Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Criminilation of Homelessness
OVERVIEW OF THE NATIONAL PROBLEM
The housing and homelessness crisis in the United States has worsened with many cities reporting an increase in demands for emergency shelter. In 2007, ten of the 23 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported an increase in the number of households with children accessing shelters and transitional housing. Six of these 23 cities also reported an increase in the number of individuals accessing these services. Even while the requests for emergency shelter increase, cities do not have adequate shelter space to meet the need. In the 23 cities surveyed in the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey for 2007, 12 cities noted that they had to turn people away because of a lack of capacity often or always.
The lack of available shelter space – a situation made worse by the Gulf Coast hurricanes - leaves many homeless persons with no choice but to struggle to survive on the streets of our cities. Over the course of the year, 3.5 million Americans will experience homelessness, and this number is only expected to increase in 2008due to the foreclosure crisis, increases in poverty, and a pattern of steady increases in family homelessness.
AN UNJUST RESPONSE TO THE PROBLEM
An unfortunate trend in cities around the country over the past 25 years has been to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless people by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.
TYPES OF CRIMINALIZATION MEASURES
The criminalization of homelessness takes many forms, including:
Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces in cities where people are forced to live in public spaces;
Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering or open container laws, against homeless persons.
Sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living to drive them out of the area, frequently resulting in the destruction of those persons’ personal property, including important personal documents and medication; and laws that punish people for begging or panhandling to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown area.
Criminalization Measures Have Increased
City ordinances frequently serve as a prominent tool to criminalize homelessness. Of the 224 cities surveyed for our report:
28% prohibit “camping” in particular public places in the city and 16% had city-wide prohibitions on “camping.”
27% prohibit sitting/lying in certain public places.
39% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 16% prohibit loitering city-wide.
43% prohibit begging in particular public places; 45% prohibit aggressive panhandling and 21% have city-wide prohibitions on begging.
The trend of criminalizing homelessness appears to be growing. Of the 67 cities surveyed in both NCH and NLCHP’s last joint report in 2002 and in this report:
There is a 12% increase laws prohibiting begging in certain public places and an 18% increase in laws that prohibit aggressive panhandling.
There is a 14% increase in laws prohibiting sitting or lying in certain public spaces.
There is a 3% increase in laws prohibiting loitering, loafing, or vagrancy laws.
Another trend documented in the report is increased city efforts to target homeless persons indirectly by placing restrictions on providers serving food to poor and homeless persons in public spaces.
While cities are cracking down on homeless persons living in public spaces, according to the latest U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness report, cities do not have adequate shelter to meet the need.
Such a happy post and report, huh ?