Friday, January 9, 2009
I walked into my workout place today, and the manager, a woman of heart and compassion, said to me, “Quality of Life??? Who are they kidding? Whose quality of life? These homeless people are human beings! Is is too much trouble for people walking around downtown to have to look at others who are suffering? It is absolutely outrageous.” She was referring to an article in the Dallas Morning News entitled “Police target ‘quality of life’ offenders in downtown Dallas” dated January 8, 2009.
The following excerpts from an article by Kristen Brown entitled “Outlawing Homeless” are well worth reading because, after an all-too-brief lull, this is what we are doing in Dallas once again: targeting and criminalizing a particular group of people with laws that are specifically designed to get them out of sight: Dallas Police officers are currently ticketing people for ‘criminal trespass,’ ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘blocking the sidewalk,’ etc.
In the past decade, cities have increasingly moved toward enacting and enforcing laws that specifically criminalize homelessness in response to their concern about the use of public space. Cities enact and enforce these criminal laws as “quick-fix” solutions to remove homeless people from sight, rather than addressing the underlying causes of homelessness. This criminalization trend has been documented in reports by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty since 1991.
Over one-third of the cities surveyed have initiated crackdowns on homeless people, according to the survey respondents, and almost half of the cities have engaged in police “sweeps” in the past two years.
Driving Homeless People from Sight
Anti-homeless ordinances and policies come in several varieties. First are laws that prohibit certain behavior common among homeless people. In response to the rise of such ordinances, homeless people and advocates have brought lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the laws. While the results of the lawsuits are varied, in general, broad bans on panhandling and sleeping in public, when challenged by those who have no alternative place to sleep, are vulnerable to legal challenge. However, more narrowly drawn ordinances, such as those restricting begging in certain areas of the city, are not as vulnerable.
Criminalization is Poor Public Policy
What all the above approaches share is the intent of removing homeless people from public spaces and from sight. Although some city officials’ concerns about public space are valid, the criminalization of homeless individuals is poor public policy for several reasons.
Adoption of laws and policies that punish homeless people rather than addressing the problems that cause homelessness is an ineffective approach. Penalizing people for engaging in innocent behavior – such as sleeping in public, sitting on the sidewalk, or begging – will not reduce the occurrence of these activities or keep homeless people out of public spaces when they have no alternative place to sleep or sit or no other means of subsistence. With insufficient resources for shelter and services for homeless people, imposing punishment for unavoidable activities is not only futile, it is inhumane.
Criminalization of homeless people imposes unnecessary burdens on the criminal justice system. Relying on law enforcement officials and jails to address homelessness and related issues, such as mental illness and substance abuse, that are more appropriately handled by service providers, causes problems and widespread frustrations within the criminal justice system. Police officers are not adequately trained to respond to the situations that arise, the criminal justice system does not provide the necessary treatment and rehabilitation opportunities, and members of jail staff cannot provide the extra supervision that people with mental illness or substance abuse may require. Further, jails are already overcrowded without detaining individuals who have not committed serious crimes.
Criminalization provides no long-term benefit for homeless individuals nor does it provide a lasting solution to the conflicts over public space. Moreover, it is likely to cost significantly more money. The costs of police time and resources and jailing individuals is substantially higher than the cost of providing them with shelter combined with necessary services. In 1993, the estimated cost, determined by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, to incarcerate a person for one day was approximately $40. Based on HUD data adjusted for inflation, the approximate cost to provide housing, food, transportation, and counseling services for one day was $30.90 in 1993. Thus, not only is it much less expensive to provide supportive housing to homeless people than to incarcerate them, but the services associated with supportive housing can potentially move people out of homelessness.
Alternatives To Criminalization
While the national trend toward criminalizing homelessness continues, several cities are pursuing constructive, alternative approaches to dealing with concerns about homeless people. Through these approaches – which often involve collaboration between city officials, police departments, and business people on one hand and homeless people and their advocates on the other – cities attempt to proactively address the problem of homelessness and provide services for homeless people.