‘Victim blaming:’ Homeless, homeless advocates criticize new anti-loitering law
Says law doesn’t help solve the problem and only makes it worse
Joe Humphries sits on the sidewalk alongside a state-maintained road in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Lee Hedgepeth)
To Heather Pritchett, she was just “sissy.” To Charles Earle, she was an extraordinary friend.
Tiffany Denise Pritchett, a woman who experienced homelessness in Birmingham, Alabama, was a truly special person, they said.
“She was a good person in a bad situation,” Earle said in an interview.
Her younger sister Heather Pritchett said that though their lives had gone in different directions, she’d always hoped Tiffany would find peace.
Tiffany Pritchett died in 2021 after being struck by a car on the side of Lakeshore Parkway in the Magic City. She was only 41.
Individuals like Tiffany Pritchett are the focus of a new law passed by the Alabama Legislature and signed by Gov. Kay Ivey earlier this year. The law, passed with no opposition in either the House or Senate, makes repeated loitering or wandering on or near a road “maintained by the state” an arrestable Class C misdemeanor punishable by a jail sentence of up to three months in jail and fines of up to $500.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road, previously told Alabama Reflector the bill focuses on public safety, saying individuals panhandling or loitering on the road could be hit by cars.
But in interviews, individuals facing homelessness in the state, anti-homelessness advocates, and people like Charles Earle and Heather Pritchett, whose loved one was struck by a vehicle and killed, said that the new law may only make an already difficult situation worse. Alabamians experiencing homelessness, they said, are the targets, not the beneficiaries, of the newly-enacted legislation.
Heather Pritchett had always pulled for Tiffany, her only sibling, even as things became more difficult in her life.
“Underneath her struggles, Tiffany was an amazingly kind, intelligent, and talented woman who just couldn’t find her way out of the darkness that consumed much of her waking and sober hours,” she said said. “And of course, she’ll never get the opportunity to find her way out of it now.”
Charles Earle met Tiffany Pritchett in 2019.
“We hit it off right away,” said Earle, a caregiver for his mother. “She was an exceptionally nice person.”
No matter the situation she found herself in, he said, Pritchett’s smile would light her way.
Slowly, Earle began to realize just how difficult Pritchett’s life had become. For a while, she said, she’d been sleeping on the streets of Birmingham, finding shelter and solace wherever she could.
But the challenges she faced on a daily basis had not diminished Pritchett’s spirit, Earle said.
“She was a sweet, friendly person,” Earle remembered. “And I felt so bad for the circumstances she was in. She could put a smile on things I certainly couldn’t.”
Earle tried his best to keep in touch with Pritchett. He’d reach out to her through social media from time to time to check in. On a few occasions, he convinced her to let him take her for an outing.
Sometimes, it was as simple as a lunch, he said. Once, he brought her to the McWane Center, a hands-on science museum in Birmingham. He thought the trip would keep her mind off the difficult reality of her struggles.
“It was just fun,” he said. “We had a good, nice, pleasant day.”
The last time Earle remembers speaking with Pritchett was in the spring of 2021 – February or March, he said. She had fallen on particularly hard times, Pritchett told him, but she’d be willing to meet for lunch.
“I never heard back,” Earle said.
On June 9, 2021, just a few months after her last conversation with Earle, Tiffany Pritchett was struck by a car and killed as she stood on the concrete shoulder of Lakeshore Parkway in Birmingham, according to her autopsy report.
“The impact caused the victim to come to rest in the grass median and was found to be lying in 4-6 inches of water,” the report said.
The driver of the vehicle stopped and cooperated with officials, the report said. No charges were filed in the case.
Heather Pritchett said that Tiffany’s death devastated her family.
“She was erased from this world as if nothing happened because she was just ‘that red-headed homeless girl,’” Pritchett said. “Yes, my sister had serious issues and struggled with mental health and substance abuse her entire adult life, but she was also a deeply loved mother, daughter, sister, and niece. And she was also a human being.”
Pritchett said she’s skeptical of laws like the one Alabama has passed which seem to blame those in vulnerable positions for anything that may happen to them.
“Laws to address perceived issues with the homeless population should focus on understanding the whole story and the broader impacts from all sides and should be exclusive of both the direct and implicit biases that so many living in homelessness like my sister at the time of her death face every day,” Heather Pritchett said. “Tiffany deserved better than to be automatically blamed for what happened to her, and so do all of the other people struggling to find their way out of whatever is causing their darkness.”
Earle, who was unaware of Pritchett’s passing until he was contacted for this story, said his friend’s death shouldn’t be used as an excuse to further criminalize homelessness in the state.
“No one should be out there trying to take advantage of Tiffany’s death,” he said. “It’s sad and tragic. I don’t see any good purpose in using this tragic event for some political gains.”
Vehicle collisions with pedestrians account for very few deaths of individuals facing homelessness. Data from the Jefferson County Coroner/ Medical Examiner’s Office shows that in the last decade, only 13 of 231 deaths of individuals identified as homeless were caused by such collisions. 104 were caused by drug overdoses.
Earle said that people experiencing homelessness have only a limited ability to fight back against political acts taken in their name.
“People like these lawmakers have never faced homelessness and have never had these kinds of situations presented to them,” he said. “And that makes it easy for them to look down their nose at homeless people, and that’s just wrong.”
Cat Cruz said there’s a simple way to prevent those experiencing homelessness from being struck and killed by vehicles: house them.
Cruz, an anti-homelessness advocate in Birmingham, spends most days working directly with individuals sleeping on the city’s streets. She said the new law further criminalizes homelessness and will lead to worse outcomes for vulnerable people.
“People who are on the street and the providers who serve them work damn hard to very slowly and painstakingly remove barriers that are keeping them on the street,” she said. “If they’re arrested, these barriers just get replaced and strengthened.”
This type of problem isn’t just a theoretical possibility, she explained, it’s something that she sees happen again and again.
“If they have a housing referral, for example, and nobody can get in touch with them, they’ll lose an opportunity they may have been waiting months for,” Cruz explained.
In the end, Cruz said that the arguments put forward by lawmakers supporting the new law are couched in misunderstandings and intentional mischaracterizations.
“These folks are being used as political pawns,” Cruz said of Alabamians experiencing homelessness. “This is victim blaming. They’re saying ‘Let’s make a law targeting the victims because they’re the ones getting hit.’”
Cruz said there are already laws on the books that could be used to punish those responsible in these situations, particularly drivers who may be speeding or otherwise violating traffic laws, without criminalizing those in already vulnerable situations.
She said Alabama’s new law is also problematic because of its ban on “loitering or wandering” not only on a road maintained by the state, but also on its right-of-way. Often, individuals sleeping on the streets use overpasses as shelter when they have nowhere else to go, Cruz said. Those overpasses are often in state right-of-ways, according to maps provided by the Alabama Department of Transportation.
“This law will effectively criminalize most encampments in the city,” Cruz said. “In homeless society, encampments are often safer than being on your own. So what this is doing is taking away a very small amount of safety that anyone on the street has been able to claw out of nothing.”
Views from the streets
Richard Thomas, 58, and Joe Humphries, 68, sat along a state-maintained road in Birmingham on a recent Tuesday.
The pair said that the state’s new law amounts to harassment of people in already dire situations.
“We couldn’t even be sitting out here like we are now,” Humphries told Alabama Reflector. “And you wouldn’t be able to sit out here and talk to us, either.”
Thomas said that police already occasionally ask them to move on to another area and that making loitering or wandering an arrestable offense makes his very existence a crime.
“They don’t even want us to sit here,” Thomas said. “Where do they want us to go?”
Under the new Alabama law, members of law enforcement would be allowed – but not required – to bring an individual in violation to an emergency shelter in lieu of an arrest.
Thomas said that’s little consolation when there aren’t enough beds to accommodate those sleeping on the city’s streets.
Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development supports that claim. In the 15 years of available data, the number of emergency shelter beds has never been high enough to accommodate the estimated number of individuals facing homelessness in the state. In 2022, for example, the federal agency estimated there are at least 3,752 people experiencing homelessness in the state on a given night. Only 2,034 emergency shelter beds were available the same year.
Between the two, Thomas and Humphries have experienced homelessness for more than a decade.
Thomas was born in Alabama, left the state, and returned a few years back. He said rent prices and low wages have kept him from securing permanent, affordable housing.
Humphries is from Montgomery – “you know, where Kay Ivey stays,” he said.
He said he has a message for the governor.
“What I would tell [Gov. Ivey] is to stop police from harassing and arresting homeless people,” Humphries said. “These folks ain’t got nowhere to go. Where are they going to go?”
Ivey’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment.
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