A photo of Gerald Anderson sitting in Street Sense's newsroom.
Gerald Anderson is an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media. Photo by Will Schick

Gerald Anderson will never forget the first time he ever stole something. It was sometime in the late 1970s in New Orleans, La. And 10 or 11 year old Anderson was swimming in an oversized t-shirt his older brother lent him, nervous that someone would catch him. Moving aisle by aisle in a local convenience store with his sister, he sorted through his list of sundries: a packet of Ritz crackers, a bag of Dickey’s potato chips, a cold pineapple drink, some Colgate-branded toothpaste for sensitive teeth and an Almond Joy bar.

But once he stepped out of the safety of the fluorescent lights of Danny’s Supermarket, a neighborhood store located in the third ward of New Orleans, he drew the immediate suspicion of a woman making her way in.

“She said, ‘Why ya’ll ain’t got a bag?’ I said, ‘Because there’s two of us, and we can carry it,'” Anderson said.

Like a punctured soda bottle, his sister started spilling a confession.

“She was so scared. She said, ‘Yeah, we stole it,’ and then we had to put it all back,” Anderson said.

The woman was Mrs. Burke, who knew Anderson and his family. Once she saw him, she instinctively knew something was wrong. The child was not at school and he was fumbling with what looked like an unlikely list of groceries. Upon hearing their confession, Anderson said, she gave them both an on-the-spot “whooping” and left it there.

It wouldn’t be the last time Anderson would be caught stealing, though he had not meant any harm. His motivation was different from that of well-to-do teenagers looking for some quick excitement. Anderson was sent to the store by his older brother, armed with a grocery list. Only, he had no money. He was expected to procure the items on the list without paying for them. And for a long time in Anderson’s life, this was how he went about getting the things he needed.

Soon after this incident, Anderson left home to avoid burdening his family, especially his mother, who cared for her eight children independently. Growing up, he had never known his father. Sometimes Anderson slept in abandoned cars, back alleys and gas stations. And whenever he needed something, he stole it. Over time, Anderson turned to much more severe crimes. Eventually, the police would catch him and send him to prison.

A number of academic studies have documented the connection between crime and poverty. The Office of Planning and Research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development explicitly links crime and poverty, noting that “numerous studies have shown that neighborhoods with a higher poverty rate tend to have a higher crime rate.”

In 2020, people making less than $20,000 per year were twice as likely to report being victims of a crime as people making over $50,000 per year. And they are three times as likely to report being a victim of a crime as people making over $100,000 per year.

The U.S. Census Bureau tracks poverty by measuring a household’s income level. Households of four making less than $26,500 are considered to be living below the poverty line. The latest American Community Survey published in 2020 found close to 13% of residents living below the poverty level in the United States.

The historical context of crime in the U.S.

Dr. Bethany Young, deputy director of DC Justice Lab, a think tank advocating for criminal justice reform in Washington, D.C., said that in order to understand crime in the U.S. one must look at history.

Young, an attorney with a Ph.D. in sociology, says the Great Migration of the early 20th century is one of the most important events to study when it comes to examining the progression of crime in the U.S.

During The Great Migration, millions of Black Americans fled the violence of the American south for economic opportunities in cities like New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

“We had Black families fleeing racial terror and the south and coming to northern cities where they imagined there were better economic opportunities for them. And not just economic opportunities, but safety and the ability to have their families and their children be safe and unmolested by the agents of racial terror,” Young said.

But as these families settled down in northern cities, they soon learned that the north wasn’t exactly what they had imagined.

“Instead of finding this paid, skilled labor and better opportunities, they were met with a different kind of shut out. They were shut out of skilled trades, out of unions and blocked from living in certain communities and neighborhoods and from buying homes. They’re economically blocked,” Young said.

By isolating communities from economic opportunities and concentrating them in geographic areas, racist policies such as redlining, segregation and housing discrimination contributed to developing another phenomenon.

“People have to survive. And so, they do what it takes to survive. And for many people, that has meant, ‘If I can’t find a way to get food or shelter or clothes for my family, I have to do that by whatever means I have available to me.’ And that has meant many people doing things that we have decided as a society are crimes,” Young said.

It’s impossible to discuss the link between poverty and crime without discussing race. According to the latest American Community Survey, Black, Indigenous and people of color are disproportionately impacted by poverty and experience it at higher rates than people who are white.

While around 11% of people who identify as white live below the federal poverty level. But for people identifying as Black, the number is twice as high.

The same kind of racial disparity is reflected in crime statistics. While Black people only comprise approximately 13% of the U.S. population, they account for nearly a third of all arrests for non-violent crimes. Meanwhile, though white people account for about 60% of the U.S. population, they only comprise about 46% of arrests for non-violent crimes in the country. While these statistics are not necessarily based on the number of crimes committed by a specific group but instead on arrests, they show a troublesome issue.

Gerald Anderson stands next to the entrance of the Chinatown/Gallery Place Metro, across the street from the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Photo by Will Schick.

An unlikely encounter

Growing up, Anderson never spent very much time with his father. In prison, he woke up every morning next to him.

At some point between 1986 and 1987, Anderson was arrested for armed robbery. He had been running scams on tourists looking to buy weed on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. On this occasion, some tourists approached him to ask if he knew of an area where they could acquire drugs. As Anderson named a price, he waited for the victims to pull out their wallets, and then he pulled a gun on them.

After this robbery, Anderson served time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a place he likened to college. For several years, Anderson had been moving between juvenile detention facilities and correctional facilities, places he compared to “kindergarten” and “high school.” Now, Anderson has reached the professional leagues.

Because of its famous brutal conditions, the maximum-security prison is also referred to as the “Alcatraz of the South” and “America’s Bloodiest Prison.” About 85% of its inmates are serving life sentences, the highest percentage of any prison in the country. Built on a former slave plantation site, the prison is also a working farm. While Anderson knew his father was an inmate at the prison, he hadn’t expected to be placed in the same cell with him.

“I didn’t feel very comfortable sleeping in the dormitory next to my dad,” Anderson recalled.

He said that his father was an influential figure in prison and had sway with the prison authorities, who granted his request to be next to his son. Though the two hadn’t spoken with each other in a long time, Anderson learned that his father had kept up with him in different ways.

“He knew about me because a lot of the young cats that go there talk about me because I got a reputation in the street,” he explained.

Like most young people and their parents, Anderson felt desperate to get away from his father and his incessant lecturing. A faithful Christian, his father, had tried to get him involved in religion. But he was not having it.

“Me and a guy got in a fight, and I stabbed the guy up,” Anderson said. “I just used the guy really to get out the yard and go to another side of the yard where I could get out from around my dad.”

Today, Anderson is not sure whether his father is still in prison or not. He says that his father was on a 198-year sentence and has likely served multiple decades for a crime he doesn’t believe he ever committed.

Finding a way out

The link between children following the paths of their parents has been documented in a number of studies. Children are generally three times more likely to follow their parents’ career paths. Since the 1940s, various studies have also drawn this conclusion regarding criminal parents. If your parents are criminals, your chances of becoming one are much higher. A statistical link between families and crime does not mean that a person is biologically predisposed to become a criminal. It is more about the environment in which people live.

Anderson’s father did not play a major role in his childhood, but he grew up looking up to people he describes as “hustlers,” who paved their own paths and found creative ways to earn a living. In Anderson’s neighborhood, people stole or burglarized, or sold drugs. Money was all he ever thought about for a long time.

In 2013, Anderson had just been kicked out of his girlfriend’s house and sleeping at a local shelter after spending some time in prison. He wanted to find a way to make an income but wasn’t sure how to go about it. While Anderson would sell drugs in the past, he was determined to try something different this time. He had plans to publish a book one day about his experience. And then, one day, he had a chance encounter with someone who would change his life.

He walked over to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown D.C. He asked a woman if she knew of any place he could get something to eat. She pointed him in the direction of a few places that provide free meals. But then, just as Anderson turned to walk away, he thought to ask her if she knew of any sites offering jobs.

“She said, ‘Oh, I know how you can make some money,'” Anderson said. “Sell papers.”

At first, the idea struck Anderson as ridiculous.

“What you say? Sell papers? I ain’t no paperboy. I’m a dope boy,” Anderson said.

And then, the woman responded with a line that he has never since forgotten.

“She said, ‘You just don’t know what could come from these papers.”

Gerald Anderson speaks to one of his customers across the street from the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown D.C. Photo by Will Schick

Sometime later, Anderson went back to the shelter. He remembers it was night, and it was snowing. He awoke to a friend shaking him the next morning, gripping a handful of money.

“He said, ‘Man, get up! I got plenty of money!’ And I said ‘Where did you get all that money from?’ and he said, ‘I sold papers,’ and so I said ‘Shit, I got to go sell myself some papers.'”

Soon after, Anderson connected with Street Sense Media. The nonprofit is centered around what is known as a street paper — a publication sold by people experiencing homelessness or living in extreme poverty as a means to make an income.

The business model for a street paper is simple. People who sign up to become vendors purchase papers at wholesale prices and sell them for recommended donations, keeping all the difference for themselves. In addition, many street papers such as Street Sense also provide vendors with an array of case management services and arts workshops.

Reflecting on his life, Anderson said he has no regrets about his criminal history, though he said he would likely have led a different life had he known the results.

Today, he continues to be amazed at the way his life has changed after becoming a newspaper vendor. Aside from the benefit of selling upwards of 100 papers a day (prior to the pandemic), he has forged deep friendships with neighbors and customers –– people he often refers to as family. In 2015, Anderson also accomplished a long-time goal of publishing a memoir with the help of an editor he had met through an arts workshop at Street Sense Media.

“I never thought a piece of paper would change my life,” he said while shaking his head. “A piece of paper.”