The “Meanest Cities” Report

Posted: July 16, 2009 in Bureauacracy, Civil Rights, Discrimination, Government, Homelessness, Housing, Politics

In case you missed it, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) jointly released a 194 page report: Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities a few days ago.

The report made headlines nationally because it rated U.S. cities based on their "legal" approaches toward homelessness (i.e. – laws and ordinances which "criminalize homelessness").  

According to the report the top 10 "meanest cities" were:

  1. Los Angeles, CA
  2. St. Petersburg. FL
  3. Orlando, FL
  4. Atlanta, GA
  5. Gainesville, FL
  6. Kalamazoo, MI
  7. San Francisco, CA
  8. Honolulu, HI
  9. Bradenton, FL
  10. Berkeley, CA

What I found interesting about the various headlines from around the country was how most cities were quick to point out the Los Angeles, CA was number one on the list – especially if their cities were somewhere down the list.

It seemed like a type of "at least we’re not as mean as Los Angeles" feeding frenzy which was taking place.

The report also made the blogosphere, with a number of bloggers "stepping up to the plate" to defend their city. Some felt that their cities had been unfairly targeted by the report. Some even went so far as to point out that the report seemed to make no mention of the "advances" which had been made to help their local homeless.

And of course, there were those who tried to denounce the report as being a bit one-sided or instigative – particularly from those cities which made the "top 10."

According to one article from Reuters,

"A spokesman for [Los Angeles] Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued a statement dismissing the report as ‘short-sighted and misleading.’"

The bottom line is this: the report is what it asserts itself to be – a list of cities which utilize ordinances that inflict punitive measures against the homeless for performing life sustaining activities in public.

According to the NLCHP’s press release,

"The national ranking is based on a number of factors, including the number of anti-homeless laws in the city, the enforcement of those laws, the general political climate toward homeless people in the city, and the city’s history of criminalization measures.

The report recommends that cities adopt constructive measures, such as developing innovative strategies to allocate more city funds for permanent housing, job training and services for homeless people. In addition, NLCHP and NCH recommend that the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, recently charged by Congress with developing such alternatives, urge cities to stop criminalizing homelessness and adopt such constructive measures instead."

Personally, I do not believe that creating and adopting laws and ordinances which penalize the homeless for engaging activities such as loitering, sleeping in public – or even panhandling – when they have no other alternative, provides a solution for ending homelessness.

On the other hand, I recognize every city needs to maintain public order. Which makes it understandable how such laws and ordinances might be viewed as a reasonable way to do so – despite evidence to the contrary.

It’s not my place to legitimatize or condemn the conclusions of the NLCHP report.

However, both, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless have been around since the 1980’s. In addition, they have been instrumental in working toward raising public awareness with regards to homelessness – as well as advocating for the humane and equitable treatment of our nation’s homeless citizens.

To me, that’s a good thing.

As a result, to summarily dismiss their opinions simply because it may ruffle a few feathers may not be the wisest course of action.

Instead, we should view it as an opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue – one which ultimately leads to finding practical and effective means for ending homelessness in our nation.

The reality is this: homelessness is a complex social issue. There are no quick or easy fixes.

Although homeless shelters provide at least temporary shelter, the only genuine way to end homelessness is to help the homeless become permanently housed.

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