Criminalizing Poverty Enables Domestic Abuse

Content Warning: Transphobia, Classism, Racism, Ableism

Cops do not protect victims of domestic violence. Aside from the fact that cops are more likely than the general population to perpetrate domestic violence, by the time victims are desperate enough to call police, we as a society have already failed.

Cops are the clean-up crew for when the problems that arise from oppression finally become too big and visible for the wealthy & powerful to ignore. Cops don’t prevent domestic abuse. They respond to it. If the response to escalating prevalence of domestic abuse is to increase police funding, what does that say about a community? That we’re accepting abuse as an inevitability?


The overwhelmed survivor shelters know that worsening poverty & social isolation are enabling abusers & obstructing survivors from seeking help, so why not look there first for prevention?

At best, cops intervene just enough to halt the most egregious manifestation, congratulate themselves in the newspaper, and give liberals a satisfying narrative of evil thwarted and everything wrapped up, so they put it out of their mind, comfortably believing the system works.

Again, putting aside that cops are likely to attack victims, to disbelieve them and return them to their abusers, what’s the “best case” resolution when the cops are called to stop an abuser? When the cops are gone, the systems that enabled the abuser and tied the victim to them are still present.

One of the most powerful of those systems is economic coercion. Even if the abuser is arrested & physically removed in the moment, who pays their fines and court fees? What happens if they go to prison? Who pays for their lawyers, phone calls, commissary? What if they’re undocumented & get snatched up by ICE, where they have no right to representation, and might face a deportation to a country that returning to would be a death sentence?

What happens if the household breadwinner, separates from the victim, loses their job or goes to prison? What if they were the primary caregiver for a disabled person? What if their victim is undocumented, unable to legally work & ineligible for most aid? Or has a criminal record themselves, and faces job & housing discrimination & likewise is barred from most aid? Abusers isolate their victims from other support networks (often easy to do, because of how few support networks are available to begin with) to make them feel like they wouldn’t be able to survive without the abuser (often true).

In addition to losing income, victims who seek help from the courts are publicly outed & face increased risk of rental discrimination and eviction.

Most domestic abuse research focuses on children and women in heterosexual relationships. So you might be tempted to suggest we focus resources on women, especially those with children, and gatekeep social welfare based on age, gender, and parental status. But let’s dig into that.

First, emergency women’s & survivor shelters are also a reactive response, rather than a preventative measure. They are also unable to keep up with reactive need. Even before the pandemic, many domestic violence crisis programs were already beyond capacity. With COVID-19 both reducing shelter capacity & increasing domestic abuse, the situation has gotten worse & will only continue to do so as evictions mount. In Boulder County, recent inquiries to SPAN & Mother House on behalf of victims in crisis revealed both services are at capacity, and turned them away.

Only recently, researchers have begun documentation of abuse of LGBTQ people, and in queer relationships. There is finally starting to be acknowledgement of the ways gender-segregated shelters & services have often failed transgender and non-binary people. But designating shelters as open to trans people doesn’t fix the obstacles they face to permanent housing — job discrimination, housing discrimination, aid discrimination, high rates of disability and PTSD, lack of community support, lack of custody of their children.

And thanks to the conversations exposed at we now know that city council members (including Mark Wallach & Bob Yates) and the Boulder Police Department (up to personal letters from Chief Maris Herold) have been setting their priorities by cozying up with Safer Boulder, an virulently transphobic, homophobic, racist, and ableist organization that advocates targeting unhoused people with chemical weapons and CIA torture techniques.

Safer Boulder member Todd Root (fleet technician for Boulder Bike Sharing) delights in mocking unhoused trans people, calling a trans woman “a dude” and “Satan”, while Jade Schwarting (freelance PR and Brand Strategist) believes the woman is not “a female”. Then there’s Katie Lehr (co-owner of Jamey Valentine Construction) who takes time out of her day to say that trans men like myself who “have lady parts and chow box” are “straight up lesbian[s]”.

Again, I emphasize that Safer Boulder members have enough pull to get Mark Wallach to promote their slideshows at official government meetings, on equal footing with official organizations like the Housing Advisory Board and Human Rights Commission. Safer Boulder founder Brooke Harrison is chummy enough with the police department to get Deputy Chief Johnson to personally call me & give me vague warnings to stop being “mean” to her. And apparently while saying “fuck you” is enough of a “personal attack” for Chief Herold to ban me from the Police Community Dialogue and Engagement panel, it’s perfectly fine for Harrison’s & her friends on the panel to literally belittle me, calling me “little Riley Mancuso” as they demand my expulsion. When people like this have direct lines to the police & council, why should we have faith that commitments against gender-based discrimination in services will be upheld?

While publicly Safer Boulder claims that they do care about “real” homeless people & only want to torture “criminal transients”, the leaks reveal that in private, people like Mark Mallen (owner of Glacier Ice Cream) and Elaine Dannemiller (self-employed graphic designer) HATE the youth shelter/service provider Attention Homes & demonize those it helps, calling them “out of town trouble makers” and saying that the 12–24-year-olds served by Attention Homes are “not ‘kids’”.

Screenshot of Safer Boulder slack posts from Elaine Dannemiller characterizing Attention Homes youth as adult criminals.
Screenshot of Safer Boulder Slack post from Mark Mallen calling Attention Homes a “project to bring out of town trouble makers to Boulder”.

Mallen, Dannemiller, and the other members of Safer Boulder clearly have no iota of understanding of the services Attention Homes provides or the kind of trauma the young people it serves have endured. How callous does your heart need to be to not even have compassion for teenagers in life-threatening conditions of abuse & homelessness? If they’re not the people vulnerable enough to be “deserving” of aid, who is?

Yet furthermore, the damage that criminalizing homelessness & poverty does to abuse survivors continues long past the time that they are presumably most sympathetic. Youth who experience homelessness, abuse, assault — don’t stop being poor, traumatized & disabled when they “age out” of eligibility for youth services. PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, addictions, STIs — consequences of childhood abuse can be permanently debilitating.

The scars of long-term trauma may be discomfiting to look at for wealthy, able-bodied, neurotypical, cishet, fatphobic Boulderites. If “fuck” is too painful for them to hear, perhaps it’s impossible for them to have compassion for those of us with impaired bodily, mental, or vocal regulation. Sorry you’re scared by people experiencing the unglamorous consequences of PTSD, TBI, and untreated mental health disorders. I assure you that people experiencing flashbacks, meltdowns, psychosis, and withdrawal are in much more pain than you.

An aside: Most Safer Boulder members moved to Boulder from other cities or states, and all known members are white. Boulder itself occupies stolen land and its existence has displaced indigenous people who now disproportionately experience homelessness. So of course one of the most constant NIMBY refrains is xenophobia carried to an extreme & localized degree, such that even someone who takes an hour’s bus ride from Denver is, in their minds, an invader from too far south of the green belt Wall. Apparently Boulder, a town sustained by the flagship university of the state of Colorado, where more than half the workforce commutes from outside the city, and whose residents are 90% white, will be absolutely ruined by “outsiders”. They believe that making the city more hostile to poor people will cause them to self-deport. Never mind that Attention Homes CEO Chris Nelson emphasizes that “I have never, ever, ever heard of or met a young person who said they came to Boulder because there were services here.”

If Boulder was really doing “housing first”, they would FIRST ensure there was enough housing for everyone, that no one was being discriminated against, and ONLY THEN start prosecuting people for not having housing. That would still be pointless & counterproductive, but it would at least be logically consistent. They’re not doing even that. They’re doing criminalization first.

You CANNOT prevent domestic abuse while criminalizing poverty.

You ENABLE abusers by putting up barriers to aid contingent on ID documents, paper financial status, citizenship/residence, gender, addiction, criminal history, or any other moralizing & means-testing.

Every dollar wasted on criminalizing poverty & homelessness, on evictions/”sweeps”, on impounding cars that are someone’s only shelter, on bureaucracy enforcing 500+ page books of restrictions on who is worthy of help, on patrolling, harassing, ticketing, prosecuting camping/trespassing laws — every one is a dollar that could have been spent on the kinds of economic support & social safety net that would empower domestic abuse victims to leave before desperate crisis, and support survivors in rebuilding their lives.

Of course Boulder County cannot singlehandedly eliminate homelessness overnight. Nobody is saying that. But the current strategy of criminalization is a vicious cycle, wasting city money to trap more people in poverty for longer, then spending more money to police more people more aggressively, targeting the same people over and over again to easily rack up the hundreds of sweeps they brag about to justify their expenses.

Decriminalization, by contrast, would be a virtuous cycle — free up police time that was being used for discriminatory misdemeanor enforcement, so that fewer officers are able to cover all the more serious calls, lay off the superfluous staff, saving hundreds of thousands every year for each, redirect that money to preventative programs, demonstrate the resulting decreases in homelessness, domestic violence, and other failures of society, set an example for other cities to follow, and move closer and closer to a society where the conditions that create “crime” are eliminated and anyone would agree that police are unnecessary.

queer, trans, he/him/his; former software engineer, aspiring teacher; abolish police, prisons & the DHS

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