Want to Feed the Homeless? Be Prepared to Pay the Government for the Privilege

Homeless people, by definition, have nowhere to go – but now in many cities, they have even fewer options. While real estate developers tout “green space” and the economic “revitalisation” of urban landscapes, it’s the sidewalks, parks and plazas that have become hostile territory for the poor. City lawmakers are trying to “clean up” the streets by barring homeless people from parks, shunting families into overcrowded shelters and, in some places, making it a crime even to help the homeless.

Last week, when a 90 year-old activist got arrested for feeding local homeless people at the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his outrage pointed to a nationwide trend of criminalising compassion in the United States. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, since the start of 2013, 21 cities have imposed measures to restrict people from sharing food with the needy in public. In downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, for example, churchgoers have been prohibited from distributing food to homeless people in a local park in a residential area. In Raleigh, North Carolina, local humanitarians have reportedly been banned from giving meals to the needy in city parks without first getting a temporary special permit that costs some $1,600 per weekend.

Meanwhile, local governments have used “quality of life” strictures as a pretext for barring homeless people’s public presence. About a third of the cities surveyed by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty have sought to destroy homeless dwellings by prohibiting “camping” in public – a 60% increase since 2011. About the same percentage of cities also ban “loitering” and some explicitly prohibit sitting or lying down in certain public places – presumably just to make sure the homeless don’t get too comfortable.

While a city can profit from the fines, fees, tourism revenues and real estate investment generated by commodifying public space, the ultimate cost is borne by those who can least afford it: the impoverished and the homeless. These days, even those who reach out with a simple act of charity are punished for their “misconduct”.

But these regulations aren’t about maintaining “quality of life” for the local community’s residents: the laws are simply about colonising the commons to make it safe for the rich, typically to the exclusion of others. Their proponents are using the allure of social harmony to paper over the shame of massive inequality.

The anti-homeless crackdown is just the latest episode in the long history of the battle for common space. Governments have always deployed “nuisance laws” to marginalize unruly people whom the affluent disdained as an environmental blemish: beggars were rousted, vulgar gathering spots like “bawdy houses” got busted in “vice raids”. And today, low income tenants get policed at every turn, while their communities are systematically displaced by development and zoning policies that fuel gentrification.

The authorities have a point: some elements of urban life do make the streets seem disorderly, even chaotic. But simply erasing them from the landscape degrades the color and vitality of the urban social fabric. More dangerously, by excluding working-class people from common spaces, cities scrub their streets of evidence of the real human condition without solving any actual social problem – just the appearance of one.

Handing out food to the homeless is certainly not a long-term solution to homelessness or chronic hunger. But eliminating charity isn’t magically going to make homeless people opt for a different lifestyle. The choices of the homeless are constrained by the absence of social programs, healthcare and income support that people need to find permanent housing and stability. Policies that criminalise the mere sight of homeless people uphold a social order driven by racial and economic inequality and social alienation, while privatising what few shared resources we have left.

As millions struggle with joblessness and stagnant wages, many low-income households are just one medical emergency or missed rent payment away from homelessness. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, amid soaring rents, extremely low-income families face a deficit in the supply of affordable housingof roughly 4.4m affordable units. Meanwhile, the supply of subsidised public housing has tumbled by about 10,000 units per year.

This widespread instability is the reason why more than 600,000 people nationwide were without a home on a given night in 2013 – a quarter of them children. Many could be served by welfare, mental health and transitional housing programs, but they are isolated from the social service infrastructure and now they’re being shut out of parks and shoved off the streets.

There is, of course, a more straightforward way of eliminating homelessness: providing them with homes. The Housing First approach runs on the philosophy that homelessness is primarily a housing problem, and that housing is a human right. The first step is to satisfy the immediate need for stable shelter, and then supplement that with strong long-term supportive services – from case management for someone seeking drug treatment to placing someone in job training, or just helping someone pay her first security deposit.

Housing-focused programs have proven successful in significantly alleviating homelessness in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Seattle, and Housing First been shown in various studies to limit the time that people spend in jails, shelters and hospitals. And, under this approach, homeless people aren’t arrested or banished from sight: they get access to stable housing and supportive social services. Taxpayers win, too, as long-term solutions eliminate costly short-term interventions and emergency room visits.

If this common-sense solution seems absurdly obvious, remember why cities resort to exclusion and policing in the first place: we’ve grown accustomed to seeing walls and fences as the only solution. After generations of trying to make “undesirable” people vanish from the public’s midst, too many privileged people no longer even recognise the signs of desperation that surround us. We’ve forgotten what our own humanity looks like.


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