Recently 10 U.S. cities have passed laws banning the homeless from the city center, forcing them into a punitive suburban shelter or jail or threatening jail to those who feed the homeless. More business-controlled, heartless and backward-thinking municipalities are likely to follow.
The list of homeless-hating cities: Columbia SC, Raleigh NC, Portland OR, Philadelphia PA, Kalamazoo MI, Nevada City, CA and Tampa, Orlando and St. Petersburg FL, while Miami is working on a law to criminalize the homeless.
During the 1990s, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani planned to remove homeless people from shelters if they refused to work. New York City police also started handing out $76 citations to the homeless who “camped in public.”
Los Angeles city officials appropriated homeless people’s property and destroyed it, with no due process, until the courts smacked them silly with a couple of little-known laws called the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
On Aug. 13, the Columbia SC City Council approved a plan
that effectively makes homelessness illegal in parts of the city. It forces those who sleep outdoors downtown to be sent to a small, prison-like shelter on the outskirts of town. Those people who fail to comply are to be rounded up and forced to leave town or sent to the slammer on a range of public nuisance laws.
Jake Maguire, spokesman for Community Solutions’ “100,000 Homes Campaign” said:
It’s basically a choice between two kinds of incarceration. There’s jail and then there’s the shelter. Once you get to the shelter, 15 miles from downtown, you can’t come and go. You are basically brought to a place where you are expected to stay. If you want to go back downtown, you have to get approval for them to shuttle you back.
To make sure the homeless don’t return, a police officer will be stationed on the road leading to the downtown district to keep them away. The plan has major support from Columbia’s business leaders.
In addition to its cruelty, Columbia’s plan is flawed, because it does not address the causes of homelessness, tackle permanent solutions or accurately weigh the economic impacts of shuttling the homeless to shelters, instead of securing permanent housing. On average, permanent supportive housing―which includes an apartment and services like rehabilitation―costs about $16,000-$18,000 a year, whereas keeping a person at a shelter for a year costs $22,000.
Another flaw in Columbia’s plan is its assumption that all unhoused people have the capacity to make rational choices, even if both alternatives stink. For the one-third of homeless people who have untreated mental illnesses, however, there will be no choice—just the nightmare of arrest and jail without understanding why or how to help themselves.
The homeless can avoid arrest only by either fleeing the area (which is exactly what Columbia would like) or by surrendering themselves to an overcrowded shelter guarded by police who ensure they don’t escape on foot. Columbia has 1,518 homeless, and the distant approved shelter only has 240 beds. Once in the shelter, the only way to leave is by scheduling a ride on a shuttle van to a specific appointment. The only way to stay is by complying with all prescribed services, like mental health treatment. Otherwise, it’s off to the pokey.
Cops will now be assigned to patrol the city center and keep homeless people out. They will be instructed to strictly enforce the city’s “quality of life” laws, including bans on loitering, public urination and other violations. And just to ensure that no one slips through the cracks, the city will set up a hotline so local businesses and residents can report the presence of a homeless person to police.
Think Progress senior reporter Scott Keyes wrote:
The Columbia City Council wants police to arrest every homeless person and encourages residents to report each other just for looking homeless, to ensure the removal of all undesirables from the downtown area.
Fortunately, Columbia Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago doesn’t believe homelessness is a crime and refuses to round up these unfortunate people.
Wake County NC (which includes Raleigh) currently has 1,150 homeless people, including 176 mentally ill,91 veterans, 68 domestic violence victims, five people with AIDS, three unaccompanied children and 494 unfortunates with substance abuse disorder. Raleigh police have threatened to arrest people who distribute food to the homeless near Moore Square Park (which they have done for the past six years).
In addition to these atrocities, Philadelphia has banned feeding homeless people outdoors to “prevent food-borne illness.” Orlando, FL, went the extra mile, not caring who got caught in its dragnet, by outlawing the providing of food to all groups of people, homeless or not. California’s Nevada City prohibits sleeping anywhere but in a proper building. Kalamazoo MI made sleeping on park benches a criminal offense that goes on the vagrant’s permanent record. St. Petersburg FL rules that people who sleep outside must, when caught, either go to any shelter—and there are lots of good reasons to avoid shelters—or go to jail.
Miami is looking to get on the criminalization bandwagon too. It is working towards a law that would make “homeless people who sat down, made themselves a meal or relieved themselves” criminals.
This summer Portland OR and Tampa FL also initiated steps to boot out their homeless. Portland prohibits “camping” on public property, and quite recently five homeless residents were rounded up and arrested, and the mayor’s office says that’s just the beginning. The Tampa City Council passed a new ordinance in July that would allow police officers to arrest anyone they see sleeping in public or “storing personal property in public.”
Despite the Recession, the U.S. homeless population declined 17% from 2005 to 2012. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations conducted major anti-homelessness initiatives, including a $1.5-billion program which President Obama launched with stimulus funds in 2009. But the Sequester could reverse that. Tragically, the Department of Housing and Urban Development says mandated budget cuts from housing and shelter programs could expel 100,000 people this year—nearly one-sixth of the homeless population.