Friday, June 26, 2009

Trespass and the Homeless

Trespass is a venerable legal term, one of the building blocks of the common law. The definitions in Black’s Law Dictionary of the various types go on and on for pages, hinting at archaic hair-splitting now largely lost to time. Trespass on the case, trespass to chattels, and so on — with criminal trespass only one, comparatively compact, meaning among many.

Today, in America, it is the criminal meaning that prevails. Going on someone else’s property without permission is against the law and can be prosecuted as a criminal offense. In our mind’s eye, many of us still see the context for such an offense as, say, a hunter ignoring a “no trespassing” sign in order to hunt for deer or other game on private land.

Tonight’s PBS report from Miami on homeless people taking up residence in foreclosed homes showed the old concept of trespass bumping up against our complex contemporary reality. The NOW program followed Max Rameau, a community activist whose organization, Take Back the Land, seeks to match responsible homeless families (not by any means an oxymoron) with empty homes that are still livable.

This used to be called “squatting,” and it is still against the law. Rambeau’s response is that it is immoral to leave people on the street when society has failed to build enough affordable housing and the Great Recession relentlessly adds to the ranks of the homeless. Nationally, depending on how homelessness is measured, those numbers are expected to rise from roughly 3 million to roughly 4 million people who will be homeless at one time or another this year. How many of us would have thought, as recently as two years ago, that tent cities would spring up in America?

There is also a very particular back story in South Florida. In 2006, the Miami Herald broke the story about rampant fraud in the Miami-Dade public housing agency. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing that Oscar Rivero, a developer who had taken over $700,000 in public money to build 54 affordable housing units, had actually spent the money on a house for himself, complete with appliances, pool, and of course thorough termite inspection. The Herald’s investigation revealed numerous other instances of fraud in the agency — so many, indeed, that the federal Housing and Urban Development agency took control of it.

For me, this background complicates the moral calculus of whether the civil disobedience Rambeau’s group is engaging in is justified. Does it promote a culture of lawlessness that will further undermine neighborhoods, contributing to more crime and homelessness? In other words, is Rambeau an urban Rambo, taking the law into his own ends in a reckless manner, like Sylvester Stallone’s movie character?

Perhaps it would help to get down to cases. The NOW program highlighted a story about a single mother trying to get a Ph. D. while working a cleaning job. She moved into a foreclosed house with her children, only to return one day to find their belongings strewn about the property. After Rambeau organized a media event to confront the property management company, the woman and her family ended up staying for a few more months in the house. What difficult judgment calls situations like this must be for law enforcement and prosecutors, having to decide whether to use their discretion to seek trespassing charges against people looking for nothing more than a roof over their heads.


  1. That whole dichotomy and dilemma is often in my mind when I see big housing units with "for sale" and "for lease" signs on them for months, while lots of people scrounge for even a roof over their heads by any means. I often think something is fundamentally wrong somewhere! Curious: where does the photo above come from?

  2. The photo is from the NOW website and shows a tent city in Florida.

    I'd like to find out more about these cities. How many are there, in which states - and how are the people who live in them coping?