On May 22nd the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is holding a press conference to release its 7th report in a series of examinations of the criminalization of homelessness in the United States.
Entitled "Punishing Poverty: The Criminalization of Homelessness, Litigation and Recommendations for Solutions," the report reviews city efforts to criminalize homelessness in 2002 and documents the worst offenders.
In addition, the report notes what may be a more hopeful trend: the adoption by some cities of constructive approaches to the problem of homeless people living in public places.
The report focuses in detail on legal challenges to laws criminalizing homelessness and includes a comprehensive summary of litigation and trends in court challenges.
Recent years have seen a steep rise in the incidence of homelessness: record increases were documented over the past two years. At the same time, shelters and other emergency resources are insufficient to meet the growing need. Consequently, a growing number of people, many ill, live on the streets, in parks or other public places.
In response, some cities have adopted laws that criminalize activities associated with homelessness, such as sleeping, sitting or eating in public.
Five cities stand out as being particularly harsh:Homeless people are legally allowed to sleep on church stairs by the churches but are still ordered to move on by police officers even after court order 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church v. City of New York.A church that was housing homeless people was fined over $27,000 for alleged zoning violations even after the Church agreed to stop housing people in exchange for elimination of the fine.Local advocates report an ongoing campaign against homeless people, citing: police arrests and beating of a group of homeless teenagers standing in a parking lot in the morning while waiting for a program for homeless teens to open. In addition, advocates report that police confiscate homeless persons property routinely, even if no arrest is made or citation is given.Local advocates cite ongoing harassment in the French Quarter: Homeless persons are repeatedly arrested for obstructing a public passage while standing on public sidewalks and waiting for paychecks. They often receive 30-day sentences. Additionally, advocates report that police discretion is regularly misused to arrest homeless people for public drunkenness without basis.The City has passed laws prohibiting sitting or lying on sidewalks in the downtown core district- but the law provides an affirmative defense to virtually all but homeless people.
Some city ordinances raise constitutional concerns: under the first, fourth, eighth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Some have been struck down by courts in response to challenges.
City attempts to criminalize homelessness not only raise legal concerns, they also raise policy concerns: they worsen homeless peoples circumstances, making exiting homelessness harder; they waste resources and make little fiscal sense, and because they simply move people from place to place, they do not work.
Punishing poverty is no way to end homelessness.
"On Memorial Day 2003, a holiday begun following the Civil War, America's many homeless veterans should not have to face a new American civil war being waged by some localities against homeless persons.," said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. "The real solution is to ensure decent, affordable housing with good - paying jobs for all."
The report notes that some localities have adopted more constructive models:
In Miami, Florida, the city and county have built Homelessness Assistance Centers that provide comprehensive services as well as shelter to occupants. In addition, the local government and community came together to implement a ½ penny meal tax on high-end restaurants that funds ongoing services for homeless individuals around the Miami-Dade metro area.
In Washington, DC, the downtown business community funds a homeless person day center that offers indoor seating, meals, laundry facilities, showers, employment services and medical care through partnerships with local nonprofits.
In Philadelphia, PA, collaboration between advocates, government officials, and community leaders led to six million dollars being allocated towards social services and the creation of an outreach hotline, additional shelter beds, the establishment of an integrated computerized tracking system, and a written police protocol that governs police interactions with homeless persons.
In Ft. Lauderdale, FL, police and homeless advocates work together to conduct long-term outreach with unsheltered homeless persons and Homeless Assistance Centers provide comprehensive services and shelter for county residents.
The press conference will be held at the law firm of Covington & Burling, 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 12th Floor Conference Room ( Please go to Reception Area on the 11th Floor first, use elevators to right of entrance), Washington DC at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 22.