William J. McCarthy Jr.
When a Harford County man and his stepdaughter claimed a “panhandler” viciously stabbed Jacquelyn Smith to death at an East Baltimore intersection late one night last December, much of the nation believed it without question.
Now, we learn that Ms. Smith’s husband and stepdaughter are charged in Ms. Smith’s horrific death, and that there was no violent poor or addicted person on the other side of an open car window that night.
When this tragic murder occurred, celebrities, leaders, and neighbors spoke about a new reluctance to help someone who asked. If you know the East Baltimore intersection in question, you know it’s lightly traveled after midnight, and not a spot where people tend to ask for money. But fear – fear of Baltimore, fear of people in poverty, fear of people with addiction – led to instant outrage and demands that “panhandlers” be locked up.
This is the further criminalization of poverty. It is, in many ways, a reinforcement of the circumstances that lead to need.
Our neighbors, our schoolmates, our friends
In our work at Catholic Charities, we accompany women, men and families who find themselves without a home, or battling a substance use disorder that has cost them dearly. It is critical to remember: These are our neighbors, our schoolmates, our friends. They have mothers and fathers. Someone has loved them. They have loved others.
They are human beings, struggling to reclaim not only financial security and wellness, but the dignity that society strips away when their need is greatest.
There are many determinants of poverty and many things that lead to an experience of homelessness. So many families live paycheck to paycheck that all it takes is two weeks without work to miss a mortgage or rent payment. Addiction leads to failures at work, failing health, fractured relationships and frayed support structures. When extended families and friends have their own financial hardship, the burden of more mouths to feed is too great an imposition. Affordable housing is limited and lacking.
Poverty is not a crime
When you see a person on the street asking for help, you see a person begging for compassion. The traumas of these conditions can make it hard to seek services. When we show compassion—even if we don’t give money—we give back their humanity, and that may make it easier to ask for resources from providers.
It is not a crime to experience poverty. It is not a crime to be addicted. It is not a crime to ask for help. The fact that we behave as though these are crimes is why the scourges of poverty and addiction continue.
We demand justice for Ms. Smith, and offer our heartfelt condolences to those who loved her. We demand justice for those in poverty, as well. When we seek justice and see our cries for justice answered, we build a brighter future for our city and all communities.