Piper Hoffman

Rock the Boat
Editor’s Pick
APRIL 21, 2012 8:01PM

Prejudice Kills a Homeless Woman

Rate: 14 Flag

Originally published on Care2.

The national tendency to blame the homeless for their plight collided with the war on drugs to kill an innocent woman near St. Louis last September. 29-year-old Anna Brown, a homeless mother of two, went to the hospital seeking treatment for a sprained ankle and leg pain. After doctors dismissed her complaints and she refused to leave without treatment, Richmond Heights, Missouri police arrested and jailed her for trespassing at the hospital. Fifteen minutes later, she was dead of a blood clot that originated in her painful leg and traveled to her lungs.

Assuming that she was trying to scam drugs from the hospital, the police treated Ms. Brown like a criminal. They hoisted her from their car into the police station because the pain in her legs prevented her from walking. When they put her in the jail cell where she would die, they laid her on the concrete floor — right between two empty beds. Her ordeal from the hospital to the police car to the jail cell was captured on surveillance videos.

Ms. Brown was not a drug addict: according to the International Business Times, the autopsy revealed that she had no drugs in her system when she sought medical help.

Ms. Brown was also not lazy or a freeloader. She and her two children lost their home to a tornado, according to The Washington Post. Then Ms. Brown lost her job. Poverty eroded her family’s standard of living to the point that the government placed her children with Ms. Brown’s mother, and Ms. Brown herself became homeless.

Anna Brown represents a significant portion of our country’s homeless population: families that include adults willing to work but unable to find jobs that pay enough to support them and their children. Families with children are 41% of the homeless population. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “declining wages have put housing out of reach for many families.” Even families with working parents can’t always afford housing.

Under fire for Ms. Brown’s death, the local police protest that they deferred to medical professionals’ determination that Ms. Brown was healthy enough to be arrested and jailed. The medical professionals who made that determination protest that in some cases blood clots cannot be detected and that Ms. Brown did not appear to have any, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. No one seems to have explained why they did not treat the visible swelling in Ms. Brown’s ankle, which corroborated her complaints of pain.

But this was not a case of a poor person being denied any medical care. The Washington Post reported that medical professionals examined Ms. Brown and performed ultrasounds on both of her legs.

It is the hospital’s refusal to take her complaints of pain seriously and the police officers’ willingness to arrest her for trespassing at the hospital, both based on the assumption that she was an addict seeking drugs, that reflect common assumptions about poor people and that led directly to her death. As Ms. Brown’s sister Krystle said, “My sister is not here today because people passed judgment.”

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The writer Jean Genet said that America is the only country that hates its poor. This would seem to be true in so far as they are not allowed to make a nuisance of themselves by daring to have health problems and actually expecting treatment for them. It's much easier to write people off and assume that whatever happened to them is their fault; i.e., they're addicted to drugs. She couldn't even have died on a bed rather than the floor in a jail cell?
This is so sad, but what I don't understand is why she didn't also join her children at her own Mother's house? What Mother wouldn't take in her own adult child if necessary?
In October of 1997, my mother and I were out raking leaves in her backyard. We waved at the neighbors behind us; they scowled and snatched their coffees from the picnic table and stalked inside. Mom and I looked at each other and shrugged. Mom had just begun to regow hair after chemo -- had a nice grey buzz cut at the time as I recall. Seven months later she was dead. When a visiting aunt caught the eye of the same neighbors as we were cleaning out the house, they inquired as to the goings-on. My aunt later related that they had been quite surprised. "Oh!" they said, relieved. "We thought there were two gay women living there."

Yep. Thank God. It was only cancer... Will our prejudices never end?
@I Love Life: the government wouldn't allow Anna Brown to live in the same house with her children because it had deemed her an unfit mother.
This is a hideously tragic story. My heart breaks for that woman and her children, and for the rest of us who make snap assumptions and judgments based on appearances.
Wow. Very moving article. So sad. This line was heinous: "Oh!" they said, relieved. "We thought there were two gay women living there." So ridiculous. Relieved that it had "only" been cancer. Sheesh!
Grotesque. What a cruel society we've become. Where is the humanity?
Hey...way to get an editor's pick. Neither a result of prejudice nor a result of the war on drugs...but a sad story all the same.
Our thoughts are revealed in our actions or lack of action. A sad reminder of how our individual prejudices impact those we prejudice against.