Permission to Feed the Poor? Anti-Homelessness Legislation in the U.S.
- Wednesday, June 27, 2012
It would seem that being homeless is hard enough. But advocates for the homeless say that a recent spate of anti-homeless ordinances in cities across the country are making it even harder to live on the streets.
More than 50 cities across the country have adopted restrictions on actions such as public camping and food sharing, narrowing the options for people with no residence. And while city officials say that these measures are designed to point homeless individuals toward real assistance, advocates believe that these measures are accomplishing something radically different: the criminalization of homelessness.
Philadelphia, among other cities, has recently passed a ban on public feeding – meaning that a church congregation seeking to feed the homeless in a public place would now be violating the law.
In Homes Not Handcuffs, a report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, the authors write, “Even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space, and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive.”
The report states that these “measures often prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violation of these laws,” and that “some cities have even enacted food sharing restrictions that punish groups and individuals for serving homeless people.” According to the report, “Many of these measures appear to have the purpose of moving homeless people out of sight, or even out of a given city.”
In Denver, police are now enforcing a city-wide ban on camping outdoors on public or private property. Those breaking the new law potentially face a fine of $999 and in some cases, a year in jail. “You would think the large number of citizens on the brink of extreme poverty would create compassion for people living on the streets,” writes Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH, and publisher of PovertyInsights.org. “But, instead, city leaders are feeling more pressure to enact anti-camping and anti-feeding ordinances to force homelessness out of their communities.”
But legislation that pushes homeless people out of urban areas only exacerbates the problem, according to a report released by the National Coalition for the Homeless and The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Measures that criminalize homelessness are legally problematic and do not make sense from a policy standpoint,” according to the report. “Laws that make it difficult for homeless persons to stay in downtown areas of cities force homeless persons away from crucial services and outreach. When a homeless person is arrested under one of these laws, he or she develops a criminal record, making it more difficult to obtain employment or housing.”
Heather Johnson is a civil rights attorney at the homeless and poverty law center. "We're seeing these types of laws being proposed and passed all over the country," she recently told USA Today. "We think that criminalization measures such as these are counterproductive. Rather than address the root cause of homelessness, they perpetuate homelessness.”
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