Home sweet parking lot

Irwin, PA-North Versailles, PA, 7.6 miles

Though I am not as fearful of spending the night sleeping outside as I was at the start of my trip, it remains stressful. There is a strategy in finding a location that is safe and neither too dark nor too light. Earlier today I turned down an offer to stay with someone who lived nearby, and walked past hotels without stopping. So, when the sun went down, I decided to sleep behind a church for the night.

I have a tent and a sleeping bag–I am equipped to spend the night camping. But this is not really camping. There is no campfire with friends or roasted marshmallows. This is the option of last resort when you have nowhere else to go. And I can be thankful that unlike so many who sleep on the streets out in the elements, I am dry and warm–albeit uncomfortable.

I can only imagine that living in a constant state of homelessness is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I am doing this for a night. Millions of Americans each year become homeless because they have nowhere else to go.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

No loitering

Greensburg, PA-Irwin, PA, 8.1 miles

Loitering is not my idea of a good time. And I doubt most people enjoy loitering. But, when you are homeless, it is a way of life.

Since I’ve begun this journey I’ve spent hours loitering. I’ve loitered at Panera, at Starbucks and McDonald’s. I’ve spent time lingering far too long in parks, libraries and along the side of the road. There is nothing quite so conspicuous as loitering with a massive backpack.

So today, even as my ankle protested, I put one foot in front of the other and began walking. Not because I wanted to, not because my ankle was OK, but because the shame of being seen loitering yet again was too much for me.

No matter what people will say, myself included, you stare at loiterers. And, though you may feel bad for them, you want them to move along. Countless cities and towns across the country have enacted laws that make it illegal to loiter forcing homeless people to become invisible.

According to a July 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Homes not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, numerous cities have enacted laws that have prohibited activities ranging from loitering to sitting in certain areas to panhandling in an attempt to target the homeless.

“Even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space, and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive.” the report states. Further, a study by UCLA released in September 2007 found that Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.

Of the 235 cities surveyed for the report: 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering city-wide. Fortunately the Supreme Court has overturned several loitering laws for being unconstitutionally vague and violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Though I did not fear being arrested for loitering at the shopping center, I certainly felt ashamed. A homeless man in Greensburg, Pa., I had shared my dinner with a few days ago said he had gotten over that long ago. Perhaps out of necessity you let go of the embarrassment of being homeless. It had not yet left me–I felt deeply conscious of what other people thought.

Whether or not he felt self-conscious in his loitering, and regardless of whether the Supreme Court has found the laws unconstitutional, that has not stopped police from harassing those forced to live on the street. And unfortunately I learned this first-hand in Greensburg when I was arrested for disorderly conduct as I sat shoeless in the Amtrak station.

The report cites numerous examples of homeless individuals being arrested for allegedly loitering. In the summer of 2005, at a free public event at Riverfront Park in Little Rock, Ark., various businesses were giving away free samples of their merchandise to the public. Vendors encouraged homeless people to take free samples but officers of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department told the homeless individuals, including a handicapped man at a picnic table, that they had to leave the event immediately or be subject to arrest for loitering in a park.

“Homeless people are no longer allowed to be visible.” –A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

And Amtrak, whose Greenburg, Pa. station was the site of my arrest for disorderly conduct for refusing to provide police with my identification, has been found guilty of ejecting the homeless from Penn Station. The lawsuit, Streetwatch v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 875 F. Supp. 1055 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) challenges the Amtrak police’s policy of arresting or ejecting persons who appeared to be homeless or appeared to be loitering in the public areas of Penn Station in the absence of evidence that such persons had committed or were committing crimes. The District Court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Amtrak police from continuing to engage in the practice, finding that in light of Amtrak’s invitation to the public, the practice implicated the Due Process Clause.

Arrests, even for minor crimes, can have serious consequences. Homeless individuals are rarely able to pay their fines, and, as a result, many are jailed and end up with a criminal record. Once a person has a criminal record, it is more difficult to get access to housing assistance and other services.

There is some good news. On June 8, 2008, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance repealing a 1946 loitering ordinance. And lawsuit after lawsuit has found loitering laws unconstitutional.

As a society we need to get over our shame, embarrassment and guilt regarding homelessness and take active steps to create more affordable housing. Loitering is a choice but a situation born of necessity. And a jail cell may protect against the elements, but it is not a home.

– by Jennifer E. Cooper

Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down

Day 22–July 25 (rest in Greensburg, PA, 0.0 miles)

I have never understood what it is that empowers some of us to always stand up for what is right, regardless of the consequences, while others stand idly by at the injustices of this world.

While I was at Target in Greensburg yesterday I met John and his young daughter Emily. As I talked with John about my journey and about my encounter with the Greensburg police, he impressed upon his daughter the value in standing up for yourself, even when it is isn’t easy. Emily just smiled but I suspect she will grow into a woman who stands firmly by her convictions.

Most people I spoke with about my tangle with the Greensburg police and subsequent charge of disorderly conduct agreed that what the police had done was wrong, and cheered me for standing up for myself. But there were some who felt that the police have the right to demand identification of innocent citizens they have no reason to suspect of a crime. Now whether the law is on the side of police is immaterial in my mind. It troubles me to think that anyone could think it is OK for those in positions of authority to abuse their power. If it is OK for the police to harass an innocent person, is it also OK for a senator to lie and accept bribes; a president to mislead the public for personal gain, or for a government to prop up businesses on the backs of workers? Yet millions in this country would hesitate to cry foul.

Numerous studies have found a connection between poverty and an increase in involvement in crime, lower levels of education, and reduced self-esteem thus locking people into a repeating cycle of poverty. I can understand how it might be hard to stand up for injustice when you have just worked a double shift and can think only of how to keep putting food on the table and a roof over your head.

Now perhaps I was born stubborn. But I was also raised in a family that taught me to do what is right; to stand up for myself; and always backed me up when I did so. And so I thank my parents for empowering me. But I am also thankful that I was born into a life that gave me the opportunity to stand firmly for what I believe in. So many children are raised in an environment where they are not made to feel valuable; taught that they cannot have the same hopes and dreams as those of means. And it is not hard to see how those raised to think they are lesser humans for being poor would grow to become adults who believe they are not worth more than minimum wage, that they have no value to society. Yes there are some in this world with rare and unique talents. But that is a twist of fate. Those who work hard to keep the wheels of society moving are no less valuable. Those who perform back-breaking work behind the scenes in the least desirable of professions–washing dishes and toilets; slaughtering meat and picking produce; cooking and serving our food; operating cash registers and selling our clothes and an endless array of material goods–are every bit as deserving of a safe and warm place to call home and good health.

It has been more than 70 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed in his second inaugural address:  “I see millions denied education, recreation and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. . . one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Though we have come a long way from the poverty seen during the Great Depression, we are still a nation in which 1 in 3 struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Minimum wage, maximum poverty

rest in Greensburg, PA, 0.0 miles

As of today the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. It is the third and final increase in a phased hike in the minimum wage that began in 2007. Prior to 2007, the minimum wage had not seen an increase since it was set at $5.15 in 1997. With the latest increase someone working full-time 40 hours would earn $15,080 annually. Thirty-one states will have to increase their minimum wages as a result of the July 24 increase, while 19 states and Washington, D.C. already had a minimum wage of $7.25 or higher.

Although a full-time worker at minimum wage would find themselves well above the poverty level (in 2008 the poverty threshold in the United States was just under $11,000 for a single person, $22,00 for a family of four,) often full-time jobs are not available. More than half of all minimum-wage jobs are part-time, forcing workers to take two or three jobs to make ends meet. I can remember working at a local grocery store chain while in high school and college. Help wanted signs were always up even as the store cut the hours of existing employees to avoid having to pay the benefits that came with full-time employment.

According to the Center for American Progress, prior to the first phased increase in 2007, six million families with children—46 percent of the total low wage-earning families with children—received all of their earnings from minimum wage jobs. At the same time, it took CEOs from the 350 largest public companies, on average, only one hour and 55 minutes to earn the annual pay of a minimum wage worker. The most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show 12.5 percent of the country living in poverty, more than 37 million Americans.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, if one wage-earner holds a job paying the federal minimum wage, that household can afford to spend up to $341 in monthly rent. But there is not a single county in the whole country where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford even a one-bedroom apartment at what HUD determines to be the Fair Market Rent.

Today’s increase in the pay of the poorest Americans is a start. But if we are to make a meaningful reduction in the levels of poverty in this nation, we must do more.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

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

Great big melting bags of ice

Latrobe, PA-Greensburg, PA, 11.4 miles

For whatever reason, since I have been walking I have not gone a day without eating ice cream. Some days I find myself stopping for ice cream more than once a day. So when as I came across Peaches ‘n Cream on Route 30 in Greensburg there was little question I would be stopping in. A twist with chocolate sprinkles please.

While I sat and ate my cone a guy at the next picnic table inquired as to my backpack. As it turned out it was the owner, Jim Peach. For the next hour we engaged in a political debate as to whether those who find themselves homeless and in poverty have the means to lift themselves out of their circumstances through sheer hard work. It is a topic I have discussed with many others and am sure will discuss again soon. While I disagreed with Mr. Peach in many ways, I will concede on one point: those who are poor yet unwilling to work hard are not entitled to a handout. He said he is willing to give anyone a meal and a place to stay. But, he said, he expects that in return said person is willing to sweep the floor, wash dishes or work for their supper in some other way. It was his opinion that many in poverty are unwilling to accept low wage work and expect the government to give them a handout.

Though Mr. Peach has a point, his belief that people are not willing to work hard is incorrect. There are millions in this country who work hard at jobs that offer low pay and deplorable working conditions. Millions of people work hard but never get ahead. Many of the opportunities in life come as a result of the economic circumstances into which we are born, with a bit of brains, hard work, and luck tossed into the mix. I cannot blame someone for not wanting to work 80 hours a week just to earn a living that will never reach the level of even lower middle class. Yes there is a certain self respect that comes from hard work and standing on one’s own two feet. But if my options were back-breaking work for 80 hours a week with no chance of getting ahead, or accepting a government check, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t pick the latter.

Later that day I found myself sitting on a bench with a homeless man outside the Giant Eagle grocery store. While I iced my ankle and ate my dinner I shared my food with the man, who first said his name was Dave and later said it was Rick. (He also told me he’d been in the military for 70 years.) For those who think being homeless and living off the government is the easy path, I ask this: how easy is it to spend the night on a bench in front of grocery store under the florescent lighting and stinking of your own urine? It’s no way to live.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Pain

rest in Latrobe, PA, 0.0 miles

For the second day since I injured my ankle I decided it was too painful to walk. Yet, while I have the luxury to stay and rest, many people do not. One woman I met a few days ago told me of her battle with Crohn’s disease, for which she cannot afford the health care costs. She works more than 80 hours a week at minimum wage to make ends meet.

Today, while I was hobbling down the hall to my hotel room, I chatted with the woman who cleaned the rooms. She said she wakes up every morning with intense pain in her ankles and feet, and sympathized with my injury. But, while my injury is likely only temporary, hers is chronic–she told me she could barely crawl out of bed each morning.  And, for her, resting is not an option. She is a single mother with three young children to care for.

I cannot comprehend the chronic pain these women endure on a daily basis. And I am in awe of their inner strength as they work in low-paying jobs that keep them on their feet all day and exacerbate their health problems. We do not allow animals to suffer such indignities, to live in constant pain. Surely as Congress finally addresses the massive mess that is health care in this country something can be done to improve the health and well-being of the nation’s poorest.

We waste money on procedures that are not medically necessary; take antibiotics for viral infections simply because we believe a pill will make us better; and fail to take even the smallest steps to improve our diet and exercise. We need to take charge of our health, be responsible for preventative measures. And, just as we must be responsible for our own health, we also have the right to expect our government will ensure access to affordable health care.

This country is vast and varied and there are no simple solutions. But we must demand politicians find a way to ensure everyone in this country, no matter how poor, has access to quality health care without interference by lobbyists or those who would seek to put profit above our health.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Venceremos

Ligonier, PA-Latrobe, PA, 9.2 miles

Five years ago tomorrow my father-in-law died after after bravely battling repeated strokes that robbed him of his mobility but not of his humor and wit. I did not have the good fortune of spending much time with Martin before he became ill, but I always admired his colorful nature and his  spirited defense of the working man. Many will speak loudly of the causes they hold dear. Martin was one of the brave few who took action to right the wrongs of this world. As I walk I wear for good luck a small pin that once belonged to Martin. I hope that he would think it fitting for my journey.

After his death my husband noted that his father’s “illness never robbed him of the power of his wit, and the ability to speak as he always had done for a United Ireland, against racism, war, U.S. Imperialism and the betrayals of “New Labour.” His passing will not silence a voice of passionate protest.”

I am walking for many reasons: to draw attention to the millions living in poverty in this country; the growing problem of homelessness; and to inspire people to stand up to injustice. And it is my hope that I am somehow making Martin proud.

– by Jennifer E. Cooper

Don’t feed the animals

Laurel Mountain, PA-Ligonier, PA, 7.7 miles

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

caption=”Joe’s bar in Ligonier, Pa. has hundreds of taxidermy specimens including lions, zebra, ostrich and blowfish.”

Only an estimated 25-30 percent of the population of the United States owns a passport. But even more worrying than our low rate of international travel (though to be fair until recently Americans could travel a great distance without needing a passport) is the fact that many in this country have not traveled more than 10 miles from their place of birth. Now surely many people do not have the means, or more importantly the vacation time, to travel far and wide. But even venturing a little outside your comfort zone can have an enormous impact. In just a couple weeks I have walked nearly 200 miles and pushed myself right out of my comfort zone.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

The shaggy dog

Day 15–July 18 (Kantner, PA-Laurel Mountain, PA, 12.1 miles)

Little did I know when I got up this morning that I was about to become a Shaggy Dog. Pushing through the pain of my throbbing ankle I climbed Laurel Mountain on Route 30 and, when I reached the top, walked into Walat’s bar looking for a coffee. Instead I met Bill H.

Having embarked on numerous adventures of his own–including canoeing several hundred miles on the Susquehanna River with his dog–Bill felt obligated to return the favors of food and housing so many had offered him while on the road. He invited me to have dinner and crash for the night with him and his girlfriend Chris who was given just a few minutes warning that he was bringing me to their house, saying he was “bringing home a shaggy dog.”

Many people have asked me how I manage my personal safety on this trip. (For the record this is a solo walking trip without a support crew. All I have I carry in my 35-pound backpack.) I have on more than one occasion accepted the generosity of strangers who have taken me into their homes. Thus far there are many more people looking out for me than those who seek to do me harm. That said, after I saw Bill’s van filled with odds and ends and painting paraphernalia, it did cross my mind that perhaps there was a 10 percent chance he was a serial killer–but nothing in life is without risk. So here I am still alive and now with two wonderful new friends, Bill and Chris.

I feel fortunate to have met so many amazing people who have helped me along my way. So cheers and thanks to those who have offered me a hand and the wonderful new friends I have made. And cheers to the friends I have yet to meet.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper