Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cities Continue To Criminalize Homelessness


More cities are turning their backs on members of society that have fallen on hard times leaving them without a place to live.

Many U.S.  municipalities, ranging from Palo Alto to Miami to Raleigh to Tampa and beyond, have enacted measures in the past few years aimed at criminalizing the conditions homeless people are faced with on a daily basis. Actions such as sleeping, panhandling, and possessing one's own  property in public can get a person a citation and in some locales locked up.

The city of Ft. Lauderdale Florida is one example of what many other cities are doing to "combat homelessness" as they put it.

Recently the Ft. Lauderdale City Commission unanimously approved two separate measures that restrict basic survival necessities for many homeless people, including sleeping in public areas and asking others for money.

The first, Ordinance No. C-14-41, makes it illegal for anyone to sleep in public in the downtown area. According to commissioners, it was necessary because of Ft. Lauderdale’s interest in the “preservation of property values and the prevention of the deterioration in its downtown.”

The second measure, Ordinance No. C-14-38, cracks down on people who ask drivers for money at an intersection. Under the new law, panhandling is now illegal at “busy intersections,” which includes dozens of stops in the city. It's been noted that the measure apples to  anyone trying to raise money for charity, including children. Commissioners justified the move by pointing to the fact that there were 154 pedestrians involved in traffic accidents last year. But notably absent from that statistic is how many of those accidents involved panhandlers.

According to the Sun Sentinel, violators of the new laws could face both a $500 fine and 60 days in jail.
Does the Commission really expect anyone to believe that the cops are going to cite and /or lock up members of say a church, or girl scout organization for engaging in fundraising on a traffic island? I don't think they will.

To call these measures out for what they really are reveals the attitude of a certain percentage of our society toward the unfortunate that no one likes to admit exists. That's the attitude that that pushes the fallacy that some of these folks decided their way into their predicaments and the symptoms of their conditions should be criminalized in the hopes they will disappear .

Make no mistake about it. Homelessness cannot be criminalized no more than cancer or impoverishment can be criminalized. It's a play on the public's intelligence to peddle criminalization of the symptoms of any legal misfortune as assistance to those suffering the ill effects of that misfortune.

Another individual who testified, Casey Cooper, told commissioners about his experiences being homeless over the past two-and-a-half years, noting that he “didn’t grow up in a wealthy middle class family like you did,” but instead grew up in foster care. He was never adopted, so when he turned 18, with no family, he found himself on the streets. “So if people like you who are banning me every night, I have to worry about where I’m going to sleep at, where’s the next meal at, how am I going to get the next piece of clothing, worry if the cops are going to mess with me, and you’re going to try to pass a law that’s [...] going to ban homelessness?” Cooper asked commissioners. “Sleep is a human right.”

Cooper isn’t the only homeless person to call Ft. Lauderdale home. According to the 2013 Point-in-Time Count, there are 2,810 homeless individuals and families who live in Broward County.
Maria Foscarinis, who heads the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which monitors homeless criminalization laws, called Ft. Lauderdale’s move “unfortunate.” She told ThinkProgress that instead of criminalizing homeless individuals, “City revitalization should address the needs of all city residents — including homeless people — and should ensure the development of affordable housing, with any needed services, to provide a real and lasting solution to homelessness.”

Ft. Lauderdale as is many cities throughout America is approaching Homelessness wrong. As anyone that's ever cleaned a home knows, sweeping something under a rug doesn't address why that something got there in the first place. These cities would do well to implement reformed and more accessible affordable housing policies. They also have to bring the business community into the equation to open up job training and opportunities for those that desperately need a leg up over a handout.

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