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Homeless & Outlawed

News & Features | February 8, 2016

In Salt Lake City, Utah, Jacob, a 21-year-old homeless man, received five tickets for sleeping outside—five tickets in just one night.

“The cops give us no rest,” he told Invisible People. “I mean, we can’t even sleep at the park anymore because it’s against the [law] to camp…I can sleep on the sidewalk and get a ticket. I can sleep [across the street] and get a ticket. No matter where I go I get a ticket.”

Unfortunately, Jacob is not alone in his struggle. The homeless in Colorado Springs, Colorado, face a proposed ban on sitting, lying, or kneeling on the sidewalk in the downtown area. In New Port Richey, Florida, the city council voted to restrict feeding homeless people in the city’s parks. In Santa Cruz, California, it is illegal to sleep in vehicles.

Across the country, the number of cities with laws that criminalize actions associated with homelessness is growing. In their 2014 study, “No Safe Place,” The National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) surveyed the laws of 187 cities. “Cities are moving toward prohibiting unavoidable, life sustaining activities throughout entire communities,” the report details in its key findings.

The study indicates that cities try to hide the problem of homelessness with bans on camping in public, sleeping in public, begging, loitering, living in vehicles, lying down in public, and even sharing food. Recently, citywide bans on camping in public increased by 60 percent while bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by a staggering 119 percent.

Boston has less aggressive measures, but there are some laws targeting the city’s homeless population. NLCHP identified parts of the city code that target or are likely to target the homeless population. For example, there are some bans on sleeping, loitering, and begging in particular public places. The City of Boston’s municipal code bans sleeping in the Boston Common or the Public Garden. There are bans on solicitation at various locations including bus shelters, bus stops, parking lots, parking garages, and within ten feet from an ATM.

Recently in Massachusetts there has been some pushback against laws that criminalize homelessness. Kevin Martin, a partner at the law firm Goodwin Procter and co-chair of appellate litigation practice, worked on a case last year with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to strike down a law in Worcester that targeted “aggressive” panhandlers.

Martin says that “aggressive” was really a misnomer. The law made actions like panhandling a half hour before nightfall—which in winter is rush hour—illegal. “There were lots of things that no one would think are aggressive that were deemed aggressive and therefore criminalized.” In November they succeeded and a federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional.

After Worcester passed its law, he said that there was a lot of “copy cat behavior” and some other Massachusetts cities, like Lowell, moved to adopt similar laws. When the Worcester law was struck down as unconstitutional, most cities dropped proposed legislation that would criminalize homelessness.

But Massachusetts seems to be the exception. According to the 2014 NLCHP report, 43 percent of American cities surveyed prohibit sleeping in vehicles, 53 percent prohibit sitting or lying down in certain public places, and 34 percent have banned public camping. In 9 percent of the cities surveyed, it is even against the law to give food to the homeless

What’s driving this trend? First, Martin points to a huge increase in homelessness across the country in the wake of the financial crisis. According to National Alliance to End Homelessness, in January 2015 there were 564,708 people homeless in the US on any particular night.

Many of the laws that restrict the behavior of homeless people are introduced in the interest of business owners. Often, they complain that the presence of loiterers, beggars, and those sleeping on the street deters customers. In a 2013 New York Times article, Alexander Polinsky explained what happened to his neighborhood after a charity began to feed homeless people: “They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next door neighbor’s crawl spaces. We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.”

Eric Tars, a senior attorney at the NLCHP, said that as homelessness becomes more visible, “there are more and more people who say ‘we don’t want to see this physical manifestation of poverty.’” Tars said that politicians aren’t working on productive efforts to eliminate homelessness, but instead they’re trying to hide it. “Rather than look and say what is the best thing to do—what is the most cost effective thing to do, what’s going to be the best for the community and the individuals themselves, which is to simply provide housing—instead they look for the most politically expedient thing to do which says that homelessness can’t exist in our community, that we have to take homeless people off the street.”

Tars points out that to house a person in a shelter costs about $25, while it can cost $75 to over $100 to stay in jail. Other studies have come to similar conclusions: The Utah Housing and Community Development Division found that the costs of emergency room visits and jail stays for a homeless person are about $16,670 for a year, but housing and social work costs about $11,000.72. Studies in Albuquerque and Central Florida agree.

Tars believes the issue is how that cost is presented. When a piece of legislation targeting homeless people is proposed, there is no funding allocated for jails. When creating an ordinance to criminalize sleeping outside, it’s seemingly free—lawmakers and citizens don’t have to explicitly fund money for prisons. But, he points out that when you create legislation for low-income housing or shelter beds, you have to explicitly state the up-front cost and allocate money for it. This makes passing ordinances criminalizing homelessness a fast and seemingly cheaper way for local government leaders to “address” the issue.

States like Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Illinois have implemented a Homelessness Bill of Rights that, in part, helps to combat this issue. In Rhode Island, this means that the legislation guarantees homeless people the right to move freely in public spaces and receive equal treatment from government agencies. Currently in Massachusetts, House Bill 129, an Act Providing a Homeless Bill of Rights, would similarly protect the rights of the homeless. The bill reads, “No person’s rights, privileges, or access to public services may be denied or abridged solely because he or she is experiencing homelessness.”

Kelly Turley, ‎Director of Legislative Advocacy at Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, a group that is advocating for the House Bill 129, explains that, “We hope that by passing a bill of rights for people experiencing homelessness (House Bill 1129), we can help to change the way municipalities, the state, police departments, social service providers, and others treat people who are without homes…In doing so, we also seek to decrease the actual and perceived criminalization of homelessness.”