping bag under the overhang in the church courtyard. I gathered my phone, coffee, and backpack and walked up to say “hi” to Chet (not his real name.)

After reminding him that we can’t allow drug and alcohol use on the property because it risks the sobriety and recovery of our neighbors and those who attend the NA meetings at the church three nights a week, we spent some time talking while we picked up trash together.

When I asked about someone that I hadn’t seen in a few days, he said, “he might be in jail again.” Something that happens frequently to people living on the street. In a voice that surprised me, I belted out, “I was just arrested!” He looked at me in my button-down shirt and khaki pants and asked, “What?! Why the hell would they arrest you?”

I explained that I was participating in the Poor People’s Campaign and that several of us were carrying out acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to raise the consciousness of this nation about the way our nation’s poor are being crushed by systemic racism, the war economy, a lack of adequate healthcare, education and affordable housing and the destruction of our planet for corporate and personal financial gain. I told him that I was doing this because he and so many others are being ignored, neglected and being used to make others rich.

That was all the opening he needed to share about his most recent arrest and subsequent jail time-served from the misdemeanor charge led to 5 nights in jail because he couldn’t make bail. The court fees and fines amounted to $800, that he will not be able to pay in the six or eight-week time frame. So, he is once again headed through the revolving door of living on the street, being arrested, serving jail time, racking up court fees and fines and being turned over to collections.

Does anyone imagine that this system is rehabilitating anyone? Does anyone believe that this punitive approach will somehow turn someone’s life around? When Chet was released, he wanted to go to his brother’s house because he was clean and sober. He wasn’t even smoking, he proudly declared, but he ended up back on the street with the same people in the same cycle.

That’s when Chet talked about the boredom, loneliness and shame that comes with living on the street. I told him that I understand that multiple childhood traumas are almost universal in the stories of everyone living with the unholy trinity of homeless, addiction and/or mental illness.

What I know is that even if Chet wanted to get clean, find and sustain a job and find someplace to live that would ignore his convictions and what must be a negative credit score, he would practically have to live a perfect life, have all the stars align and be watched over by a fairy godmother to make it happen. You may have the moral fortitude and character to overcome such obstacles, but I am certain I don’t. I can’t even manage to lose the ten pounds I’ve wanted to lose for 10 years.

This debtor’s prison system is crushing the poor. It is crushing veterans. It is crushing black people. It’s crushing immigrants. The fact that people and companies are profiting by enslaving our brothers and sisters in this system is immoral: from bail bond companies heaping burdens on the poor, collection agencies taking their cut while destroying credit, phone companies selling calling cards in jails and prisons, and our courts and law enforcement agencies building more jails, hiring more staff, and militarizing themselves while collecting fines and fees, along with their pound of flesh.

Chet is not garbage. He’s not an animal. In fact, if he were a stray dog, I’m sure he’d receive better treatment from animal control. He is a child of God who suffered traumatic experiences as a child, was kicked around from school to school and juvenile detention and now he is treated as an invisible disposable commodity in a country that declares the equality of all people and guarantees life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

There is an ugly truth that we must tell about our country. There is a huge stain on the flag that our elected officials in all parties don’t want to acknowledge. We have been waging an immoral war on this nation’s poor. It is time to end this war, to repent from this national sin and to break this cycle that is killing our brothers and sisters.

I pray you’ll join me and the growing numbers who are joining the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Meanwhile, I’ll keep risking arrest while I sing, “Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long.”

Kelly Dahlman-Oeth is a pastor at Ronald United Methodist Church

Featured image by Susan Fried


3 thoughts on “Profiting Off The Poor”

  1. Chet, and everyone else, has the option with a civil infraction or misdemeanor, to work off the fine at $15 an hour, on a court supervised work crew.

    In addition to a moral obligation to support the poor, there also is a moral obligation to work, support yourself, and give to the common good, unless you are unable to do so. It is interested that this United Methodist Church member is selective in which teachings of Scripture she applies.

    Human dignity and freedom, apart from moral principles, requires that everyone be as self-sufficient as possible. To the extent that folks aren’t, pragmatically, they are the slave of the provider of housing or other benefits. Their time is taken captive to demonstrate income eligibility for programs and they are one election away from reduction or loss of benefits. Society, not the poor individual, decides what is a minimal level of material provision for their needs and wants.

    As an alternative to the current “lock ’em up and throw away the key,” and “lets make housing, food, and medical care a right” dueling paradigms, I would prefer that we change our criminal justice system to be more benevolent and restorative. Congratulations, you are accused of Trespass. Behind door #1 is social service assessment, support, mental health treatment, drug treatment, basic food, shelter, healthcare, and monitoring to make sure you utilize the resources provided and progress as far as your physical limitations, mental health diagnosis, will let you progress toward self-sufficiency and your individual aspirations. Behind door number two is the prescribed penalty for the crime you are alleged to have committed if you are convicted. Your call. Part of being human is freedom to choose and the consequences that go with those choices. If we excuse people from accountability, because they are poor or homeless, we deny their humanity and dignity. Both the current paradigms deny the poor their full humanity. One that is compassionate, restorative, and accountable does not.