Is Cape May County Waging A Silent War On The Homeless?
By David Todd McCarty | Friday, March 8, 2019
You’re homeless in Cape May County.
I realize it’s hard for some people to believe that this is a real issue, being a famous resort town and all, but I can assure you it is a real thing. By some estimates, there are at least 150 homeless people living in Cape May County, though the numbers are hard to confirm.
You’re homeless. You have nowhere to go. No place to call home. No family. Maybe you sleep in the woods in a tent. Maybe you sleep in your car. You spend a large part of your day just trying to survive. Food. Shelter. Government bureaucracy. Trying not to freeze to death. It’s a full time job just making sure you stay alive. Each day.
Then let’s say you attempt to cross the street to get to the bus stop and you get stopped by the police. You’re arrested for jaywalking, ticketed and given a court date and a fine.
This is common practice in Rio Grande, New Jersey according to both victims and advocates. Advocates claim that it’s endemic to the area. Critics say that it’s an effort to force homeless people out of what is traditionally thought of as a wealthy resort community. Some call it police harassment.
One local man who goes by the name of Chickie, has been ticketed, at least twice that we know of, for “jaywalking” in while across Route 47 in Rio Grande attempting to get to the bus stop, despite being well known to the police and indigent. Chickie is in his sixties. He’s got various health problems, including issues with his feet that make it difficult for him to walk. But he’s apparently an existential threat to the safety of the community if you go by the efforts of law enforcement.
So it’s a ticket. Big deal, right? But what happens when you have no money, no home and no income when you get a ticket? If you have no means to get to court, you are eventually issued a bench warrant and then if stopped by the police, you are arrested and sent to jail. But it doesn’t end there. In jail, you can earn as little as 26¢ a day for every day you’re in jail and you stay there until your fine is paid off, including court costs. If you forget the insanity of paying nearly $100 a day to incarcerate someone for a $100 ticket for crossing the street, think about the fact that it would take over a year in jail at the cost of more than $35,000 to pay off a $100 ticket. Now, someone will undoubtedly say those numbers are inaccurate. Let’s say they make a dollar a day. Do your own math, let alone the terror of prison, and explain the logic.
The United States ostensibly eliminated the imprisonment of debtors under federal law in 1833, but it remains a practice in reality in much of America, specifically in poor neighborhoods. Chickie’s last ticket for jaywalking was $56 plus $33 in court costs. He’s lucky if he can find a place to sleep when it drops below freezing, but he can afford $100 for crossing the street?
I met a homeless couple recently that told me there were sitting in their car in front of Branches, a faith-based charity that cares for the county’s homeless population in Rio Grande. They live in their car, but they don’t park in the lot overnight. In case you’re not aware, it is actually against the law to sleep in your car in public. According to their testimony, and the testimony of an eyewitness who volunteers at Branches, this couple was sitting in their car when a friend drove by, so they honked their horn as a greeting. Multiple police cars arrived almost immediately and proceeded to search their vehicle and their person. The probable cause given for this search by the officers, and detailed in the ticket issued to them, was “improper use of horn.”
Allegedly, the police were looking for the man’s brother, who has an outstanding warrant, even though the couple and their car are known to the police. When the police found nothing of interest, they allegedly issued the ticket to rationalize the search. The ticket was $25. The couple showed up at court and were able to get the judge to wave the court costs, but still had to pay $25 for the offense of using their car horn in a commercial area, while parked, in a non threatening way.
The Standard could find no statute in New Jersey law that would back up such a claim by the police that a ticket is warranted for improper use of a horn.
The couple paid the ticket, because while they certainly didn’t have an extra $25 to throw away, going to jail for nonpayment was clearly, considerably worse.
You have to ask yourself a few hard questions about how Cape May County is being run. First, is this the best use of our law enforcement? Second, are the police harassing the homeless population in order to increase revenue, a thing which the Supreme Court recently ruled is unconstitutional? Or third, is this a concerted effort by the Board of Freeholders and the police to try to encourage through the homeless population to leave the county by threat of prosecution?
Cape May County currently has no homeless shelter and has recently defunded programs that care for homeless people during extreme weather. However, the county recently spent over $40 million to construct a new jail. You also have to ask yourself, who benefits from criminalizing homelessness? Who profits?
Michael Leusner, Chief of Police for Middle Township, did not respond for comment by press time.