The year 2015 hasn’t disappointed fans of offbeat and unusual crime stories. There was the Florida man who managed to get a DUI charge while driving his motorized wheelchair, the New Mexico man who threw a fit of rage when employees at McDonalds put pickles on his hamburger, and the man who was driving drunk and crashed into the side of a house, only to claim it was really his dog behind the wheel that night. That last one happened in—you guessed it—Florida.
But this next case of strange criminal behavior actually comes out of Connecticut. In August, police arrested a homeless man who was accused of giving a “Wet Willy” to a four year old boy in a local business’s waiting room. A Wet Willy, for the uninformed, is the act of covering one’s finger in saliva and inserting it into someone’s ear.
Michael Migani, aged 34, was charged with second-degree breach of peace, which carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and maximum of six years jail time, and second-degree reckless endangerment, which likewise carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and six years maximum jail time. As Migani is homeless, a public defender will likely act as his criminal defense.
But the story actually gets stranger. After Migani snuck up on the boy and did the unspeakable to his ear, he ran outside, hopped in his car, and drove off. So, it would seem, there must have been some amount of premeditation on Migani’s part. It’s easy to imagine a crazed stereotype of a homeless person, fidgeting and muttering to themselves, walking by and nonchalantly doing something—well—crazy. The idea of a homeless person with a vehicle runs counter to our perception of the homeless as train hoppers, trash fire starters, or underpass dwellers. But this stereotype is more fictional than not.
According to the U.S. charitable organization Project Home, there were 578,424 people recorded as suffering from homelessness in a single night in January 2014. Sixty nine percent of them were sleeping in sheltered locations, whereas some 31 percent were recorded as sleeping in unsheltered ones. These unsheltered locations include streets, abandoned buildings, and cars.
In that same month of January, 84,291 individuals and 15,143 people in families were reported as being chronically homeless. This figure is an important one. Many of our stereotypes about the homeless come from sightings in large cities, where many individuals with severe, untreated mental illness wind up. These may be a small minority of the homeless population in the United States, however.
To be “chronically homeless” often means a person or family alternates between staying in temporary accommodations, such as discount hotels, shelters, or friends’ houses, and unsheltered locations like their cars. Many of these people work low wage jobs, some of them have criminal records preventing them from upward advancement with an employer. Unfortunately, poverty and crime go together like peanut butter and cheese—before you judge, just try it. It’s delicious.
This vicious cycle that keeps the poor, well—poor, affects people regardless of moral character or merit. This deep inequality has been the subject of national discourse throughout much of American history, and in many ways American income inequality in the first decades of the 21st century mirrors the hardship of working people in the early 1900s.
But here’s the point: Michael Migani is only one person out of thousands who are struggling economically. We have to be careful not to stereotype the poor or homeless as people of questionable moral integrity or sanity. The poverty line is, in many ways, arbitrary. There are more people struggling with money than we may realize, with many of them just above or below the artificial line drawn to distinguish the impoverished from the lowest socioeconomic class.