Millionaires Can Get Arrested For Sleeping Under a Bridge, Too
 

By Maryellen Cameron

Cancer InCytes Magazine - Volume 4, Issue 1, Summer 2015

Published June 30, 2015

 

 

Managing Editor: Juliana Zhu, Esq.

Cover Art: Ping Cao

 

 

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” [1] Anatole France, 1894

 

At a time when the price of housing is racing ahead of wages, many cities have moved aggressively against people who don’t have homes. This aggression is not to solve the problem. It is to hide it. 71 cities across the country have passed or tried to pass ordinances that criminalize feeding the homeless, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless [2].

 

Often called "sit/lie" laws [3], they bar sitting or lying down on any street, sidewalk, entrance to a store, alley or other public place.The cities have passed ordinances that effectively prohibit life-sustaining activities

 

  • 64 cities ban sleeping/camping in public places

  • 81 cities ban sleeping in cars

  • 200 ban sitting or lying in public places

  • 71 have banned or proposed a ban on feeding the homeless

  • 76 percent of cities prohibit begging in particular public places, an increase of 20 percent since 2011 [4]

 

 

These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations. People who do not have enough money for adequate shelter are fined for sleeping outside. Sitting on a bench in a public park can lead to arrest or a fine.

 

Cities even impose fines on good Samaritans who take food to homeless people and hand it out publicly.

 

NBC News has chronicled the legal battle waged [5] by a Florida couple, Debbie and Chico Jimenez, who had cooked and served hot meals to homeless people each Wednesday for the past year at a Daytona Beach park. The couple and four friends were cited by police and collectively fined by more than $2,000 for violating a local ordinance that prohibits such public feedings.

 

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Homelessness happens for a reason. 

 

Many homeless people work or want to work. These laws are punishing people because they do not make enough money at their jobs to afford housing. Adding criminal offenses to their records won’t make it easier to get jobs or get better jobs.         

 

People with mental illness need treatment, not jail. Easier access to quality services and affordable housing will reduce homelessness. 

 

People who have substance abuse problems can be treated. Despite public perception more people are addicted to prescription medicines, pain medications such as Vicodin and Percoset, than any street drug. Where laws have tightened to reduce access to prescription opiates, people have not just given up their addictions, instead they have turned to heroin. Investments in prevention and treatment are the logical solution for people who become homeless as they become dependent on drugs.

 

It is irrational to use sit/lie laws to address homelessness. We have research and experience on how to solve the root causes of homelessness. If we shift money from the costs of the justice system, we will save money on jail costs. There is an opportunity cost when our law enforcement personnel are spending time on enforcing sit/lie laws instead of patrolling high crime areas.

 

In October 2014, Akron police once again removed virtually everything from another homeless camp [6]. It was the latest in several the City has done since 2011. Students and professors from the Case Western School of Law have stepped in on behalf of 11 people who lost everything they owned because the police took their belongings and disposed of them. In essence, confiscations imply homeless people don’t even have the right to own things.

 

Ironically, in the face of public sentiment that homeless people just need to “take their meds” or get a job, the sweeps may take medications for disorders ranging from diabetes to mental illness. Police or other city workers may take social security cards or picture identification they need to get jobs (federal law requires employers to get copies of ID which shows the employees are citizens or have valid work visas). These things are needed to obtain assistance that could get them off of the street.

 

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These sweeps are part of a growing trend to criminalize people for following their survival instincts. Beyond the citations for sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in a park the Cities that claim they don’t know what else to do are disingenuous. Even police policy resources, such as the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, provide guidance on how to address homeless encampments. Their website provides advice such as including homeless advocacy groups in planning solutions and information from other cities’ successful efforts to reduce problem encampments. 

 

The Center’s advice speaks to the issue of reducing the police departments’ exposure to lawsuits about infringement on civil rights and loss of personal property. They describe processes about notification, researching whether the property is legally protected from trespassing and more. This makes sense for a resource for law enforcement organizations. This does not make its guidance any less valuable for more just approaches to resolving the issues fairly, without making a lot of arrests or taking property [7].

 

The report educates its readers about the “Housing First” approach in which agencies use federal funds to provide housing for people who cycle on and off the streets. It is based on the fact that until a person has a home they cannot be as successful in solving the problems that led to their homelessness.

 

An excerpt from a chart on the Center’s web site shows the work it has done to create a useful policy and procedure template.

 

Interestingly, the Center’s report is consistent with the experience of dozens of cities trying to reduce the visibility of homelessness by imposing penalties on people for following their survival instincts. It relies on the myth that people are choosing homelessness and its misery. If we punish them enough they will suddenly have the means to gain a home.

 

Ordinances penalizing people who have to live in tents instead of houses; who have to walk endlessly to find bathrooms open to them; and who have no better place to sit in the rain than near buildings with overhangs ignore the realities of homelessness.  We can do more to solve the problem and save their lives.

 

In reality, criminalization of homelessness and destruction of homeless camps are fools’ errands that only increase social and economic costs. Solutions to homelessness restore people to better health, give them more opportunity for successful employment and reduce hospital and jail costs.

 

Instead of providing solutions, it seems like we are going backwards. It’s one thing to ban people from sleeping in public, but are we really going to take their cherished pictures or their only pair of boots, too?

 

 

About The Author

Maryellen Hess Cameron is Executive Director of ICAN Housing Solutions in Canton, Ohio, an agency that serves over 1,000 homeless people per year with street outreach, emergency housing, permanent housing and housing case management. She is also the author of Come and Get Me, a fictionalized account of one woman’s desperate escape from domestic violence.

 

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References

 

[1] The_law_in_its_majestic_equality_forbids_rich. (n.d.). Columbia World of Quotations. Retrieved December 23, 2014, from Dictionary.com website: http://quotes.dictionary.com/The_law_in_its_majestic_equality_forbids_rich

 

[2] Is Giving Food to the Homeless Illegal in Your City Too? (2014, November 13). Retrieved  February 3, 2015, from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/90-year-old-florida-veteran-arrested-feeding-homeless-bans

 

[3] Report: More cities pass laws that hurt the homeless. (2014, July 16). Retrieved February 3, 2015, from  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/16/criminalizing-homeless-no-camping-laws/12723745/

 

[4] It Is Illegal For Homeless People To Sit On The Sidewalk In More Than Half Of U.S. Cities. (2014, July 16). Retrieved February 3, 2015 from http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/07/16/3460553/homeless-criminalization-report/

 

[5] Florida Couple Fined, Threatened with Jail for Feeding Homeless. (2014, May 12). Retrieved February 3, 2015, from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/florida-couple-fined-threatened-jail-feeding-homeless-n103786

 

[6] Homeless sue Akron for taking their belongings. (2014, October 4). Retrieved February 3, 2015 from http://www.cantonrep.com/article/20141004/News/141009670#ixzz3NbmbWRKu

 

[7] Responses to the Problem of Homeless Encampments. (2010). Retrieved February 3, 2015, from http://www.popcenter.org/problems/homeless_encampments

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