Cities vary in their responses to the needs of their homeless populations. Some are very mean indeed as the numbers of homeless people continue to rise. Take Sarasota, Fla. After state courts overturned two successive anti-lodging laws as applied to public spaces, the city persisted and this past summer passed a third ordinance that makes it a crime to sleep without permission on city property. One requirement for arrest under this new statute is that a homeless person, on being awakened by police, state that he or she has no other place to live.
Sarasota tops the list of the 20 meanest cities in a new report by two advocacy groups that have carefully documented a dark phenomenon affecting the growing homeless populationnamely, making homelessness a crime. Released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, the report is called A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. It tracks a trend toward criminalizing such activities as sitting, eating or sleeping in public spaces by making them violations of local ordinances. And violations of this kind may in turn lead to a criminal record, which makes it still more difficult for homeless people to find employment or housing. Since a large percentage of the homeless are mentally ill, these criminalizing measures take on an extra edge of cruelty. And yet, one nine-city survey notes that the cost of holding a person in jail can be three times the cost of supportive housing.
Statutes in some cities even go so far as to restrict charitable organizations from providing food to poor people in public spaces, with threats of fines up to $2,000. Many groups that perform this ministry are church related and view their work as a concrete response to the biblical call to feed the hungry. Fortunately, as the report notes, in a number of localities courts have found restrictions on feedings an unconstitutional burden on religious expression. Thus Atlanta, which ranks fourth on the list of meanest cities, was forced to rescind its anti-food-serving measure after it was challenged by a local advocacy group.
But others of Atlanta’s onerous restrictions remain, especially in the so-called tourist triangle. A bill passed in August, for example, makes begging illegal therean area, ironically, near the Martin Luther King Center, where King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, were buried. This ban, a common type, raises freedom of speech issues that have prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to initiate a lawsuit. Nationwide, there has been a 12-percent increase in ordinances that prohibit begging in public places. More neutral prohibitions, like those against loitering, are selectively enforced.
Also high on the list of mean cities is Lawrence, Kan. Downtown business leaders urged the city council to pass ordinances targeting homeless persons, and the city responded with a number of civility ordinances, including one that restricts sitting on sidewalks. Bus stations, too, in some localities, draw negative police activity. In Little Rock, Ark., homeless people have reported being ejected from bus stations even after showing officers their valid bus tickets.
Happily, other localities have taken a more positive approach in dealing with their homeless populations, using what the report calls constructive alternatives to criminalization. Among them is Broward County, Fla. There, the nonprofit Task Force for Ending Homelessness has partnered with the Fort Lauderdale police to form outreach teams composed of police officers and civil partners. The teams’ role is to inform chronically homeless individuals of available social services, encouraging them to make use of these services. It is understood that frequent return visits may be needed before sufficient trust between homeless persons and team members can be established. The teams also partner with local shelters to ensure access to available beds. Since the program began five years ago, it is estimated that there have been 2,400 fewer arrests annually. Similarly positive approaches have been taken in San Diego, Calif., and in Washington, D.C., as well as in several cities in Pennsylvania.
Instead of criminalizing homelessness, greater efforts should be made nationwide to help people move out of this condition, orbetter yetto help them avoid falling into it in the first place. Among the ways to do this would be increasing the supply of transitional and low income housing, making substance abuse and mental health treatment programs more available and raising minimum wage levels throughout the country. Efforts in these directions would address the main causes of homelessness. The current budget cuts in programs that help the poor, along with the proliferation of ordinances that criminalize homeless people, are the wrong way to go.