Being Homeless is Against the Law

Economic profiling treats homeless people as criminals

By Margo Pierce

Affluent college students set up tents, cardboard boxes and crates on private property housed in their makeshift “shanty town,” as a protest against the plight of homeless people. Living outdoors for a night – food, toilets and police protection readily available – this camping offers protection for a night spent in full view of the public.

A ragtag group of people huddles under a highway bridge, cars thundering overhead, setting up tents and a few belongings. They are waiting out a storm. It will likely be a few days before the rain finally stops, so they are grateful for the protection and a measure of privacy in a public place.

The first group will pass the night in relative calm after the TV cameras leave. The second group will be invaded by police issuing citations before forcing them back into the storm to look for some other shelter, possibly leading to more tickets. Both situations describe people creating their own shelter. The reason they are treated so differently is economic profiling. Like other forms of profiling – targeting individuals for suspicion because of their race, faith or nationality – economic profiling uses the appearance of poverty as a basis of suspicion.

Economic profiling is also used to create laws and ordinances that intentionally target economically disadvantaged people, frequently homeless, for the stated reason of improving public safety. The problem is that this profiling doesn’t work, and it sanctions discrimination against people who are different, feeding an irrational fear of “homeless people.”

Beautiful people can be homeless, too

If you saw David Letterman or Jim Carey sleeping in a car, wrapped in a sleeping bag against the cold, would you call the police and complain that he made you feel unsafe while walking your dog? Would Halle Berry, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt on a bus-stop bench, prompt you to tell a cop that a prostitute was soliciting in a place where children gather? Would those people inspire feelings of fear, disgust or self-righteous indignation?

Of course not. You’d look for a piece of paper for an autograph and get your cell phone ready to take a photo. The only difference between Letterman, Berry and other people on the street is that they managed to move beyond homelessness and became rich. When they were homeless, however, a call to the cops would have been a more likely outcome, because we treat homelessness as a crime.

In 2007 approximately 3.6 million people were homeless at some time in North America, according to a number of non-profit organizations. “Homeless” is defined in a variety of ways, so it is impossible to paint a uniform picture of what this reality looks like. But the numbers show that homelessness has reached epidemic proportions. The popular response is punishment.

“It’s illegal to be homeless in this country. We have a form of economic profiling similar to racial profiling,” says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. “It’s a major problem, and it’s not going to go away unless citizens demand that their cities do something about it in a positive manner.”

This is true across all of North America.

“During the past 10 years the number of tickets given to the homeless by the police has quadrupled,” says Serge Lareault, publisher of the Canadian street paper L’Itinéraire. “Considered an ‘open city,’ many homeless have moved to Montréal, especially after the situation in Toronto, where the police decided to ‘clean’ the downtown of the homeless through ticketing and harassment.

“From 1994 to 2007 the population of homeless in Montréal has passed from 15,000 to 30,000. The tickets given to the homeless between 2003-05 total $3.3 million, and they will never pay it, because they have no money. The majority of them say it’s a big reason why they will not be able to reintegrate the society, because they have too much to pay.”

People who live on the street or rely on shelters for temporary housing are on the outside of society because they appear to do things that are inappropriate. The law treats certain necessary behaviors as “anti-social” when they are performed in public. Criminal citations are often issued to homeless people for activities that everyone else does indoors or on private property: earning income, sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom or sitting down to rest.

Stoops calls these “quality of life” behaviors. Some of the laws barring them are cited in the Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, a 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. They include:

  • Bathing in public waters
  • Urination/defecation in public
  • Begging/panhandling
  • Camping in public places
  • Sitting or lying in public places
  • Spitting
  • Failure to disperse from public places
  • Washing cars or windshields
  • Being without a shirt

Using a toilet is a universal need. You might think a person could just use the facilities in a public place such as a library or subway or a shelter. But that ignores facts that only become obvious when you are living on the street. Many public places can be too far away to walk to – assuming you can walk) and are locked much of the day. Many shelters have restricted access; not anyone can just wander in when they want. And businesses rarely allow people who are not customers to use their facilities.

Then there’s the challenge of taking a shower.

Olympic Kidnapping

While advocates for the homeless recognize the harmful impact of such laws, most communities are slow to recognize the added burdens they place on people already struggling to overcome significant barriers. A single complaint can result in fines for homeless people even if they are causing no problems. When four police cars pulled up to an area under the Interstate 5 bridge in Sacramento, Calif., and cops started ticketing the people sheltering there, Paula Lomazzi, editor of Homeward, the local street paper, was nearby. Lomazzi also works with the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee (SHOC).

“Safe Ground Sacramento was having a retreat about a couple blocks away when we received a call about this,” Lomazzi says. “We all took a break from the meeting to support the group under the bridge, including two attorneys. It was raining. The group that was camping/living under the bridge had moved there because their regular place was flooded out by (a) high river. They had nowhere else to go. Police gave them all citations and told them they had to leave. … We found out later that a lady that lives in the area had complained. This bridge underpass is not located near any residents or business. They were not visible from the street or anywhere else unless you actually walked under the bridge.”

Efforts to rid the streets of evidence of homelessness can increase during highly visible public events. At these times a city wants to look good by “sweeping” unpleasant aspects of the community out of sight. Police in many cities conduct sweeps in which they round up individuals on the street and take them to a specific location or simply dump the people far away from where they were picked up. By the time they make their way back, the event will be over.

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, is an example.

“What we have seen in Vancouver is an escalation in the criminalization of poverty and homelessness in the lead up to the Olympics,” says Sean Condon, executive director of Megaphone. “Homeless advocates believe this is an attempt to sweep the poor away during the games. While that hasn’t been fully actualized, it has led to displacement and further criminalization. The first wave started last winter when the police, taking advantage of transition in the mayor’s chair, started handing out tickets to homeless and low-income people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – a poor neighborhood that is most well known for having an open drug market – for everything from jaywalking and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. After a public outcry and the new mayor’s own opposition, the police finally backed off.

“However, this past summer they started another crackdown in the neighborhood on the vendors who sell often found goods on the street. Homeless/low-income people are unable to pay the $100-$500 tickets that were handed to them.”

A more benevolent label on another law recently enacted in British Columbia is the Assistance to Shelter Act, which authorizes police to “forcibly remove a homeless person and take them to a shelter when there is an extreme weather warning,” Condon says. With approximately 3,000 homeless people in Vancouver and approximately 1,000 shelter beds, plus a few emergency shelters, there are more homeless people than available beds.

“Dubbed the Olympic Kidnapping Act by locals, (the law) is troubling,” Condon says. “What the police, the shelter and the homeless person are supposed to do when all the shelters are full has not been answered. In fairness, the Vancouver police department has said they will not forcibly take a homeless person to a shelter and will only encourage them to go. But police departments in other municipalities, including other Metro Vancouver cities, have not made the same guarantee.”

As recently as December 2009, the Supreme Court of British Columbia has ruled in favor of the rights of homeless people. The court refused to reverse a decission made in 2008 by Supreme Court Justice Carol Ross, which struck down bylaws in the city of Victoria prohibiting homeless people from camping in public parks. She wrote that the bylaws “violate … the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in that they deprive homeless people of life, liberty and security of the person in a manner not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

Housing is cheaper

There are no comprehensive studies proving that the criminalization approach to homelessness improves public safety. Advocates for the homeless, however, cite scientific research and anecdotal evidence to prove that addressing the root causes of homelessness – not the behaviors related to it – can have a positive long-term impact for the community as well as the individuals.

Homes Not Handcuffs cites a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which Seattle researchers concluded that it’s “cheaper to provide supportive housing to chronically homeless individuals with severe alcohol problems than to have them live on the streets.

“Researchers designed a study to evaluate the effect of a Housing First intervention for chronically homeless individuals with severe alcohol problems on the use and costs of services,” the report says. “According to the study, the median costs of Housing First participants before the study were $4,066 per person per month. When participating in the Housing First program, median monthly costs decreased to $1,492 per person per month, after six months and $958 after 12 months.”

Some cities make an effort to balance the criminalization approach with efforts to assist individuals in connecting with service providers. The uneven application of harsh enforcement is illustrated in Colorado. Denver’s Road Home – a 10-year plan to end homelessness – includes criminalization ordinances, but the city “adopted a policy of training officers on how to do outreach to the homeless,” says Tim Covi, editor of the Denver VOICE.

Law enforcement is expected to direct people to assistance rather than issue tickets right away. While the homeless on the Downtown Business Improvement District say they have been treated with respect, others aren’t so fortunate.

“Particularly along the Platte River and Cherry Creek areas, where the homeless often sleep at night and by law are not permitted to sleep, the Denver VOICE has received accounts of people’s possessions being discarded after they were roused in the morning and told to leave the area,” Covi says. “We have been told by at least five homeless people that the police make regular stops early in the morning on the Platte River and tell people to leave, and that if they’re found there again, they’ll be ticketed or arrested.”

Scarce financial resources and public sentiment means advocates for the homeless have the added responsibility of educating the public about the steps necessary to end homelessness. Most large cities have more homeless people than shelter beds and even fewer services to address the root causes of the problem – mental health issues, addiction, job training, high unemployment rates, hiring practices that bar individuals with criminal records. Success stories are hard to come by.

The “A Key Not a Card” campaign in Portland, Ore., allows outreach workers from five different service providers to offer people immediate housing, instead of just a business card.

“From the program’s inception in 2005 through spring 2009, 936 individuals in 451 households have been housed through the program, including 216 households placed directly from the street,” says the Homes Not Handcuffs report.

Another innovative and successful program cited by the report comes from Daytona Beach, Fla. In an effort to reduce the need for panhandling, a coalition of service providers, businesses and the city of Daytona Beach provides homeless people with jobs and housing. The Downtown Street Team program hires homeless people to clean up downtown Daytona Beach. Each is provided with shelter and then transitional housing. Some of the participants have secured other full-time jobs and housing as a result.

Make them wear signs

Unfortunately, failed programs tend to get the most attention.

“What happens when a city proposes some new initiative to solve the homeless problem – and this is in a negative way, to criminalize homelessness – it passes,” says Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “The chamber of commerce, the police department, the business community will say that this new anti-panhandling program is working. And then other cities hear about it. Cities are actually very lazy. They will copy and pass this same, exact panhandling ordinance that was passed in Cincinnati.”

Indianapolis, Ind., and other municipalities are currently considering the ordinance Stoops refers to.

“In 2003 Cincinnati City Council passed an ordinance requiring panhandlers to obtain licenses from the health department,” says Gregory Flannery, editor of Streetvibes. “Teachers, nurses, activists and others registered as panhandlers in an expression of solidarity. The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (parent organization of Streetvibes) filed a civil-rights lawsuit in federal court alleging the ordinance was a violation of the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech. In settling the lawsuit, the city, the Homeless Coalition and Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI) agreed to create an outreach position at DCI, whose job includes connecting panhandlers with social services.”

Politicians in Cincinnati, eager to appear tough on panhandlers, have sometimes tried to ignore the conditions of the settlement, however. Last summer City Councilman Jeff Berding proposed taxing panhandlers and making them wear signs stating how much the city spends to help homeless people. In response to these conditions and other outrageous claims made in the proposal, Berding bowed to community pressure and retracted the measure but only after a significant amount of grandstanding.

Advocates are working to change the views of lawmakers while simultaneously finding ways to get around the laws until they are removed.

In Sacramento it’s against the law to camp or use “camp paraphernalia” on any public property. Camping is allowed on private property with an owner’s permission as long as it’s not for more than 24 hours, according to Lomazzi.

One unintended consequence of the law is that people who own houses could receive citations for camping violations. If a family wants to have a two-day camp-out in their backyard, they can’t get a permit: The limit is one day. The likelihood of a neighbor calling the police isn’t great. But the net result is much more severe for homeless people. Even though Sacramento has more homeless people than shelters beds, people are not allowed to create their own shelter, denying them even minimal protection against the elements.

Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee is trying to adapt.

“We have started a new organization called Safe Ground Sacramento that is trying to establish legal places for people to stay until housing is available,” Lomazzi says. “Campers stay together and sleep illegally most nights. A church has offered sanctuary to the group on freezing cold nights. Currently, the strategy is to go from one private property to the next … in hopes of evading the anti-camping ordinance by taking advantage of the 24-hour private property loophole.

“We set up a Safe Ground community on private property near the central city with the owner’s permission, and that lasted for about a month before the police came in and arrested everyone. The city threatened to fine the owner, so the group vacated the land.”

Support from the community in the form of donations for sleeping cottages and pledges for future financial support is coming, but locations for the rotating sleeping locations are not yet being offered.

‘Everyone has the right’

Although no data proves criminalization efforts deter crime or increase public safety, municipalities continue to pass punitive laws. Research by the National Coalition for the Homeless illustrates how expensive that approach can be:

* Los Angeles: $6 million a year to pay for 50 extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area while the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.

* Gainesville, Fla.: As part of its 10-year plan to end homelessness, the city commission approved a plan to spend up to $75,000 on a fence to keep people off “Tent City” property, and only $20,000 to address the housing and service needs of those evicted.

* Cincinnati, Ohio: A 2007 study by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless found that using the criminal justice system to deal with the consequences of street homelessness is an expensive approach, costing $65 per bed per day in the jail, compared to $30 a day for permanent supportive housing.

At a time when millions are being donated by private citizens and government to offer relief to 1.9 million Haitians left homeless by the recent earthquake, North Americans turn a blind eye to the policies that punish almost twice that many people in the same circumstance.

But change is possible.

“After two years of debate in front of the Commission of Human Rights of Québec, a victory has been achieved: On 9 Nov. 2009 the commission condemned strongly the city and the police regarding the social profiling of Montréal’s homeless,” says Serge Lareault, publisher of L’Itinéraire. “The government of Quebec engaged a new lawyer for homeless at the beginning of December 2009. He is charged with the creation of a center for drunk homeless as an alternative to help them and not arresting them or giving tickets. But the fight continues. The police still arrest and give many tickets each day. Many people are asking for programs to help homelessness. Others are asking for an amnesty to the hundreds of homeless who have tickets.”

Both Canada and the United States have signed and ratified and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but both have failed to universally incorporate its principles into their laws. The non-binding United Nations (U.N.) declaration opens with a preamble recognizing “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” In 1948 the U.N. General Assembly adopted this declaration as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”

The recognition that everyone – regardless of any distinction including an “other status,” such as homelessness – is “born free and equal in dignity and rights” of life, liberty and security of person, is detailed in admonitions to prohibit slavery, torture, arbitrary arrest and a host of other behaviors that the United States and Canada routinely condemn as deplorable in other countries. The problem is that we refuse to do as we say.

Laws that criminalize homelessness routinely violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Restricting the movement of people in specific locations violates article 13: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” Confiscating and disposing of personal property because it happens to be on public land violates article 17: “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of (his/her) property.” Perhaps the most egregious violation of all is the blatant disregard for Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

Homelessness has become a crime, but homeless people are the victims, not the perpetrators. Laws that worsen their plight aggravate the offense. Just as mental illness, sexual abuse and addiction are conditions that call for help – not prosecuting victims – homelessness deserves a response rooted in compassion, fiscal sense and respect for international law. Helping homeless people is less expensive than jailing them. But more important, helping homeless people is the right thing to do. Jailing them for being homeless is wrong.