Excerpted from: Criminalizing Homelessness Is Not A Solution – Part I
Nashua, New Hampshire; Gainesville, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; St. Petersburg, Florida; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
What do these cities have in common?
… the practice of penalizing the homeless – or those who offer the homeless assistance – and, in essence, criminalize homelessness.
In the previous three posts, I’ve given examples of what I personally consider to be the criminalization of homelessness in our nation.
Some cities have adopted ordinances aimed specifically at the homeless; prohibiting them from performing life-sustaining activities in public without providing the homeless with reasonable alternatives. In other instances, local government have used legislative methods to prevent private individuals and charitable groups from feeding the homeless in public areas, using the threats of fines – and in some cases, even arrest.
To justify their actions, local government officials habitually assert the need for these "laws" for reasons of "public safety." Some officials have been so petty as to claim that these types of ordinances do not specifically target the homeless.
The ordinances do not the words "homeless" or "homelessness."
Yet, the end result is ultimately the same. It is the homeless are who suffer the punitive repercussions of such ordinances.
Although most local governments will not openly admit to it, there is an underlying motive to these types of laws: to get the homeless to move on.
Apparently, the belief is that if life is made difficult enough for the homeless, they will simply move on to some other community. But, the homeless do not move on. They simply relocate to another section of the community. And, the vicious cycle continues.
What I find disturbing is that even among many cities which have adopted or are in the process of adopting 10-year plans to end homelessness, these types of legislative methods are still used to "deal" with homelessness.
This to me seems counter-productive – especially since most of the 10-year plans I’ve read openly acknowledge that these types of ordinances have no impact in ending homelessness. Many of the plans I’ve read even go so far as to admit that criminalizing homelessness is, in fact, more costly than simply providing the homeless with housing.
These ordinances become even more costly to the community when they are challenged in a court of law.
The cost of a city’s having to defend an ordinance, which most of the time is over-turned by the courts as being un-Constitutional, can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Those are taxpayer dollars which could have been used instead to provide housing for the homeless.
Perhaps elected leaders should take the time to actually read their own 10-year plans. After all, these are the guidelines which they have pledged to follow in an effort to end homelessness in their communities.
Earlier this week, I read an article in The Tennessean. It was written by H. Thomas Wells Jr., president of the American Bar Association.
In part, Mr. Wells stated:
"From a policy standpoint, ‘quality of life’ laws that make it difficult for homeless people to sleep or be in downtown city areas force them away from crucial services and outreach. A warrant or conviction under one of these laws can make it more difficult – and sometimes impossible – to obtain employment or housing, further escalating the problem.
Addressing homelessness through the criminal justice system is not a cost-effective answer. According to a Lewin Group study, jail costs were, on average, two to three times the cost of providing supportive housing. This is on top of the added burdens to law enforcement and the courts in processing warrants.
The ABA encourages city officials, law enforcement and lawyers to do their part to decrease homelessness. We need to re-evaluate laws that punish people who are homeless, offer legal services and allocate resources to help people experiencing homelessness get the housing and treatment they need. Taking concerted action will help strengthen our communities rather than tearing them apart and wasting valuable resources."
Every local government has someone who is their "in-house" legal counsel. This person is responsible for ensuring the legality of every ordinance proposed by any member of the community’s governing body.
In light of Mr. Wells’ article, it seems a bit peculiar that so many ordinances which criminalize homelessness aren’t flagged down by a city’s attorney; that they don’t come right out and say to the city’s leaders: "You can’t do that. It violates a person’s Constitutional rights."
Homelessness isn’t a social issue which is easy to remedy.
However, one thing is certain: criminalizing homelessness isn’t the solution.