"No Homeless People Allowed,"by Maria Foscarinis & Rick Hertz March/April 1995 issue of Poverty & Race
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty's latest report, No Homeless People Allowed, provides a sense of the breadth of the emerging trend toward the criminalization of homelessness and of that trend's varied manifestations. The report analyzes local government actions directed at homeless people in 49 cities across the country, focusing on ordinances passed and enforcement activities undertaken in 1994.
The Center acquired the information from a variety of sources. We initially learned about relevant city actions through a computer database search, culling information from news reports and Handsnet (a computer information network for the human services and public interest community), and unsolicited phone calls and letters. This information was augmented by telephone interviews, primarily with service providers and attorneys representing homeless people (Seattle Displacement Coalition, ACLU of Georgia, Miami Coalition for the Homeless, etc.). Background information was obtained from government documents and telephone interviews with service providers and city employees. Copies of local statutes and court documents were obtained either from those interviewed or from city or court clerks' offices.
Actions taken against homeless people over the past year fall into five major categones:
*Restrictions on begging;
*Restrictions on homeless persons use of public places;
*Police "sweeps" designed to remove homeless people from specific areas;
*Selective enforcement of general laws against homeless people;
*Restrictions on providers of services to homeless people.
Many cities employed combinations of those actions. Overall, the report found that the cities surveyed that engaged in anti-homeless activities:
*62% enacted or enforced anti-panhandling ordinances
*26% enacted or enforced public place restrictions
*24% conducted police sweeps
*24% selectively enforced laws
*21% enacted or enforced restrictions on service providers
Although no precise statistics are available, the Center's monitoring of local anti-homeless activities over the past three years indicates that such activities have risen sharply in that period, and in the past year as well.
We found that at the same time cities cracked down on their homeless residents, resources to help homeless people out of homelessness-or simply off the streets-remained woefully inadequate. By the cities' own counts, in virtually no instance were emergency shelter spaces sufficient to meet the need. Moreover, in no city was there sufficient affordable housing to meet the need: using federal affordability guidelines, in no city could a person living on income from ajob at federal minimum wage or 551, or a one-parent family of three living on AFDC, afford fair market rents.
The report notes that in the absence of sufficient shelter space, homeless people literally have nowhere else to go-or be-than the streets and other public places. In the absence of sufficient jobs or income, homeless people may have no means to meet basic survival needs other than begging. In this context, penalizing such activities amounts to criminalizing homelessness; in addition, it suggests a new, extreme response to homelessness: banishment of homeless people.
The report found that among the cities analyzed, some stand out particularly for having the "meanest streets," either for their clear intention simply to expel homeless residents from their city limits or for the concerted, focused, often highly publicized efforts undertaken against their homeless residents:
*Santa Monica's ordinances, which ensure that there is no public place where homeless people can sleep, have had their intended effect of forcing homeless people to leave. The city has also passed laws to prevent private individuals from distributing food to hungry people, while capping city spending on services to homeless people.
*Santa Ana continues to try to rid the city of homeless people-its official policy since 1988-despite having paid damages to settle two lawsuits and having lost two other legal challenges to its anti-homeless policies (one of which is now on appeal).
*Cleveland police officers pursued a policy of driving homeless people from downtown areas to remote industrial areas and leaving them there.
*San Francisco conducted a campaign of harassment against its homeless citizens through a combination of neighborhood sweeps, anti-homeless laws and selective enforcement, resulting in between 11,000 and 22,500 citations in a little over a year.
*Seattle vigorously enforced its laws which prevent homeless people from even sitting down to rest in public downtown areas in an effort to keep homeless people away from downtown businesses.
In response to cities' actions, lawsuits have been filed around thecountry, and a number of important decisions have been handed down over the past year. the report details those decisions and notes that, while the law is still developing, and a number of rulings are now on appeal, some trends are emerging. In general, penalizing homeless people for sleeping in public in the absence of sufficient shelter space is likely to violate the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual panhandling are likely to be struck down.
The report also found that news accounts often erroneously attribute the increased prevalence of anti-homeless city actions to declining public "sympathy" for homeless people. Actually, opinion polls consistantly reveal that the public supports increased government aid to help homeless peopple out of homelessness. A spring 1994 poll, by Wayne State University, designed to test public opinion on homelessness, found that 65% of the public would pay higher taxes to fund such aid, a number that has changed little over the past ten years.
In fact, at thesame time that cities are engaged in anti-homeless actions, there is also some good news. The report found that over the past year a significant number of cities adopted alternative responses. Some of these alternatives are more constructive than others; and in some cases cities adopted alternative responses while pursuing anti-homeless actions. These included:
*Dade county's adoption of a 1% tax on restaurant meals in order to fund facilities and services for homeless people.
*Nashville's rejection of an anti-panhandling ordinance and increased cooperation between merchants and outreach workers.
*Pasadena's provision of shelter and services to residents of an encampment rather than simply sweeping them away.
Some concerns about the use oof public space are legitimate, but criminalizing homelessness is not the solution. Actions suggested by the long-term, include:
*Adopting laws designed to assist rather than harass homeless people and service providers.
*Addressing legitmate concerns, such as sanitation, through constructive rather than criminal responses, such as providing more public rest rooms.
*Fostering dialogue and outreach among city agencies, advocates, business people and homeless people to address the underlying causes of homelessness.
*Finding the necessary funds to implement such long-term solutions, perhaps through innovative methods such as Dade County's meal tax.
The report supports a four-pronged advocacy strategy: public education, litigation, executive initiatives and legislation.
*Public education: the Center released the report to the national press and worked with local groups that agreed to release it to their local media. This approach generated national and local press coverage. We plan to continue to disseminate the report widely, through the media as well as other vehicles, in order to reach policymakers and the general public.
*Litigation the Center plansto use the report to strengthen litigation responses to anti-homeless laws and practices. We are currently participating in an amicus curiae in four major constitutional challenges to such laws and practices and are now preparing to file a fifth amicus brief supportiing homeless litigants. The Center will rely on the report in this and future briefs. We plan to continue to respond to requests for litigation support as well as to reach out to local groups to offer assistance.
* Executive initiatives: The Law Center plans to continue to work ro involve the Department of Justice in such cases. In September 1993, the Department agreed to designate a senior civil rights attorney to investigate appropriate cases for possible prosecution. In November 1994, DOJ filed an amicus brief in Tobe v. Santa Ana, the first such brief filed by the Department.
*Legislation: The Law Center Plans to explore amendments to current federal law to require that communities receiving federal funds not violate the civil rights of their residents. Building on the informaiton and attention generated by the report, the Law Center will work for further action.
Maria Foscarinis is Executive Director and
Rick Hertz is a Civil Rights Monitor at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (918 F St. NW, #412, Washington, DC 20004; 202/638-2535). Copies of the full report (120 pp., Dec. 1994) can be obtained ($25, $18 for small nonprofits) from the Center.
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