Homelessness is a complex, daunting problem, and cities all over America seem determined to resolve it with a simple strategy: abusing homeless people until they go away.
Local governments have come up with a myriad of Constitution-trampling ways to clear out their homeless populations, from sit/lie bans that can land people in jail for sitting down in public, to anti-panhandling measures that empower police to bust people for speaking or holding a sign while being poor. Cops also routinely use anti-loitering and jaywalking laws to hassle the homeless.
The arguments in favor of criminalization tend to go something like this: “We don’t want to treat the homeless like subhumans with no rights but an anonymous tourist once complained about them and no tourists will come to our city again!” Or, local merchants have had enough, or some nice lady and her baby were subjected to the horror of having a poor person say a bad word while asking for change.
While it’s true that mental instability and/or substance problems make some homeless people tough to deal with, there are already laws on the books covering aggressive behavior. Advocates of harsh laws and police crackdowns on the homeless also ignore the fact that criminalization is both less effective and more expensive than investing in assistance programs. A 2004 study found that funding supportive housing costs anywhere from half to a third of what it costs to put people in jail. Programs like Seattle’s Housing First, which offered supportive housing to homeless alcoholics, have been found to substantially cut down the city’s costs, since the most expensive place for unhoused people to end up is in jail or in the hospital.
Still, with a few exceptions, the default solution for many cities around the country is to come up with endlessly creative ways to punish the homeless for being homeless. Here are 5 examples from just the past few months.
1. Go to Jail for … Sleeping?
In July the Tampa, Fla., City Council decided it did not want the homeless bedding down in the city’s parks or on the street, voting 4-3 to ban sleeping or storing stuff in public. Any sleep criminals apprehended by police will be given the option of going to a shelter or to jail. One potential problem with the plan is that Tampa’s shelters are closed during the day and have long waiting lists, since the city has some of the highest rates of homelessness among mid-size cities.
As Think Progress reported, some elementary school kids protesting the measure at the hearing handed out fliers asking the good question, “Where will they go?” A homeless man who testified pointed out that the homeless were not homeless just to ruin your day, but because a terrible economy is forcing more people than ever into the street in many cities.
A lot of people automatically assume that if one’s homeless they’re either an alcoholic or a drug addict or if you simply speak to them, they’re trying to panhandle. And for some people, that’s not the case. From the statistics I found, 18 million people are a paycheck away from being homeless. So, anybody from a CEO to a janitor, in the blink of an eye could lose it all. So, my thing is this—I understand about the parking thing, people don’t feel safe, but I believe if a person is acting in a civil manner, keeping to themselves, being a law-abiding citizen, not violating anybody, being peaceful, that they shouldn’t be criminalized for that.
An amended version of the ordinance said a person could not be arrested if there were no shelter beds available, but still: Why not spend a bit more on beds or on improving existing shelters so people don’t have to worry about getting stabbed or having all their stuff stolen, especially given how much more expensive it is to throw people in jail for … sleeping?
2. Feed a hungry person, go to jail?
How should thoughtful governments deal with the moral monsters subverting the social contract by giving hungry people food? In Raleigh, N.C., police officers recently threatened to arrest members of a church group that distributes hot coffee and breakfast sandwiches to the city’s homeless. According to the website of Love Wins Ministries, the group has been handing out hot food for six years without incident, but on Aug. 24, Raleigh police approached them and threatened them with arrest if they fed the crowd of hungry people.
“We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested,” wrote Hugh Hollowell on the group’s website.
Fortunately, all they have to do to continue their mission is to apply for a park permit, which costs $800, adding up to a mere $1,600 every weekend. Except not really even that: “the officer we spoke to said the City likely wouldn’t approve it anyway,” wrote Hollowell.
Many cities have bans on feeding the homeless in parks and other public spaces. In 2011 several members of the charity group Food Not Bombs were arrested for feeding people, despite an earlier court ruling that the city’s feed ban managed to knock out at least four different constitutional rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
3. “The Retreat”
Last month the town of Columbia, S.C., tried to dispense with constitutional niceties altogether and basically institute martial law against their homeless population. In August, the Columbia City Council passed the Emergency Homeless Response, a measure that essentially banned homeless people from downtown. Here’s how it would have been enforced: Police would have patrolled the area and a special hotline would allow residents to report any homeless in the area. An earlier measure by Council member Cameron Runyan would have shipped homeless people to a shelter outside of town called “the Retreat” that they could not leave without setting up a special appointment and being driven away in a van. As Scott Keyes wrote in Think Progress,“In other words, the 1,518 homeless people in the Columbia-area now have a choice: get arrested downtown or be confined to a far-away shelter that you can’t readily leave. Jail or pseudo-jail.”
Runyon told the New York Times that the plan gave the homeless three options — “accept help at a shelter, go to jail, or leave Columbia.”
After a major backlash, including criticism by police officers who did not think their job was to round up and disappear the homeless, the council reversed its decision (there was a lot of confusion surrounding the initial vote, with some council members claiming they’d never voted for a law that would confine the homeless to “the Retreat”). Still, the strict anti-panhandling and anti-loitering parts of the law remain in place, so it won’t be too hard to bust the homeless anyway. According to the Free Times, Police Chief Ruben Santiago noted that police patrols had increased in the downtown area in the past two months, “with around 11 or 12 officers patrolling the area at any given time.”
4. Dropping them off far away
Instituting a law that forcibly removes the homeless didn’t work out so well for South Carolina. A more effective approach is to just to do it illegally and hope no one will notice. In April, the ACLU revealed that Detroit police were pulling homeless people off the street and just dropping them off miles and miles away.
“DPD’s practice of essentially kidnapping homeless people and abandoning them miles away from the neighborhoods they know – with no means for a safe return — is inhumane, callous and illegal,” ACLU Michigan staff attorney Sarah Mehta told CBS local. “The city’s desire to hide painful reminders of our economic struggles cannot justify discriminating against the poor, banishing them from their city, and endangering their lives. A person who has lost his home has not lost his right to be treated with dignity.”
Andrew Sheehan, 37, told the ACLU that he’d been picked up by police several times. Once, officers told him they were going to take him to a shelter, but instead they dropped him off eight miles away. A 54-year-old man claims police forced him to throw out the money in his pockets and then drove him to another part of town. Marvin S. told the ACLU that police handcuffed him, refused to tell him why he’d been detained, and dumped him 14 miles outside of Downtown Detroit near the “World’s Largest Tire” highway attraction. (The police chief said he’d “look into” the accusations, reports CBS local.)
In Albany, California, there are some homeless people in the way of a planned expansion of a state park, so the city is leveling their encampment and evicting them. The long-standing camp, whose residents have built homes from tarp and concrete blocks, will be destroyed in October, reports the San Jose Mercury News.
Stephanie Ringstad, who’s lived there for five years, told the San Jose Mercury News,
“I think they should let us remain out here. We’re not bothering anyone.” If forced out, “we wouldn’t know what to do,” Ringstad said. “We’re as ingrained as a family.”