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5 Creative New Ways America Is Abusing the Homeless

Cities are cracking down on the homeless in endlessly nasty ways.

Homelessness is a complex, daunting problem, and cities all over America seem determined to resolve it with a simple strategy: abusing homeless people until they go away.

Local governments have come up with a myriad of Constitution-trampling ways to clear out their homeless populations, from sit/lie bans that can land people in jail for sitting down in public, to anti-panhandling measures that empower police to bust people for speaking or holding a sign while being poor. Cops also routinely use anti-loitering and jaywalking laws to hassle the homeless.

The arguments in favor of criminalization tend to go something like this: "We don't  want to treat the homeless like subhumans with no rights but an anonymous tourist once complained about them and no tourists will come to our city again!" Or, local merchants have had enough, or some nice lady and her baby were subjected to the horror of having a poor person say a bad word while asking for change. 

While it's true that mental instability and/or substance problems make some homeless people tough to deal with, there are already laws on the books covering aggressive behavior. Advocates of harsh laws and police crackdowns on the homeless also ignore the fact that criminalization is both less effective and more expensive than investing in assistance programs. A 2004  study found that funding supportive housing costs anywhere from half to a third of what it costs to put people in jail. Programs like  Seattle's Housing First, which offered supportive housing to homeless alcoholics, have been found to substantially cut down the city's costs, since the most expensive place for unhoused people to end up is in jail or in the hospital. 

Still, with a few exceptions, the default solution for many cities around the country is to come up with endlessly creative ways to punish the homeless for being homeless. Here are 5 examples from just the past few months. 

1. Go to Jail for ... Sleeping?

In July the Tampa, Florida, city council decided they did not want the homeless bedding down in the city's parks or on the street,  voting 4-3 to ban sleeping or storing stuff in public. Any sleep criminals apprehended by police will be given the option of going to a shelter or to jail. One potential problem wit the plan is that Tampa's  shelters are closed during the day and have long waiting lists, since the city has some of the highest rates of homelessness among mid-size cities. 

As Think Progress reported, some elementary school kids protesting the measure at the hearing handed out flyers asking the good question, "Where will they go?" A homeless man who testified pointed out that the homeless were not homeless just to ruin your day, but because a terrible economy is forcing more people than ever into the street in many cities.

A lot of people automatically assume that if one’s homeless they’re either an alcoholic or a drug addict or if you simply speak to them, they’re trying to panhandle. And for some people, that’s not the case. From the statistics I found, 18 million people are a paycheck away from being homeless. So, anybody from a CEO to a janitor, in the blink of an eye could lose it all. So, my thing is this—I understand about the parking thing, people don’t feel safe, but I believe if a person is acting in a civil manner, keeping to themselves, being a law-abiding citizen, not violating anybody, being peaceful, that they shouldn’t be criminalized for that.

An amended version of the ordinance said a person could not be arrested if there were no shelter beds available, but still: why not spend a bit more on beds or on improving existing shelters so people don't have to worry about getting stabbed or having all their stuff stolen, especially given how much more expensive it is to throw people in jail for ... sleeping?

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