For decades, cities all over the country have criminalized homelessness, instituting measures that outlaw holding a sign, sleeping, sitting, or lying down if you live on the street.
At the same time, few cities provide adequate services to address the needs of the homeless that drive them to these behaviors.
In New York City, it’s against the law for people to sleep on the subway. Yet a homeless man I talked to in the dead of winter told me that the train was his first choice, the freezing streets were his second choice, and the foul and terrifying New York City shelters were a very distant third. “The shelters are dangerous and disgusting, full of sick people,” he told me.
As with many issues, using law enforcement to hassle the homeless is wildly counter-productive: after all, police aren’t trained to be social workers and a criminal record never helped anyone get their life together. In fact, many police shootings take place because officers are called to respond to the sometime erratic behavior of homeless people who might be suffering from a mental health episode.
Unsurprisingly, Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice has not been a champion for the rights of homeless people. In 2017, the department revoked an Obama era policy that guided against imposing fines on the poor.
Here is an incomplete list of laws, ordinances and law enforcement and government tactics that violate homeless people’s human rights.
1. Outlawing sitting down. People are allowed to exist in public, but sometimes the homeless make that civic rule inconvenient, like when their presence perturbs tourists or slows the spread of gentrification. One solution to this problem is the “sit-lie” law, a bizarrely authoritarian measure that bans sitting or resting in a public space. The law is clearly designed to empower police to chase homeless people out of nice neighborhoods, rather than protect cities from the blight of public sidewalk-sitting
Supporters of sit-lie claim the law helps police deal with disruptive behavior like harassment and public drunkenness, and that getting people off the street will get them into shelters. Homelessness advocates counter that the disruptive behaviors associated with some homeless people are already against the law.
2. Making it illegal to give people food. In January, volunteers in El Cajon, California, were slapped with a misdemeanor. Their crime was to give people food. A 14-year-old kid learned the hard way that generosity is not appreciated. “I was passing out food and this guy was like, ‘Can you step aside please,” he told a local station.
They weren’t the first and they likely won’t be the last.
Public feeding bans are not new, and they continue to crop up despite being routinely overturned by the courts. Florida, where many homeless people end up because of the warm weather, has been especially egregious. The city of Orlando was so committed to wiping out the scourge of public food donation, it embroiled itself in a five-year battle with Food Not Bombs that cost the city more than $150,000.
Officials often cite sanitation concerns. But hunger tends to outweigh concerns over cleanliness. “Of course sanitation is important, and of course public health is important,” Maria Foscarinis, the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) told Newsweek, “but these issues can be addressed without banning sharing food with people who are hungry and people who are impoverished.”
3. Installing obstacles to prevent sleeping or sitting. Many cities have invested in their homeless torture infrastructure, spending thousands to install obstacles preventing the homeless from sleeping, standing, or sitting in parks, under bridges and next to public transportation. That includes substituting round concrete stools for benches, as the city of Honolulu did and”bridge rods” — pyramid structures the city of Minneapolis installed to keep the homeless from sleeping under bridges.
4. Anti-panhandling laws. Standing on the street and asking, “Do you have a dollar?” clearly falls under constitutionally protected free speech. Still, cities all over the country enforce strict anti-panhandling laws that make it illegal to ask for money, food or anything else of value around tourist attractions, and in some cases city-wide.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, begging bans have increased significantly since 2011. “Even where cities have chosen to limit their prohibition of panhandling to particular places, the impact can be as great as that of a city-wide ban,” they write. “This is because commercial and tourist districts, the areas where panhandling is most likely to be prohibited, are often the only places where homeless people have regular access to passersby and potential donors.”
Fines for panhandling can go into the hundreds of dollars and months of jail time.
5. Anti-panhandling laws to punish people who give. Some cities are so eager to spare their citizens the horrors of panhandling they’ve instituted laws protecting them from themselves. In 2010 Oakland Park, Florida, made it illegal to give money to panhandlers. The Los Angeles Times reported:
Under the ordinance initially passed last month, anyone who responds to a beggar with money or any “article of value” or buys flowers or a newspaper from someone on the street would face a fine of $50 to $100 and as many as 90 days in jail. “You’re going to put someone in jail for giving someone a coat when it’s cold or a hamburger if they’re hungry?”
6. Feeding panhandling meters instead of panhandlers. Cities across the country have launched programs that encourage people to feed “panhandling meters” with change rather than give directly to the homeless. The bulk of the cash goes to homeless charities. While many homeless advocates applaud the giving sentiment behind the meters, they also point out that the machines can make the issue abstract and easier to detach from emotionally. As the National Coalition for the Homeless says on their blog, “Donations to service organizations are always encouraged, but we should never let these meters discourage acknowledging those who ask for money are fellow human beings. Just as ignoring the issue of homelessness will not help end it, ignoring the people directly affected by homelessness will not help them help themselves.”
For many homeless people, a conversation of a few minutes helps ward off loneliness. Francine Triplett, a middle-aged woman who ended up on the streets after escaping domestic abuse, toured the country a few years back as part of a panel raising awareness about homelessness. Triplett said the worst part for her was not being hungry or cold, but being treated like she didn’t exist. People walking by “treated us like we was a big old bag of trash,” she told the Philadelphia Weekly Press. “All I wanted was conversation. I didn’t want food,” she recently said during National Poverty Awareness Week according to the Weekly Press.
7. Selective enforcement of laws like jaywalking and loitering. Many laws that apply to all citizens, like loitering or jaywalking, end up being selectively enforced against homeless people or based on race. A UCLA report on LA’s efforts to clean up Skid Row found that the 50 extra officers assigned would cost $6 million — more than the $5.7 million the city allocated for homeless services. Their favored method was going after people for infractions like jaywalking, which do not get strictly enforced against the general population. Defendants in many cities have sued police departments for discrimination in selectively enforcing the law.
8. Destroying possessions of the homeless. Police regularly conduct sweeps of homeless encampments, destroying or confiscating tents, blankets and other private property, including medications and documents, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“The destruction of highly valuable or very difficult to replace items, such as birth certificates, social security cards, or photo identification, causes considerable harm to homeless people. Worse yet, the loss of medicine or medical equipment can become a matter of life and death,” the Coalition writes.
Residents of homeless shelters also have their property rights routinely trampled by police.
9. Kicking homeless kids out of school. Unsurprisingly, good educational opportunities are not bountiful for homeless children. The country’s estimated nearly 2.5 million children face a number of obstacles to regular schooling, ranging from residency requirements that are tough to meet when a family is transient to a lack of immunization records.
These difficulties were highlighted in a 2011 case in which a homeless Connecticut woman used her babysitter’s address to enroll her child in a public school in the area. Her efforts to provide her kid with an education earned her a first-degree larceny charge. The babysitter who helped was evicted from her public housing complex.
10. Making the homeless pawns in petty political feuds. As rents rise and gentrification spreads, poor people in many cities end up on the street or in uncertain housing situations, such as multiple families living in one apartment. In New York City, family homeless continues to rise — and few effective steps have been taken to lower it.
The feud between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is legendary, and at the height of its absurdity, once helped kill a deer.
The two have also sparred over homelessness, as when, in 2017, De Blasio blamed Cuomo for a homeless man sleeping on a train (the MTA is a state agency) and Cuomo shot back that the New York City police department is run by the city.
He also knocked de Blasio for not coming up with better policies to address homelessness in the city.
“We need to get the homeless off the trains and out of the subway stations so people feel safe and to get the homeless people the help they need,” he said, according to the Observer. “You do not help a homeless person by saying, ‘We’ll let you sleep on the train.’ That’s not how you help a homeless person.”