How laws are criminalizing unsheltered individuals
In 2016, The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that over half a million individuals in America experienced homelessness. Of this amount, nearly 40,000 individuals were veterans, nearly 78,000 suffered from disabilities and over 190,000 were part of families. Yet, despite these alarming figures, homelessness is an issue that, for generations, society has failed to solve. And in recent years, laws created to combat homelessness have brought into question whether the homeless face not only societal rejection, but criminalization as well.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, when conducting a survey of 187 cities in 2014, discovered that the number of cities with bans on camping or sleeping outside had increased by 50 percent since 2011. The survey further specified that since 2011, citywide bans on begging had increased by 25 percent and citywide bans on sleeping in vehicles had increased by 119 percent. According to the survey, as of 2014, cities that banned living in vehicles included Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Tulsa, Charlotte, Detroit and New York City.
The criminalization of these activities is controversial when one considers that, according to PBS NewsHour, nearly a third of homeless individuals reside on streets, in parks, or in vehicles.
In response to this issue, numerous cities throughout the United States have enacted legislation to address the many individuals living on streets, in cars and in other makeshift, temporary homes. In January of 2016, amid stated fears of harsh living conditions, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an executive order designed to assist homeless individuals who were living on the streets. The order authorized police officers, social service providers and state agencies to move, by force if necessary, homeless individuals to shelters when the temperature dropped below 32 degrees. Cuomo’s decree mimicked earlier policies instituted by Edward Koch and Rudy Giuliani during their tenures as mayor of New York City.
While sheltering homeless individuals is arguably a laudable goal, Cuomo’s order provoked skepticism, and in some cases, outcry. Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, questioned, when interviewed by The New York Times, whether shelters would have the space to accommodate individuals. Stephanie A. Miner, mayor of Syracuse, described Cuomo’s goal as admirable, but debated whether the forcible removal of homeless individuals from the streets equated to a criminalization of their predicament. The mayor further expressed her belief that the presence of police could potentially impact relationships built between those living on the streets and those seeking to assist.
Annie Leomporra, a civil rights fellow at the National Coalition for the Homeless, also questions the intentions of laws that criminalize homelessness. However, along with criminalization of living on the street, Leomporra also points to increasing regulations against sharing food with homeless individuals as another example of a government policy that hurts unsheltered individuals.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 22 cities have banned the act of sharing food with homeless people. And other cities, including Phoenix, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Diego, Sacramento, Charlotte, Miami and Orlando have made attempts to do so.
Food safety is an oft-cited reason for laws against sharing food with homeless individuals. However, Leomporra points out that people “do the same thing at a picnic, and it’s not an issue that is regulated.”
The battle over how to address unsheltered individuals has become especially fierce in the West, where rising housing costs and lack of affordable housing in major cities such as San Francisco and Seattle has resulted in the presence of homeless camps. In Seattle, politicians have introduced legislation designed to address the issues faced in the notorious “Jungle,” a homeless camp known for its squalor and violence. In October 2016, when Mike O’Brien, a city councilman, proposed allowing unsheltered individuals to camp in some parks, residents at a city hall hearing gathered to express their disapproval.
Seattle is not the only city to receive attention for its handling of the crisis. In Denver, where, according to The New York Times, the homeless population ranges from 3,500 to 3,600 — an estimated 500 of whom are unsheltered — viral videos emerged in December 2016 showing police officers taking blankets from homeless individuals. While the Denver Police Department initially explained that the individuals were illegally camping, and said that the blankets were collected as evidence of their violations, city authorities later attempted to decrease controversy by reiterating their efforts to shelter and employ unsheltered individuals.
But the East also has its fair share of problems when it comes to addressing the problem of homelessness. For example, Ithaca itself has struggled to help unsheltered individuals. The city has made numerous attempts to clear the “Jungle,” a camp for homeless people. But according to an article in The Ithaca Voice, numerous camps have existed over the years behind Walmart and Agway and at the end of Cherry Street.
Carmen Guidi, founder of Second Wind Cottages, a privately-supported organization located in nearby Newfield that provides individual housing units to homeless men, says the number of homeless individuals in Ithaca continues to be a problem.
“I’ve been dealing with the population in the Jungle for years now, and it keeps growing and growing,” he explains. “These people have tried to access services, and there’s no services for some of these people.”
Guidi adds that the large presence of college students within the area “drives up the cost of housing,” further deepening the hardships faced by these individuals.
While Second Wind Cottages provides an alternative method of addressing homelessness, traditional methods remain in use. Tierra Labrada, continuum of care coordinator for the Human Services Coalition of Tompkins County, says that “the county funds, or helps to fund, a lot of the projects out here that serve the homeless population.”
In addition, she says Tompkins County — along with every other county in the country — also funds the Department of Social Services, which provides benefits, services and resources to people experiencing homelessness, those with low incomes and people in need of support.
However, while governments may attempt to solve the homeless crisis by transferring homeless individuals, whether by financial assistance and support or through the creation of legislation, from the streets to shelters, this ignores the fact that some homeless people prefer living on the streets.
Trena Vahle, a homeless individual living in Seattle who was interviewed by The New York Times, described how, when she lived in shelters, her items were often stolen. A Huffington Post article stated that due to quotas, overcrowding was a common issue experienced in homeless shelters, creating safety issues that remain unsolved due to lack of health and safety regulations in shelters. The article further explained that certain shelters required residents to practice specific faiths, or were designated for those who had suffered from addiction and domestic violence. In addition to this, homeless individuals living in New York City, interviewed by the New York Daily News, described difficult living conditions due to rats, bedbugs and fights. One woman reported how she was almost raped at one shelter.
Due to the many impediments faced by homeless individuals in their search for safe shelter, many groups have formed to address and eradicate the criminalization of homelessness. In Seattle, the Seattle University School of Law’s Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, the ACLU of Washington and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty worked together to warn officials throughout Washington against impeding upon the rights of homeless individuals to sleep and camp. And on a national level, both the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless work to raise awareness of criminalization policies that affect homeless individuals.
Moving forward, America must address its treatment of homeless individuals. Because enacting laws that remove the homeless from the streets does not address why these individuals live in such conditions, more must be done to solve the roots of the crisis itself.
Mattie Beauford is a first-year writing major who doesn’t believe in criminalizing people’s existences. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.