No population has their human and civil rights so casually and routinely trampled as do homeless Americans.
For decades, cities all over the country have worked to essentially criminalize homelessness, instituting measures that outlaw holding a sign, sleeping, sitting, lying (or weirdly, telling a lie in Orlando) if you live on the street.
Where the law does not mandate outright harassment, police come up with clever work-arounds, like destroying or confiscating tents, blankets and other property in raids of camps. A veteran I talked to, his eye bloody from when some teenagers beat him up to steal 60 cents, said police routinely extracted the poles from his tent and kept them so he couldn’t rebuild it. (Where are all the pissed-off libertarians and conservatives at such flagrant disrespect for private property?)
In the heady ’80s, Reagan slashed federal housing subsidies even as a tough economy threw more and more people out on the street. Instead of resolving itself through the magic of the markets, the homelessness problem increasingly fell to local governments.
“When the federal government created the homelessness crisis, local governments did not have the means of addressing the issue. So they use the police to manage homeless people’s presence,” Jennifer Fredienrich told AlterNet last year. At about the same time, the arrest-happy “broken windows theory,” which encourages law enforcement to bust people for “quality of life” crimes, offered ideological support for finding novel ways to legally harass people on the street.
Many of the policies end up being wildly counterproductive: a criminal record bars people from the very programs designed to get them off the street, while defending unconstitutional measures in court ends up costing cities money that could be used to fund homeless services.
Here is an incomplete list of laws, ordinances and law enforcement and government tactics that violate homeless people’s civil liberties.
1. Outlawing sitting down. People are allowed to exist in public, but sometimes the homeless make that civic rule inconvenient, like when their presence perturbs tourists or slows the spread of gentrification. One solution to this problem is the “sit-lie” law, a bizarrely authoritarian measure that bans sitting or resting in a public space. The law is clearly designed to empower police to chase homeless people out of nice neighborhoods, rather than protect cities from the blight of public sidewalk-sitting.
Cities around the country have passed ordinances of varying awfulness: some limit resting in certain areas during certain times of the day, while progressive bastion San Francisco voted in November 2010 to outlaw sitting or laying down on any city sidewalk. The measure was bankrolled by some of the richest people in the city, who poured so much money into the campaign that homelessness advocates were outmatched $280,000 to $7,802, reported SF Gate. (After the measure passed, Chris Roberts of the SF Appeal found that support for the law was strongest in the richer parts of the city with the fewest homeless.)
Supporters of sit-lie claim the law helps police deal with disruptive behavior like harassment and public drunkenness, and that getting people off the street will get them into shelters. Homelessness advocates counter that the disruptive behaviors associated with some homeless people are already against the law.
2. Denying people access to shelters. In November the Bloomberg administration tried to institute new rules that would force shelters to deny applicants who failed to prove they had no other housing options, like staying with relatives or friends (NYC’s overcrowded shelters being so appealing that people with access to housing are desperate to sneak in).
A State Supreme Court judge struck down the new measure in February, admonishing the mayor’s office for rushing through the plan without adequate public vetting. (Critics also argued the new rules would conflict with a New York consent decree that guarantees shelter to all homeless adults who ask for it.) Not easily discouraged from making the lives of poor people harder, Bloomberg fumed, “We’re going to do everything we can to have the ability to do it … Or let the judges explain to the public why they think that you should just have a right to walk in and say, ‘Whether I need services or not, you give it to me.’ I don’t think that’s what this country’s all about.”
Homeless families are not covered under the 1981 decree that guarantees shelter space to homeless single adults, so they’ve had to prove need to get a space at a shelter for years. The results have not been great. A report prepared by the New York city council cited a study showing that many homeless families who are turned away often end up reapplying, suggesting that their needs were not accurately assessed — and that they likely ended up sleeping on the street or in subways. NBC New York recently profiled a mother and two kids (6 and 10), who were sleeping in Penn Station after being turned away from the shelter three times.
In 2010 Bloomberg also tried to institute a policy charging homeless families rent if at least one member worked, at a rate that would have forced a family making $25,000 to pay $946 a month. (After major protest by homelessness advocates the policy changed so instead of flowing to the city the money would be funneled into savings accounts used to help families find housing.)
Patrick Markee, senior analyst for Coalition for the Homeless, tells AlterNet that the bigger problem is the Bloomberg administration’s ideologically driven policy to limit access to federal housing programs. In 2005 Bloomberg replaced federal housing subsidies with temporary assistance programs like Advantage, which subsidized housing for a limited time and only if at least one member of a family is employed. Rocky from the start, Advantage was killed in 2011 when the state withdrew funds.
A 2011 study by the Coalition for the Homeless found that the rate of homeless families in New York had exploded to a record 113, 533 people — 42,888 of them children — sleeping in shelters.
3. Making it illegal to give people food. Two weeks ago, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter announced a citywide ban on giving food to the hungry in public parks. Amidst outcry by homelessness advocates and religious and charity groups, Nutter insisted the policy is meant to draw unhoused people to indoor facilities where they might benefit from medical care and mental health services. Critics pointed out that the policy — rushed to go into effect in 29 days — may have more to do with planned renovation of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the construction of a new museum, as Isaiah Thompson reported in the Philadelphia City Paper.
Public feeding bans are not new, and they continue to crop up despite being routinely overturned by the courts. The city of Orlando, for one, is committed to wiping out the scourge of public food donation, embroiling itself in a five-year battle with Food Not Bombs that has cost the city more than $150,000.
A 2006 statute forced charity groups in Orlando to obtain special permits, only two of which were issued per year, and punished feeding more than 25 people with 60 days in jail or a $500 fine. A federal judge overturned the law in 2010, citing a litany of constitutional rights breached by the measure: freedom of speech, freedom of religion (one of the plaintiffs was a religious organization), freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. “Rather than address the problem of homelessness in these downtown neighborhoods directly, the City has instead decided to limit the expressive activity which attracts the homeless to these neighborhoods,” the judge said in his ruling.
Orlando officials took up the case again, pushing it further and further up the courts, until a panel of judges finally voted in favor of the city in 2010. The law got worldwide attention when Food Not Bombs activists continued to feed the hungry. Twelve people were arrested and Orlando’s mayor unhelpfully deemed the group “food terrorists,” reported the Florida Independent. “Why is it that in certain US cities feeding pigeons is OK, but giving a homeless child a handout is a $2,000 fine,” the National Coalition for the Homeless asked in a 2010 report on food bans (Dallas can fine churches $2,000 for distributing food in certain areas).
4. Installing obstacles to prevent sleeping or sitting. Many cities have invested in their homeless torture infrastructure, spending thousands to install obstacles preventing the homeless from sleeping, standing, or sitting in parks, under bridges and next to public transportation.
The city of Minneapolis installed “bridge rods” — pyramid structures meant to keep the homeless from sleeping under bridges. It hasn’t worked — apparently it helps people store their stuff — but the effort costs the city $10,000 a year. Benches in Honolulu bus stops were swapped out for round, concrete stools, according to a roundup of anti-homeless laws by Coalition for the Homeless.
Sarasota, Florida just got rid of all the benches in its city parks. The city also instituted a smoking ban in conjunction with the bench removal, citing it as another way to repel the homeless who gathered in the area. The city later expanded the ban to public spaces throughout the city, but an exception was eventually carved out for a city-owned golf course (for totally mysterious reasons).
Manteca, California changed the sprinkler schedule from day to night in order to water any homeless who tried to sleep in a local park.
5. Anti-panhandling laws. Standing on the street and saying something like, “Occupy Wall Street!” or “Do you have a dollar?” — clearly falls under constitutionally protected free speech. Still, cities all over the country enforce strict anti-panhandling laws that make it illegal to ask for money, food or anything else of value around tourist attractions, and in some cases city-wide. A 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless found that 47 percent of cities surveyed had some form of measure prohibiting begging in some public spaces, while 23 percent forbid it anywhere in the city.
There are already laws on the books against aggressive panhandling — Rudy Giuliani deftly exploited them to purge homeless people from Manhattan in the 1990s — so arguments that panhandling laws are required to protect tourists from mistreatment at the hands of the city’s homeless fall flat. Many panhandling laws protect against such threatening behavior as asking for money next to a bus stop, public bathroom, train station, taxi stand, on public transportation, or after dark. In Orlando, a city ordinance forbids telling a lie or “misleading” when asking for money. A St. Petersburg ordinance proposed in 2011 — that ended up being shelved — would have banned misleading signs.
Fines for panhandling can go into the hundreds of dollars and months of jail time.
6. Anti-panhandling laws to punish people who give. Some cities are so eager to spare their citizens the horrors of panhandling they’ve instituted laws protecting them from themselves. In 2010 Oakland Park, Florida, made it illegal to give money to panhandlers. The Los Angeles Times reported:
Under the ordinance initially passed last month, anyone who responds to a beggar with money or any “article of value” or buys flowers or a newspaper from someone on the street would face a fine of $50 to $100 and as many as 90 days in jail. “You’re going to put someone in jail for giving someone a coat when it’s cold or a hamburger if they’re hungry?” City Commissioner Suzanne Boisvenue said Wednesday. “For me, it’s so wrong.” She cast the only “no” vote at the March meeting.
7. Feeding panhandling meters instead of panhandlers. Cities across the country have launched programs that encourage people to feed “panhandling meters” with change rather than give directly to the homeless. The bulk of the cash goes to homeless charities. While many homeless advocates applaud the giving sentiment behind the meters, they also point out that the machines can make the issue abstract and easier to detach from emotionally. As the National Coalition for the Homeless says on their blog, “Donations to service organizations are always encouraged, but we should never let these meters discourage acknowledging those who ask for money are fellow human beings. Just as ignoring the issue of homelessness will not help end it, ignoring the people directly affected by homelessness will not help them help themselves.”
For many homeless people, a conversation of a few minutes helps ward off loneliness. Francine Triplett, a middle-aged woman who ended up on the streets after escaping domestic abuse, toured the country a few years back as part of a panel raising awareness about homelessness. Triplett said the worst part for her was not being hungry or cold, but being treated like she didn’t exist. People walking by “treated us like we was a big old bag of trash,” she told the Philadelphia Weekly Press. “All I wanted was conversation. I didn’t want food,” she recently said during National Poverty Awareness Week according to the Weekly Press.
8. Selective enforcement of laws like jaywalking and loitering. Many laws that apply to all citizens, like loitering or jaywalking, end up being selectively enforced against homeless people or based on race. A UCLA report on LA’s efforts to clean up Skid Row found that the 50 extra officers assigned would cost $6 million — more than the $5.7 million the city allocated for homeless services. Their favored method was going after people for infractions like jaywalking, which do not get strictly enforced against the general population. Defendants in many cities have sued police departments for discrimination in selectively enforcing the law.
9. Destroying possessions of the homeless. Police regularly conduct sweeps of homeless encampments, destroying or confiscating tents, blankets and other private property, including medications and documents, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The destruction of property caused by law enforcement raids clearly violate constitutional protections against search and seizure without due process, but most cities continue to rely on the tactic to clear out public areas (a strategy that could come into play in crushing the Occupy camps). Here’s how a homelessness advocate described a Dallas raid in Pegasus News:
… a Crisis Intervention team from the City of Dallas (now part of the Dallas Police Department) raided the homeless camps under a bridge. All of the personal possessions of the camp inhabitants — clothing, blankets, coats, years worth of belongings — were shoveled up by two bulldozers, and four to five loads comprising the contents of the “cardboard community” were dumped into city trucks and taken to the landfill.
In 2008, following five sweeps one right after the other, police in Port Charlotte, Florida rounded up the people from the camp, making them take a “Homeless Class of 2008 photo.
Residents of homeless shelters also have their property rights routinely trampled by police.
10. Kicking homeless kids out of school. Unsurprisingly, good educational opportunities are not bountiful for homeless children. The country’s estimated 1.35 million homeless youth face a number of obstacles to regular schooling, ranging from residency requirements that are tough to meet when a family is transient to a lack of immunization records. According to a Department of Education report, 87 percent of homeless kids were enrolled in school in 2000; only 77 percent attended regularly.
These difficulties were highlighted in a 2011 case in which a homeless Connecticut woman used her babysitter’s address to enroll her child in a public school in the area. Her efforts to provide her kid with an education earned her a first-degree larceny charge. The babysitter who helped was evicted from her public housing complex.
There are municipalities that do not mutiliate the Constitution to address the problems associated with homelessness. In Daytona Beach, service providers and business groups banded together to lower rates of panhandling with a program that hires homeless people to clean up downtown areas. In exchange, they received transitional housing. Portland, Oregon’s “A Key Not a Card” program allows outreach workers to set up homeless with permanent housing. These efforts are driven by the fact (shown in multiple studies) that housing, which lowers rates of hospitalizations and arrests, ends up being way cheaper for cities.