Over the last few months it seems as though there has been an increase of news articles about communities that are placing some types of bans on homeless activities. Some of communities are even placing bans and restrictions on “regular” folks feeding the homeless in public places.
Most homeless advocates refer to these types of legislative practices as “criminalizing the homeless.” Community politicians and officials, on the other hand, are quick to counter that they are not criminalizing homelessness, but are just trying to keep the peace.
Regardless of how it’s labeled, the end result is ultimately the same: it punishes a segment of a community’s local population for not having a place to call home.
In the time I’ve been authoring this blog, I have read who knows how many articles about communities criminalizing homelessness. Everything from banning where a person can sit; how long they can sit on any one particular public bench; when, where or even if someone may panhandle; bans on sleeping in public places; prohibitions against the setting up of homeless encampments and so forth. In some cities, there are ordinances which regulate what hours of the day or night the homeless are allowed sleep in public areas.
Even more deplorable – there are cities that have enacted ordinances which criminalize “regular” folks for feeding the homeless in public places without obtaining a permit from the city. Some have outlawed it altogether.
How ridiculous is that? Telling folks it’s illegal to do something compassionate for their fellow man.
And, of course, the argument from local officials is always the same: health and safety concerns.
Call me simple, but if these politicians and bureaucrats were really all that concerned about the health and safety of their local citizenry, they would strive to find viable programs to help the homeless become housed members of their respective communities – and not just engage in warehousing them in homeless shelters.
What chafes me the most, however, is the predictability of the outcomes when a local government first proposes the banning of homeless activities. The storyline is always the same.
First, some person(s) or business owner(s) complain about the presence of the homeless.
Next, one or more members of the local governing body “determine” that something needs to be done to “address” the issue and a proposed ordinance is “put on the table.”
After that comes the legislative pantomime: hearings are scheduled and the public is invited to give their opinions regarding the issue. In some cases, the local government may postpone voting on the ordinance, citing the need to further study the situation. But in the end, and almost invariably, the ordinance is adopted – and in certain instances, it is passed with an even more stringent set of restrictions than originally proposed.
The entire procedure is nothing more than political theatre. It is meant to give the illusion that local officials are addressing and solving homelessness. However, other than maintaining the status quo and covering their own political butts, all they’ve actually done is push homelessness further into the shadows of society with an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality.
The downside of this superficial and immoral approach to homelessness is that over time the numbers of homeless increase. And then, homelessness becomes visible once again. At which time, the whole demented procedure of enacting more ordinances to criminalize homelessness begins anew.
I’m not sure if politicians are naïve or just being willfully ignorant. But, one would think they would recognize that since criminalizing homelessness did nothing to reduce the numbers of homeless in their communities in the past, it will not work in the future.
With record numbers of Americans living in poverty, it is safe to conclude that some of them may end up becoming homeless. How many is anyone’s guess. But lately, many cities across the nation have been reporting sharp increases in homelessness.
Once these folks become homeless however, not only will they have lost a place to call home, they will have also lost something more fundamental: certain freedoms.
They will not be free to sit, lay or sleep. They may be denied the freedom of having acts of kindness offered to them by other members of their communities. And so on.
In exchange, rather than being viewed as members of their respective communities who are undergoing rough times, they will be treated like criminals and outcasts.
And that is to the shame of us all.
What does criminalizing homelessness accomplish?
Not a damn thing – at least nothing that we, as a nation, should be proud of.