Civil Rights Violations Increasing in the U.S

by Sheryl Lynn Smith

Civil rights violations are increasingly being carried out by individuals, public institutions and governmental entities against persons who are homeless. Local advocates believe that such actions, policies and ordinances are responses to homelessness driven by anger and frustration, and are fueled by the powerlessness of persons who are homeless in this society. Such actions, policies and ordinances are discriminatory because they target persons based on their homeless status and are unconstitutional.

NEOCH, Americorp*VISTA, and local agencies nationwide are working with the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) on ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind", a report on the Criminalization of Homelessness. Educating the public about the demographic makeup of the homeless population, causes, solutions and what individuals/groups can do is essential to the goal of ending homelessness. The NCH is providing substantive and timely information on issues related to homelessness and poverty to a wide audience.

Local governments continue to turn to the criminal justice system to address problems associated with homelessness in their communities. ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ due to be released in March, 2001, is an update of the National Law Center’s 1998 report which documents a rise in anti-homeless activities across the country, and examines the progress of this trend in the same 50 United States cities surveyed for past reports. It is the sixth such report published since 1991.

In ‘criminalizing’ homelessness, cities generally pursue one or more of four primary types of action: (1) enacting and/or enforcing restrictions on homeless people’s use of public spaces for necessary activities such as sleeping or sitting, (2) enacting and/or enforcing restrictions on begging, (3) conducting police "sweeps" designed to remove homeless people from specific areas, and (4) targeting homeless people for selective enforcement of generally applicable laws.

According to local advocates, Cleveland has repeatedly attempted to use its police force to enforce a policy of "Out of Sight, Out of Mind". In 1999, the mayor of Cleveland adopted a policy of threatening arrest of anyone sleeping, sitting or even walking on the street. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NEOCH together sued the city to stop this policy. After two months of court battles, the city settled the lawsuit pledging not to engage in this activity. In 2000, there has been a rise in the number of homeless people arrested for criminal trespassing for sleeping underneath public bridges.

Brian Davis, executive director, said in an interview, "In the ten years that the mayor has been in office, his administration has used a hammer to deal with the rising homeless population. The City Council of Cleveland is at war with the Mayor’s administration which has made it impossible for the Mayor to get any anti-homeless laws passed. He has traditionally used Executive order to accomplish what he cannot accomplish through legislation," said Davis.

In an interview with Angelo Anderson, Director of the Salvation Army’s Men’s Emergency Shelter, he stated that "Sweeps seem to be directly connected with the holiday season in the city’s central business district which steps up enforcement of aggressive solicitation laws."

NEOCH and other activists worked to stop the sweeping policy in February, 2000. They have also setup a Care Line for the Central Business District, which allows businesses to call, and social service agencies to intervene instead of the police. According to Davis, "Although we have only heard isolated incidence of sweeping connected with events, we have seen limited attempts to prevent homeless people from going into surrounding suburban communities."

Public institutions are creating exclusionary policies that target persons who are homeless, such as restrictions on the size or number of bags patrons can take into a library. Local communities are selectively reinforcing existing laws, or writing new ones, that make criminal the performance of life-sustaining behaviors in public settings such as sleeping, standing, or sitting.

Over the past five years in Cleveland, the ACLU and NEOCH have challenged anti-homeless policies three times. The first was in 1995 was the kidnapping and dumping of homeless people. The second was the registration of homeless vendors of The Grapevine. The third was the sweeping of homeless people from the sidewalk.

Criminalization is an ineffective response to homelessness and its manifestations. Efforts to rid public places of homeless people through such policies are likely to be futile; in the absence of adequate housing, jobs and treatment, penalizing people for sleeping in public spaces or begging on the streets is unlikely to deter them. Homeless people who are chased out of one public area and who have nowhere else to go will simply move to another area. Further, broad bans on panhandling, and – when challenged by homeless people with no alternative place to sleep – broad bans on sleeping in public are especially vulnerable to legal challenges; indeed, several courts have struck down such laws as unconstitutional.

According to the ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ report, anti-homeless actions also constitute poor public policy. "They are counterproductive because they often undermine homeless people’s effort to escape poverty. Arrests, citations, fines, ‘moving-alone’ orders or other harassment by police only serve as barriers to self-sufficiency." The report continues to say that anti homeless actions "impose improper and unnecessary burdens on the criminal justice system. Reliance on police officers, who are not properly trained to deal with homelessness and attendant problems such as mental illness or alcoholism, and on jails, which are frequently overcrowded and usually cannot provide adequate supervision or treatment opportunities, often causes difficulties and widespread frustration within the criminal justice system."

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recommends that cities pursue constructive policies, both immediate and long-term including: "1) adopting laws that are designed to assist rather than harass homeless people; 2) ensuring that law enforcement officials protect homeless people, who are disproportionately victimized by crime, rather than single them out for law enforcement action; 3) encouraging rather than limiting or harassing, private service providers; 4) addressing legitimate concerns, such as sanitation, through constructive rather than punitive responses, such as providing a sufficient number of restrooms, and; 5) fostering dialogue and outreach among city agencies, homeless people, advocates for homeless people, and members of the business community to find long-term solutions that address the underlying causes of homelessness."

NEOCH and other agencies have been instrumental in designing constructive alternatives. "We have done one police sensitivity training at the police academy," said Davis. This resulted in the 1999 sweeping policy being opposed by the police force who refused to arrest people. Davis said, "They were very sympathetic to our arguments, and quietly helped the Coalition behind the scenes." Advocates have also been effective with the state of Ohio, which has agreed not to conduct sweeps under bridges without providing warning to local outreach workers.

The ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ report is a tool to rid society of the criminalizing "quick fix" attitude. It is designed to help communities begin to create adequate alternative solutions which address the problem of alleviating homelessness and discontinue the practice of focusing on the symptoms of the problem.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #46 - 2001