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Laws Targeting Homelessness Have Increased Dramatically Across the Country

A new report finds these laws are being passed with wide voter approval.
 
 
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She spends her days collecting recyclables. She said police give her coffee and donuts sometimes. She was crossing a very busy intersection off the 101 freeway in the Mission. She has lost her possessions many times for lack of a place to store them. Being homeless is sisyphean these days.

 
 
 
 
While homelessness is worse than ever in many places across the country, more and more cities are addressing the crisis by making it illegal to sleep, sit or simply be in public.
 
This decades-old trend is spreading even as the social safety net keeps shrinking and housing is at its most expensive. People with nowhere else to go are cited, arrested and jailed for begging, lying on park benches or curling up on stoops—even though criminalizing activities that homeless people do to survive does nothing to end homelessness and costs more than it would to house them.
 
So finds a study of 187 cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), an advocacy group that has tracked the way cities address homelessness since 1991. The new report, the first in three years, found a 43 percent increase since 2011 in laws designed to curb the presence of homeless people on the streets (so-called sit-lie laws) and a 60 percent increase in city-wide bans as opposed to more narrow bans focused on downtowns or public parks.
 
Moreover, in three years, laws that ban sleeping in cars and other private vehicles, the last refuge for many families that have lost their homes, have jumped by 116 percent.
 
The increase and broadening of these laws means that more cities are handling their homelessness crisis by essentially pushing society’s most marginalized, reviled population out of sight. While the U.N. Committee on Human Rights has found that such laws violate international human rights treaties and the 9th Circuit Court has found that people who have lost their homes should not be penalized for sleeping in their cars, the bans and penalties for violating them keep growing.
 
The bleak findings, which come as income inequality, wage stagnation and outright poverty have become endemic, suggest a compassion fatigue with no sign of abating. The laws are being passed with wide voter approval, in cities that offer few or no alternatives for those living on the streets.
 
Palo Alto, Calif., for example, at the center of the high-tech boom, has only 15 shelter beds, serving 10 percent of its homeless population, but it has made sleeping in one’s own private vehicle a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or six months in jail. Santa Cruz, Calif., where 83 percent of homeless people have no shelter options, has imposed bans on camping,  sitting, or lying down in public or sleeping in vehicles. Orlando, Fla., where 34 percent of homeless people are without shelter beds, prohibits camping, sleeping  and begging in public as well as “food sharing.”
 
Bans on “food sharing,” or feeding homeless people, are the latest trend in criminalization laws. Of the cities surveyed, 17 have made it illegal to feed people in public.
Homeless people surveyed reported warrants and outstanding tickets for sleeping outside or in their cars, constant harassment from police, and a hopelessness as to how to change their situation. Many surveyed have had their possessions confiscated for “storing them” in public and jailed for living outside. The Western Regional Advocacy Project (W.R.A.P.), an umbrella group for homeless advocacy organization in several Western states, conducted a national survey of 1,600 homeless people and found that 80 percent have been harassed for sleeping in public and 74 percent have no idea where to go to find safe shelter.
 
For those who are employed and homeless—44 percent of the nation’s homeless population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless—these penalties endanger their best chance —their jobs—for mitigating their living situation.
 
Cities grappling with growing homeless populations and less affordable housing (more than 12 percent of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been permanently lost since 2001) are stymied as to how to provide solutions, said Jeremy Rosen, a spokesman for the NLCHP, so they adopt criminalization ordinances.
 
“We are really trying to wave our hands at this point,” Rosen said, “And point out to communities that the approach is generally unsuccessful. They return to the streets again and it becomes more difficult to help them as they have a criminal record and fines and court costs they can’t pay.”
 
There are a few bright spots in the report. Cities that have adopted a “housing first” approach to homelessness—providing housing with supportive services—have reduced the costs associated with enforcing anti-homeless laws while providing safe shelter for their most vulnerable population. In Utah, a government study found that the annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while providing an apartment and a social worker cost $11,000. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, by providing housing, the city reduced spending on homelessness-related jail costs by 64 percent.

Evelyn Nieves is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

 
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