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As temperatures drop, airports crack down on homeless seeking shelter from the cold

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They’re warm. Safe. Open 24 hours. Accessible by public transportation. Uncrowded at night. And don’t have limits on carrying your possessions with you.

For years, many homeless people have spent the night in airports between when the last evening flight lands and the first morning flight departs.

But in a number of cities across the country, officials are now cracking down on that unspoken arrangement.

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“To meet our public safety mandate, we will close the LaGuardia terminal to all but ticketed passengers during late night hours,” the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced on 18 December, promising to arrest violators. Similar announcements were made earlier this year, including at Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport in October and at Honolulu International Airport in March.

As the number of homeless people has climbed in major metropolitan areas like Washington DC and New York City , there’s anecdotal evidence that the ranks of people sleeping in airports has similarly grown . One individual, according to Bloomberg , has even lived in LaGuardia for 20 years.

The increasing presence of homeless people in terminals has led to complaints from travelers and employees, as well as news coverage of the phenomenon from outlets like CBS New York and the New York Post that purported to expose the practice. In response, officials at LaGuardia in New York will – beginning 2 January – kick out anyone on the premises between 11pm and 4am who doesn’t have a ticket. At National Airport outside Washington, DC, the closing hours for people without tickets are now between 11:30pm and 4:30am, while Honolulu Airport authorities decided to close lobbies and baggage claim areas altogether between 10pm and 5am.

“Sleeping at the airport was peaceful, quiet and heartwarming,” one homeless individual, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote in Washington DC’s biweekly street newspaper. “You didn’t have to worry about people stealing your stuff or robbing you.” The person said National Airport “reminded me of being home and free, it was my second home.”

Other benefits people in the article pointed to included “hot and cold running water; access to food; free Wi-Fi, charging stations, even free blankets.”

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Homeless people finding shelter in airports isn’t a phenomenon confined to Hawaii and the northeast. In cities across the country, from Cleveland to Orlando to Atlanta , and even international cities like London and Frankfurt , homeless people have been enjoying overnight refuge in airports.

Jesse Rabinowitz, an advocacy specialist at Miriam’s kitchen, called the airports crackdowns “a continuation of the criminalization of homelessness.” Rabinowitz, whose DC-based non-profit works to end chronic homelessness, rattled off a few of the reasons why some people are eschewing shelters and staying in airports instead: “violence, theft, curfews, bed bugs.” Many shelters, he noted bluntly, “aren’t safe.”

Violence is commonplace at homeless shelters. In November, a homeless man was stabbed to death outside a Washington DC shelter.

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“You’re much safer here than in a shelter,” a homeless man in LaGuardia told CBS New York. He slept adjacent to a security camera.

Charlie, a homeless individual in Washington DC who preferred his last name be omitted, recounted to The Guardian some of his negative experiences in shelters over the years.

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He was attacked one night by someone else staying in the same shelter who was threatening young women volunteers. He had to sit through “incredibly condescending” proselytizing services at a religious-based shelter. Bedbugs and intoxicated shelter-mates and thefts were commonplace.

Perhaps most distressing for Charlie, shelter rules prevent him from working. Charlie works regular odd jobs house-sitting and pet-sitting, an occupation that regularly mandates unpredictable hours and locations. But because most shelters have a curfew for guests, “we have a system that makes it nearly impossible” for homeless individuals to work regular jobs, Rabinowitz said.

For instance, one DC shelter Charlie used to frequent had a curfew in the early afternoon. “If you weren’t in by 1pm, you wouldn’t get a bed!” As a result of curfews, he noted, he’s had to pass up multiple jobs.”I had to weigh what’s more important: an occasional dog-walking job or a bed to sleep in,” he said.

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Though Charlie never opted to stay at an airport overnight, he understood the motivation.

“If I don’t get a shelter bed, my fallback is an $85 per night motel room,” he said. “I work way too hard to spend $85 for one night.”

The current crackdowns in New York and Washington DC come at a precarious time. “Asking people to leave the airport in the winter is potentially really, really dangerous,” Rabinowitz said.

Colder temperatures can be life-or-death for people living on the street. Last winter, just miles from the White House, two homeless men were found frozen to death. And already this winter, homeless people have been found dead because of the cold in New Mexico , Maryland and Illinois .

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Rabinowitz criticized the airports’ crackdowns as counterproductive. “The solution to homelessness is housing, not criminalization,” he said. “It’s not an overly complicated thing.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015


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