Policing the New Downtown: The Costs of Community for Homeless Persons and Individuals with Mental Illness in Washington, D.C.
Degree awarded: Ph.D. Anthropology. American University
This research project is an ethnographic account of the effects of neoliberal social, economic and urban development policies since the 1980s on the interactions between police officers and homeless persons and individuals with mental illness in Washington, D.C. These interactions are comprehended through the perspectives of police officers, homeless men and women with mental illness, their advocates, mental health and criminal justice professionals and public employees. Together, these perspectives shed light on the intersections of criminal justice, mental health and urban development policies with poverty, economic inequality and the rhetorical and practical workings of community.Since the early 1980s, neoliberal social and economic policies that promote privatization, deregulation and punitive crime control have dramatically impacted the mental health and criminal justice systems, often in consequence of one another. As mental health care has been privatized and marketized, the social safety net available in the public sector has been dramatically reduced. Combined with the loss of affordable housing in cities, the number of homeless individuals with mental illness has grown. Consequently, contact between law enforcement and homeless individuals with mental illness has increased, often at the prompting of vocal community opposition to the presence of the homeless. Neoliberal economic policies have also reshaped the landscape of cities as local governments have become reliant on large-scale downtown urban development projects to draw in capital, while at the same time carving cities into exclusive enclaves of privilege. Business and community opposition to the use of public space by homeless individuals in downtown cores has increasingly become the catalyst for interactions between police officers and homeless individuals, many with mental illness. Homeless outreach workers employed by business improvement districts in Washington, D.C. have created informal partnerships with police officers to mediate these interactions, creating a model of best practice for jail diversion. However, these informal public-private partnerships ultimately promote the removal of homeless individuals from public space and privilege the workings of community on behalf of businesses and city elite.This paper concludes that to build a truly living city, we must tackle the foundational issues of poverty and economic inequality that create homelessness and at the same time, hold civic leaders, business elite and public agencies accountable for their role in the promotion of exclusionary practices in the name of community.
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