Criminalizing Homeless is No Solution


Bill Faith

             At this time of the year, perhaps more so than any other, the “haves’ tend to think a little more about the “have-nots.”  We are taught to give a little more, to show some compassion for the poor.  After all it is the holidays.

             That is why it is all the more difficult to understand what is happening in New York City and Cleveland.

             Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted a “get-tough-on-the-homeless” policy that jails homeless persons in New York City if they refuse to be transported to a shelter.  Nearly 1000 homeless people have been jailed as a result of Giuliani’s polity.

             Closer to home, Mayor Michael White and the city of Cleveland have started to arrest homeless people for doing nothing more than sleeping on downtown sidewalks.

             Classifying homeless people, shoplifters, muggers, panhandlers and other criminals as one and the same, White said this “crackdown’ is designed to ‘move poverty out of sight so they (shoppers) will have a peaceful shopping season.”  Though the number of arrests resulted from Mayor White’s policy are substantially fewer that the New York numbers, the reality is the same:  Homelessness is being criminalized.

             Fortunately for residents of the greater Columbus area, this is not the case.  In fact, the majority of Franklin County residents are concerned enough about homelessness to support real, substantive and long-term solutions.

             Recently, the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) released the results of a public-opinion survey, which consisted of 500 telephone interviews of a representative sample of Franklin County residents.

             The survey was designed to help understand public perceptions of homelessness, and to help plan future housing and service programs.  The survey found that homelessness is a major concern, ranking second only to “drugs and crime” and tied with public education.

             The survey was designed to help understand public perceptions of homelessness, and to help plan future housing and service programs.  The survey found that homelessness is a major concern, ranking second only to ‘drugs and crime’ and tied with pubic education.

             The survey reflects the public’s strong belief that homelessness primarily is caused by external factors such as unemployment rather than internal factors such as mental illness or drug use.  A large majority (nearly 72 percent) of the respondents agreed that “homeless people are normal people facing temporary problems like unemployment or sudden rent increases.”

             Those surveyed overwhelmingly rejected proposals to “make life on the street more difficult and unpleasant until the homeless decide to leave town” as a possible remedy for homelessness.  Only 8 percent of the respondents felt such strategies would work.

             They strongly endorsed a fundamental shift in overall policy, however, and a move from large emergency shelters to smaller, geographically scattered permanent housing and programs that include job training and supportive services. 

             More than 70 percent of those polled felt this strategy was an effective way to reduce homelessness.  Results like this show that people are compassionate but practical.

             The General Accounting Office, in a recent report, cited Franklin County as a national model for its efforts to plan to coordinate program for the homeless.  Like most metropolitan areas, Franklin County historically has relied on large temporary shelters, though the Scioto Peninsula Task Force recently recommended the development of 800 units of new supportive housing coupled with a cutback in temporary.

             Making this proposal a reality will require corporate and public resources, non-profit organization management of well-designed projects, political will and community acceptance.  Those polled indicated they would actually favor the smaller housing units in their neighborhoods for people who are homeless if the housing comes with supportive services such as medical and psychiatric care and job training.

             By a margin of nearly 3 to 1, respondents said they would support “a proposal to build supportive housing of the homeless somewhere in their won neighborhood.”  By a margin of more than 6 to 1, those surveyed agreed that “Well-designed and well-maintained housing for the homeless can fit in a neighborhood,”  while 82 percent agreed that, “We need to build more housing with supportive services to get homeless people off

Of the streets.”

             Unfortunately, homelessness is an issue that affects far more people than one might think.  Whether you live in Columbus or Cleveland, the number of individuals and families who are homeless is increasing.  According to the most recently information collected, COHHIO estimates that in 1998, some 97,600 people experienced homelessness in Ohio’s 10 most populous counties alone. 

             The poll seems to indicate that residents may understand  better than our political leaders that the remedy for homelessness depends on jobs, affordable housing and services – not criminalization.

             Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #41 March-April, 2000