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Discrimination, Harassment, Criminalization, and Abuse: The Daily Horror of Homelessness

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Dani Finger Calls out A non Profit group for calling the police on her for sitting in the metro on a cold winter day
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Washington, DC February 5, 2014 -- Imagine yourself with only a few dollars in your pocket, it's 19 degrees outside, you've already been kicked out of the Metro entrance, one of the few places you have to protect yourself from the deadly cold, you're freezing; where do you go?

If you are like many of the homeless this winter and during poorer weather throughout the rest of the year in the District, you go to a local  coffee shop, the chances are you spend a lot of your money there in fact, because even when you're not trying to stay out of the weather you use it for its wireless internet and bathrooms, or to be able to relax and spend time with friends without being subjected to harassment, as well.

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"Coffee shops are one of the few places you're able to feel normal, safe from the threat of weather, the police and anyone else who might want to harass the most vulnerable members of society, they have nowhere else," Peter Young, 28 said.

For the the homeless this attempt at being a normal functioning member of society has been stripped from them establishment by establishment. It starts with having to pay to use the restroom and then moves on to shorter and shorter time limits, finally being denied services and being told your business isn't welcomed in that establishment, or having the police called on you for the simple crime of being homeless.

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At a McDonald's on the corner of New York Avenue and 13th Street in Washington DC these restrictions have led to hundreds of incidents of homeless people being forced to defecate on themselves or urinate in public over the past year.

"That McDonald's is the only place open after ten in the evening, there aren't any public restrooms in the city after five, if I don't have any money, where am I to go, I'm a woman, I can't just squat in between a car," says  Marquita, a homeless woman who lives near the White House.

"Earlier this year I experienced my first taste of homeless discrimination when me, my fiance and a friend decided to go to Cosi for some coffee, my fiance went out to have a cigarette and was told that he couldn't smoke out by the road but had to move 50 feet from the restaurant when the sign and the law in DC is 25 feet from the entrance, he was banned when he stood up to the manager," said Danielle Finger, a 25-year-old homeless artist, co-founder of The People Power Project and activist.

"As this was going on one of the employees came up to me and the gentleman I was talking to and told me I had to leave, she said I had too many bags. I only had two small bags, then there was my fiance's rucksack with his camera gear and laptop, that was it. It was clear that the reason we were being targeted was because we were homeless, the employee said she was going to call the police, but my fiance had already done so on the manger for the discrimination he was receiving outside, the police sided with the manager and said they didn't have a choice," says Finger.

Over the course of the summer Starbucks began instituting policies similar to other establishments including restricting use of the restroom and time limits, although Starbucks claims they apply these new rules to everyone the reality of daily life tells another story, as homeless people are singled out while their housed counterparts are left alone to use the restroom as they please whether they make purchases or not, are allowed to sit in the seating area as long as they like again whether they purchase or not.

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"I've been in the Starbucks on the corner of 15th and K street and watched management tell elderly people who were obviously poor they could use the bathroom, because they didn't buy anything, these were men and women in at least their 60s, they even called the police on one old man," Finger said. "Where were they supposed to go everything was closed."

"I walked into a Starbucks in October, waited in line and got a large coffee, sat down at a table, the manager on duty walked right up to me and asked me why I was still in her store, so I threw my coffee on the floor and walked out, it was outrageous," Brett Glidewell, 25, said, " I don't understand why I was the one she came up to, there were other people who had been there longer than I had, I had just gotten my coffee, and it was slow for Christ sake."

It would be one thing if this policy wasn't reserved solely for those perceived to be "undesirable," or of a type "unwelcome" as an Assistant Manager at  Pret A Manger referred to the restaurant's homeless customers during an attempted interview with him.

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Cory Clark is a freelance photojournalist and writer focused on civil and human rights issues, social justice and politics. He is a regular contributor with Getty Images, AP and AFP. His work has appeared in, The Guardian, Fortune (more...)
 

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