Criminalizing Homelessness Essays

“This is re-segregation in the guise of gentrification”

Across Oakland and Berkeley, tent camps are sprouting near BART tracks and underpasses. As rents skyrocket in San Francisco and Oakland, working class communities are disproportionately affected. “This is re-segregation in the guise of gentrification,” said Janny Castillo, Seniors for Hope and Justice Coordinator at St. Mary’s Center, a nonprofit that serves at-risk seniors and preschoolers in Oakland. “We have lost a large percentage of people of color, who can’t afford to live in a city where they have had deep roots for generations.”

In the face of a narrative of Make America Great Again and a new presidency, advocacy groups for the homeless believe that they continue to fight a system that has a long history and legacy of criminalizing the poor and the homeless.  “We have been fighting these battles for over 50 years. Whether it is Trump or Governor Brown, we are against a wall that doesn’t care for the poor.  We are still fighting for civil rights and anti-poverty programs,” said Castillo.

“Poor people didn’t create homelessness. The federal government did. And now homeless people are being sent to jail for simply existing.”

Paul Boden, Executive Director of WRAP

“What’s important to us now is that America does not forget again,” said Joe Wilson at the Citywide Homeless People’s Assembly outside San Francisco’s City Hall to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “People put their lives and livelihoods on the line for our rights. So many lives are still not considered worthy. In this struggle, every voice matters. We have to stay woke and be strong,” said Wilson, who is a program manager at Hospitality House, a community center in the Tenderloin.  Joe was homeless over 30 years ago, and found shelter at Hospitality House.  He spent the next several years as a social justice advocate and returned to Hospitality House as a program manager.  Last year, he shared his moving story in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, Homelessness Doesn’t Have to Be the End of the Journey.

Castillo concurs. “Homelessness is a condition. It doesn’t define who you are,” she said. Castillo has emerged as a powerful community organizer and an advocate for homeless seniors and attributes her lived experience as a driver for her activism.  “I was a single mother of three and was homeless for nine years. Boona Cheema of Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency took me in, and I was able to get back on my feet,” she said.

Approximately one year ago, Fort Lauderdale made national headlines after prosecuting a 90-year-old homeless activist and two pastors for feeding homeless people. This perverse incident stemmed from a city ordinance requiring private groups handing out food to homeless people to remain at least 500 feet away from residential properties. One of the ministers involved, Dwayne Black of the Sanctuary Church, delivered an apt summation: “This is not how our government is supposed to work.”

But Fort Lauderdale, rather than representing a bizarre municipal aberration, is simply one in a wave of cities taking various steps to criminalize homelessness. This endeavor generally takes the form of legal prohibitions on the behaviors homeless individuals must engage in to survive. In 2014, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released a report on the criminalization of homelessness based on survey data from 187 US cities that the center has tracked since 2009. The trends observed constitute a veritable litany of increased anti-homelessness laws: From 2011 to 2014, the number of bans on sitting or lying down in public places increased 43 percent and laws prohibiting individuals from living in a vehicle increased 119 percent. City-wide bans on begging in public have increased by 25 percent. And citywide bans on camping in public have risen by 60 percent. This punitive legal movement has coincided with a decline in the services most needed by the homeless population, as over one-tenth of the nation’s supply of low-income housing was permanently lost between 2001 and 2014. In Washington State, where three-quarters of cities criminalize urination and defecation in public, access to alternatives such as hygiene centers and 24-hour restrooms is generally absent. Vagrancy policies, especially in conjunction with declining investment in social welfare programs, harbor little intent to avert homelessness; rather, they seek to criminalize it. Fundamentally, by preventing the homeless from engaging in the basic activities that they must conduct publicly to survive, these laws seek to erase these individuals’ very presence.

This approach, which occludes redress of the dynamics that cause homelessness in favor of eradicating its symptoms, is costly not only to those exposed to its punishment, but also to those administering the new regime. The Seattle University School of Law estimated last May that a five-year minimum expense of $2.3 million is directly attributable to enforcing only 16 percent of Seattle’s criminalization ordinances. The same report also argued that redirecting the $3.7 million spent between Seattle and Spokane on criminalization ordinances toward housing the homeless could save taxpayers over $2 million every year, a rather appealing pecuniary benefit to recognizing the human value of homeless individuals. Indeed, places as disparate as Santa Clara County and Salt Lake City have found that the most effective and humane approach to ending homelessness is providing housing.

Despite the exorbitant cost of homelessness criminalization, even cities considered progressive continue to promulgate laws that disproportionately impact homeless people. California, a putative bastion of liberalism, claims the ignoble distinction of having some of the most anti-homeless cities in the nation. Almost a quarter of the American homeless population lives in California, and the average city there has more anti-homeless laws than cities in other states. From 2000 to 2012, vagrancy arrests in California increased 77 percent while arrests for “disorderly conduct” fell by 48 percent and arrests for “drunkenness” by 16 percent. As Paul Boden and Jeffrey Selbin of the Los Angeles Times point out, the troubling implication is that these laws “punish people’s status — being homeless — rather than their behavior.”

Though our polity is collectively willing to permit homelessness and indigence, we are not amenable to permitting those affected by these circumstances to exist in public space.

This rash of laws in American cities thus reflects a prevailing conception of vagrancy that sees homelessness itself as an offense and treats the presence of homeless individuals in the public sphere as a legitimate harm. A recent brouhaha in New York City over a man bathing in the fountain at Columbus Circle offers an instructive case study. CBS New York described the fountain as “the bathtub of a bum” and the man’s use of the landmark as “the latest public insult of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York City.” One witness even claimed the incident indicated “a progressive backsliding of civility and quality of life in the city.” A particularly scandalizing aspect of the episode apparently lay in the fact that CBS cameras “caught” the homeless man “hanging out at the fountain for hours, with the police doing nothing.”

The language of these observers illustrates the cultural notions of public space that legitimate anti-homeless policies. Those appalled by the bath occurring in the fountain, who presumably have access to a private residence in which to bathe, viewed a man forced by circumstance to conduct this basic human function in public not as surviving, but as transgressing. This take on homelessness has links to both a capitalist emphasis on private property and an aesthetic vaunting of order. Actions considered perfectly natural in the private sphere are dubbed offensive, even aberrant, in public: a judgment that inherently marks homeless individuals as deviant, as they have no private space to occupy. Consciously or not, a cultural emphasis on the import of private property privileges the preferences for the public sphere of those with access to such private property. This privileging of views stems from a highly aesthetic understanding of cities; that New Yorkers called the man in the fountain a threat to their quality of life reflects the belief that their environment must be visually sanitized to be healthy. At its heart, the cultural philosophy that condones anti-homeless laws holds that the right of those who can access private homes to an orderly, comfortable public space trumps the right of homeless individuals to exist in public space.

It is worth noting that New York City represents a unique case in the anti-homeless landscape. A shelter mandate requires the city to provide emergency shelter to anyone who qualifies, a marked contrast with the common inadequacy of services for the homeless present in many other municipalities. In light of this policy (which, it might be pointed out, has not always been implemented to the benefit of every person in need of shelter and governs a city in which housing subsidies for the general homeless population were recently gutted), the fountain bathing incident may indicate that public expressions of homelessness should be discouraged in order to redirect homeless individuals toward available services — in this case the shower facilities in shelters — that would offer them a better quality of life, assuming that these shelters are safe, healthy locations. Putting aside the questions this premise raises for the agency of homeless individuals, it would seem a benign justification for ordinances that prohibit acts commonly engaged in by homeless people in public: The use of city-provided shelter can ultimately benefit them and should be facilitated. But those New Yorkers who reviled this man’s use of the fountain hardly expressed distress over his failure to capitalize on the city’s shelter mandate. The reaction to homelessness of disgust, not concern, only illustrates the popular perceptions that merit punitive approaches to the homeless population. That these sentiments so powerfully reject homeless persons even in a city with a relatively progressive shelter policy hardly bodes well for regions that lack similar levels of services.

The disturbing truth that may be overlooked in the quest to prevent “quality of life” crimes, the unsettling of the community through the presence and actions of homeless people, is that vagrancy laws prohibit homeless people from existing. If they cannot sit, sleep, or otherwise be in the public sphere, then these people, who by definition lack access to a private residence have quite literally no place to go (in many major American cities, there are fewer emergency shelter beds than homeless people). Anti-homeless laws, which punish the state of homelessness and not necessarily problematic behavior, construct a society that denies robust services for those who lack a stable residence while at the same time punishing them for the condition it refuses to help mitigate. Though our polity is collectively willing to permit homelessness and indigence, we are not amenable to permitting those affected by these circumstances to exist in public space.

The pervasiveness of vagrancy laws, especially in regions considered liberal, offers a disturbing image of modern city policymaking. Homeless individuals, lacking the economic capital to generate much political clout, affected disproportionately by forms of severe mental illness, and refused succor by individuals who may profess charity in theory but in practice subscribe to “not in my backyard” intolerance for subsidized housing near their neighborhoods, constitute a particularly vulnerable population. Certainly, cities across the United States are not targeting homeless people out of fiscal efficiency; enforcing vagrancy laws costs more than providing housing. Rather, the rise of punitive city ordinances reveals a fear of homeless individuals somehow marring public space, and a decision to answer the question of homelessness with policies that punish survival. The criminalization of homelessness does not always manifest in events as nonsensical as the charges levied against food distributors in Fort Lauderdale; it often seems benign enough to those it does not punish. But for this philosophy, subtlety functions only as a mask for its profound cruelty.

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