OPINION | Turning to jail for a better life

A July newspaper headline said it all: "Homeless man decides jail's better than the streets." A 61 year old homeless man in Rochester decided that the only way he could get food and a roof over his head was to go to jail. So he broke some windows at an auto dealer, turned himself in at the police department and asked that they put him in jail.

He told police that if they would not arrest him, he would go back and break some more windows.

He realized that the only way he could get a fair shake was by going to prison. Unfortunately, he is not alone in his struggle and despair. If you talk to the volunteers and staff working at homeless shelters around Minnesota, you will hear that many shelter residents go to work during the day but return to the shelter each night, seeking a cot to sleep on because they cannot afford housing.

There are many hard-working people who earn too little to pay for life's necessities. Many face great mental and physical challenges which make their chance of success slim. This was a reality for many people prior to the recession. Now it is a reality for even more.

Health care is another struggle. Melissa Matthews, a 20-year-old inmate in Washington State rejected parole, choosing to stay in prison because she had no health insurance and couldn't afford treatment for her cervical cancer. According to columnist Nicholas Kristof, Melissa said if they release her, "I'm going to die from this cancer." In prison, she had a right to health care; outside of prison, she had nothing.

Again, Ms. Matthews is not alone in her desperation to find health care. Eighteen thousand Americans die every year simply because they cannot afford the health care they need.

Some Americans -- prison inmates -- have a constitutional right to health care and other necessities of life. Don't the rest of the people deserve as much as prisoners do?

These stories merit outrage. And we need to turn that outrage into action; action to ensure that our neighbors are treated with the dignity they deserve.

The Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020 issued its report early this year, but since then Minnesota has gone backwards. Some of the backsliding was due to the recession, but some was due to government decision making.

Perhaps the biggest step backwards was Governor Pawlenty's veto and unallotment of funds for the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program. His own administration acknowledged that it would hurt the poorest and sickest people in the state.

These men and women will be unable to get health care until they are sick enough to need costly emergency room care. They would get better care if they would break the law and go to prison. That's really sad.

The "Common Foundation" document that spurred creation of the Poverty Commission called on everyone -- the business community, non-profits, the faith community, government -- all of us -- to respond. The challenge was straight forward: We are to ensure that "all people are provided those things that protect human dignity and make for healthy life, adequate food and shelter, meaningful work, safe communities, healthcare, and education."

These aren't unrealistic expectations. For example, we could start by delivering health care for all. Truly universal health care, like our proposed Minnesota Health Plan, actually saves money.

We need to challenge political and business leaders when they ignore these issues. When a corporate executive pulls in millions of dollars in stock options, earning a ratio of 350 to 1 to that of a manufacturing worker (compared to a ratio of less than 30 to 1 in western European countries), ask them whether more pay for their workers would bring about a more just society.

Or, when Governor Pawlenty travels the country hyping his leadership, ask if he is proud that many of his constituents would get better healthcare and housing if they commit crimes than they can get as law-abiding people.

The public recognizes this is wrong. Let's work together, build the vision, and change it.

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