Friday, December 03, 2004

Illegal to be Homeless

Report targets escalating civil rights abuses against homeless people and identifies "meanest" cities


click here for the full report


WASHINGTON, DC- Today the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) releases Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States, the most comprehensive study of homeless civil rights violations. This study is also the most up-to-date survey of current laws that criminalize homeless people and 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 to clearing a 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. Soon, Little Rock public officials are threatening a massive sweep to remove homeless people as the Clinton Presidential Library opens 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 an overly broad fashion in order 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 himself formerly homeless, 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."

For more (including a list of the twenty meanest cities from the National Coalition for the Homeless), click here.

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