I fought the law and the law won

Day 20–July 23 (rest in Greensburg, PA, 0.0 miles)

Last night, for the first time since I began my trip, I found myself without a place to stay for the night. I spent an hour on a bench outside the Giant Eagle grocery store talking to a homeless man named Rick while I iced my ankle. From there, I had hoped to spend several hours working on my laptop at Denny’s restaurant. But Google had failed me–the nearby Denny’s had long since gone out of business, and the next closest location was too far away. I toyed with staying at a hotel, but there were none close enough that I could walk to in my injured condition, and it was getting very late. And so, this is how I found myself at the Greensburg Amtrak station at 1 a.m., for the first time being truly homeless.

Unfortunately the Amtrak station is where criminals hang out. At least that must be true or surely the local police force, upon encountering someone on a bench with her shoes off, would have no reason to suspect criminal activity.

I have never before had reason to encounter unfriendly, rude and unprofessional police officers. Yes I have been a nosy reporter at a crime scene; have had my share of speeding tickets; and participated in a protest or two. But I was completely unprepared for the presumption of two Greensburg police officers that I was guilty until proven innocent. I cannot say I think police officers are always in the right, but I am willing to be respectful and I expect the same in return.

The two officers demanded my reason for being in the station, my name and my date of birth. I provided them with an unsatisfactory (in their opinion) reason for being in the train station, my name and then refused to give my date of birth. Whether or not the law requires innocent citizens to prove their identity when there is no reason to suspect they have committed a crime, I was not about to give proof of my identity to two officers seeking to abuse their position of authority.

My tangle with the law at the Greensburg Amtrak station left found me handcuffed to a bench at the Greensburg Police station. Long after the handcuffs were take off my wrists were ringed with red marks and bruises.
My tangle with the law at the Greensburg Amtrak station resulted in my being handcuffed to a bench at the Greensburg Police station. Long after the handcuffs were taken off my wrists were ringed with red marks and bruises.

With my refusal to provide my date of birth, I found myself suddenly handcuffed and hauled off to the police station–not even allowed to put my shoes back on despite the fact that it was raining outside. Once at the police station, I was handcuffed to a bench while the officers performed what was most likely an illegal search of my backpack. They claimed the search was to ensure their safety and make sure that nothing dangerous was coming into the police station. Searches of private property without just cause are clearly prohibited under the Fourth Amendment. I cannot imagine how any reasonable person would suspect I was carrying something hazardous strapped to my back.

As my backpack was being searched, a woman came into the station to report that her boyfriend had thrown hot coffee on their children. Sadly, this did not appear to be a priority. Instead the police continued to threaten me with a list of charges that included trespassing, obstruction of justice, interfering with a police investigation and disorderly conduct. They threatened to hold me overnight until I could be brought before a judge the next morning.

Eventually I was given a ticket for disorderly conduct (a violation only, not even a misdemeanor) and kicked out into the night. The officers told me I had their permission to return to the Amtrak station. Instead, I made my way to a nearby 24-hour gas station where several people I talked with told me that the Greensburg police are well known for pushing the limits of their power. One employee told me that, on more than one occasion, she has been pulled over by police as she walked the three miles to and from her home. The police demanded to know why she was walking. Others shared similar stories of their encounters with the local police.

A joint report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that the criminalization of homelessness is on the rise. In their July 2009 report Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities they found that cities across the country target the homeless by creating laws that make it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, ranging from loitering or eating in public to sitting in certain locations and begging. Others have been harassed, as I was, simply for sitting in a public place.

“Homeless persons have reported being kicked out of bus stations in Little Rock, even when they had valid bus tickets. Two homeless men reported that officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station, even after showing the police their tickets.  In other instances, homeless persons have been told that they could not wait at the bus station ‘because you are homeless.'”–A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

Bill Connolly, program coordinator for transitional housing for Westmoreland Community Action, said it is unusual for the Greensburg police to cause problems for the homeless. Typically, Connolly said, the police will call social services and are “friendly and understanding.” The homeless advocacy organization has numerous programs for the homeless including 25 units of transitional housing. In addition, they have a successful neighborhood revitalization program that has renovated or re-constructed homes across the county.

It was 4am before I made my way to the Denny’s on the other side of Greensburg. Exhausted, my rage at the way we treat the less fortunate in this country was reawakened.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper