Homelessness is a Crime!

   On November 5, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) released Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States, the most comprehensive study to date of homeless civil rights violations. This study is also the most up-to-date survey of current laws that criminalize homeless people, and it ranks the top “meanest” cities and states in the country. This report examines legislated ordinances and statutes, as well as law enforcement and community practices since August of 2003.

   The National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NHCROP) — an effort of NCH, comprised of local advocates in communities across the country — has compiled quantitative and qualitative data samplings from 179 communities in 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. These cities and towns represent rural, urban and suburban areas of all geographic and demographic varieties across the United States.

This 2004 report finds Little Rock (AR), Atlanta (GA), Cincinnati (OH), Las Vegas (NV), and Gainesville (FL) to be the top five “meanest” cities in the United States for poor and homeless people. California is the “meanest” state, followed by Florida, Hawaii and Texas. Many of these communities have significant histories of violating the civil rights of homeless people and can be considered “repeat offenders.” Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said, “There needs to be an end to the patterns of discrimination we have seen repeated in many of these cities, year after year.”

   In May 2004, Little Rock police implemented a 3-day notice warning in advance of clearing a homeless camp. Police had targeted at least 27 homeless areas to force campers to clear out, and yet, only two months later, in July of 2004, police raided a homeless camp during the day without notice, postings, or warrants and arbitrarily threw homeless people’s property into the nearby river. Conducting sweeps of areas where homeless people are living not only extensively opens the city up to potential lawsuits, but also actually does nothing to solve the underlying problems of homelessness. More recently, Little Rock public officials created some controversy with their plan to make a massive sweep to remove homeless people before the Clinton Presidential Library opened on November 18.

   The city of Fresno, California, authorized the construction of a barbed wire topped public “drunk tank,” where people can be put on public display. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, a homeless person was arrested for “dancing in the street.” Tampa, Florida, arrested individuals for serving food to homeless people. Atlanta’s Ambassador Force, assisted by police, operates a “Wake Up Atlanta” team to roust homeless people from any public or private space and arrest them if there is a delay. And in the past year, the state of Hawaii passed a law that bans homeless individuals from living on all public property.

   This report documents laws specifically enacted to target homeless people, including anti-camping, anti-panhandling, and loitering laws, but also looks at police abuse of existing laws in their attempt to move society’s problems into jails or at least out of sight. In the summer of 2004, CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace was arrested by the New York City Transit Police for arguing and charged with “disorderly conduct,” an abused criminal charge that ensnares thousands of homeless people throughout the country. Mike Wallace was caught in a “abuse of power” faced every day by homeless people who are arrested for disorderly conduct for sleeping, speaking, or using public facilities.

   According to this report, fifty-one of the cities studied have legislated new ordinances targeting homeless people since August of 2003. Fifty-seven of the cities surveyed conducted large sweeps or destroyed the campsites of homeless individuals. In addition, homeless people face the continual enforcement of existing laws, as well as the selective scrutiny of violating other statutes. This pattern and practice of legislating, targeting and enforcing laws against homeless people constitutes an infrastructure of criminalization. There has been no documentation of any voluntary repeal of an anti-homeless law in the past fifteen months, although several cities have been forced to change their laws as a result of lawsuits, and some have actually had to make large payments to individuals who have been discriminated against.

   With unemployment rates still at peak levels, more people have become homeless, and as the economy has tightened, shelters and service-providing agencies face budget cuts and even closures. Though nearly all cities still lack sufficient shelter beds and social services, many continue to pass laws prohibiting homeless people from sleeping outside. Cities are attempting to make it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, while at the same time refusing to allocate sufficient funds for housing, to legislate living wages, or to provide necessary health care, thus hindering these individuals’ basic civil liberties.

   This country is building jails instead of creating affordable housing. By enacting the Bringing America Home Act (H.R. 2897—108th Congress) Congress can begin the process of preventing and ending homelessness. Donald Whitehead, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who is formerly homeless himself, said, “The criminal justice system is not an answer to the problems that homeless people face. We need solutions that go to the root causes of the issue – affordable housing, livable income, treatment and health care, and civil rights protection.”

20 Meanest Cities

1. Little Rock, Arkansas

2. Atlanta, Georgia

3. Cincinnati, Ohio

4. Las Vegas, Nevada

5. Gainesville, Florida

6. New York City, New York

7. Los Angeles, California

8. San Francisco, California

9. Honolulu, Hawaii

10. Austin, Texas

11. Sarasota, Florida

12. Key West, Florida

13. Nashville, Tennessee

14. Berkeley, California

15. Dallas, Texas

16. Fresno, California

17. San Antonio, Texas

18. Milwaukee, Wisconsin

19. St. Paul, Minnesota

20. Manchester, New Hampshire

Meanest States

1. California

2. Florida

3. Hawaii

4. Texas

Percentage (%) of Cities Banning Activities

Obstruction of Sidewalks/Public Places 88

Begging in Particular Public Places 65

Closure of Particular Public Places 57

Loitering in Particular Public Places 57

Urination/Defecation in Public 54

Sleeping in Particular Public Places 53

“Aggressive” Panhandling 51

Bathing in Public Waters 51

Camping in Particular Public Places 49

Sitting/Lying in Public Places 45

Begging City-wide 29

Camping City-wide 22

Loitering City-wide 16

Sleeping City-wide 15

 Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #67 Cleveland, Ohio December 2004