Tampa, Florida: Homeless People Thrown in Jail For...Sleeping?

Mass incarceration: the answer to all our problems.

In a curious interpretation of how "rights" work, the city of Tampa, Florida can now throw homeless people in jail for sleeping in public.

Last week, the city council passed two ordinances that ban panhandling in much of the city and allow police to arrest people for sleeping or storing their stuff in public spaces. Courts have previously ruled that public behaviors people must engage in to stay alive, like sleeping and eating, cannot be banned without ensuring the resources that provide them with alternatives, but the council did not increase funding for shelters or transitional housing, as Think Progress points out.

Tampa has very high rates of homelessness for a midsize city, and inadequate resources for handling it. Shelters are closed during theday, forcing occupants to leave and lug their belongings around. Homeless shelters have waiting lists and most are at capacity, according to homelessness advocates. 

For those who do get a spot in a shelter, it's important to remember that contrary to the claims of billionaire Mayors, homeless shelters are not luxury retreats lazy poor people are clamoring to get into; they're last-resort options where they can be killed, sexually assaulted, or have their possessions stolen.

In other words, homeless people don't sleep in public parks for the purpose of lowering a neighborhood's property value or ruining tourists' vacations or spitting on the American values of self-sufficiency and bootstrappiness. In a terrible economy with homelessness rising and cities cutting resources—both mental health resources and aid to low-income people—need goes up as help dwindles. Getting hassled by the police and judged (or beaten or killed) by passersby is not as fun as it sounds. Most people who sleep on the street or in parks do it because they don't have a better option. 

According to WMNF, a homeless man named Corey Williams who testified at the hearings tried to appeal to the council members' humanity by pointing out that:

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.

Meanwhile, homelessness advocates point out that filling up jails with poor people is not the magic solution to the city's homelessness problem. According to WMNF's Steve Sapp, publisher of community newspaper Tampa Epoch, “And then once they get out from being incarcerated, once again, there’s no options. So, they just get back into that system once again. They don’t wake up from being incarcerated and suddenly develop job skills and a new place to stay."

As AlterNet has reported, many cities around the country have reacted to seemingly unmanagable jumps in homelessness rates by criminalizing behaviors that unhoused individuals must engage in—sleeping, eating, asking for money—in order to survive. Others enforce laws like loitering or jaywalking that are against the law for everyone but far more likely to be used against the poor and homeless. 

In their report Homes Not Handcuffs, the National Coalition for the Homeless documented how cities all over the country have come to rely on America's massively messed up criminal justice system to address homelessness, ticketing and arresting people for such terrible crimes as feeding the homeless in parks, asking for money in entire towns, and sitting down on a sidewalk. 

Meanwhile, a criminal record makes it all that much harder for people to get back on their feet, since they're no longer eligible for housing aid and other supports; it pretty much ensures they'll endlessly cycle through the criminal justice system.

An amended version of the Tampa ordinance says a homeless person won't be arrested if there is no space for them in any shelter, but it's hard to imagine police not making ample use of a law that makes resting while homeless a criminal offense. Still, one wonders why incarceration is even considered a viable solution when studies have repeatedly shown that imprisoning people costs more than investment in social services and transitional housing, and ultimately makes homelessness worse.

Tana Ganeva is a reporter covering criminal justice, drug policy and homelessness. Follow her on Twitter @TanaGaneva.

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