The City of Akron was sued last week by students from the CWRU Law School for displacing people and then dumping their valuables. This is a throw back from the policies of big cities in the United States from the 1990s. Frustrated over the growing number of homeless people and what seemed like throwing good money after bad, cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York turned to law enforcement to solve a social service crisis. NEOCH sued the City of Cleveland to stop the sweeps and the dumping of materials from people just trying to survive. They sent their police force out to arrest, threaten arrest and terrorize a fragile population.
The Chicago Coalition won lawsuits as did Miami advocates against their municipal governments back in the 1990s. These cities had to pay homeless people for their homeless policies. They used their armed police force to make it illegal to be homeless. Those policies were found to be expensive and ineffective, but Akron seems to be stuck in the 1990s over their homeless policies. In visiting Akron, they have a bad problem with people begging for money in almost every freeway off ramp. They have many people sleeping outside and very few outreach workers. It is no wonder that community leaders are frustrated with the large number of homeless people. But handling the problem with law enforcement is the opposite solution to the department.
Remember that cracking down on panhandling does nothing to the homeless populations. All panhandlers are not homeless and all homeless are not panhandlers. We have been working with people who are resistant to shelter for 22 years, and so we have some better ideas:
- Guaranteed access to shelter is critical to the success of any homeless policy. If there is not a place to refer a person then there will be people sleeping outside. If when the shelter beds are full they shut their doors, what do you expect a person to do? If you go to the shelter on a regular basis and they do not have a bed for you, then you are going to give up and sleep outside. It is also inhumane to push people around the downtown when there is not a bed inside available.
- Coordinated outreach services is also needed to provide the best possible services to those living outside. This can help connect a veteran to the VA and those struggling with PTSD with mental health services. It is important to build trusting relationships with those resist going to shelter. If there are not people on the streets interacting with people on the streets, they get forgotten.
- Laws don't work--competition does! Akron has the most severe legislation in the State of Ohio and it has not eliminated panhandling. In fact, there are now a class of low income people who have a license to panhandle. They now have a City sanctioned "job" called begging for money. Sweeps and dumping of a homeless person's stuff does not work. It only exacerbates the problem because people get tickets and get arrested, which makes it less likely they will find a job. If you want to address homelessness and specifically panhandling, you have to have an alternative. Social service providers should be provided funding to get people off the streets. Those who can help the most people off the streets should be financially rewarded. There should be a competition for finding panhandlers real jobs. We need to provide an effective alternative or the problem will continue to grow.
- Police are not social workers. They should not be drafted into forcing people into shelter or arresting people for purely innocent behavior of being outside. Police should not even be in the business of telling homeless people to move or warning people that they will have their "stuff" thrown away. Social workers and outreach staff should be asked to engage people living outside and provide help before anyone threatens the individuals who are resistant to going into shelter. Let's look at it in a similar situation to an eviction. There is an official written notice and then the individual has their day in court. Then before all these checks and balances are undertaken can the bailiff come out to supervise the throwing away of items. Society allowed these individuals to establish a home outside and forgot about them for months if not years, it is unfair to then attack these campsites and destroy their homes.
- Build affordable housing or plan on more and more money going to emergency services. We cannot have a community in which wages are stagnant and 5-6% of the population are unemployed, and then people are punished for living outside. There are another group who are permanently unemployed, and we are losing affordable housing every year. We still have people who have behavioral health issues, and so there are these huge holes in the social safety net. We can't let people fall into homelessness and then punish them for finding a way to survive. If we continue to see destruction of affordable housing, there can only be more homeless people in our cities.
- Akron should support the creation of a street newspaper sold by homeless and very low income people. Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo all have papers sold on their city streets. It is an effective alternative to panhandling. This is much more dignified way to earn money--selling your words on the street. Cleveland Street Chronicle could help establish a paper.
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