Cities around the country are increasingly passing “zero-tolerance” laws criminalizing the behavior of homeless people. Forbidding people to sleep in public, to camp, to store belongings in public spaces, and to share food, are among the growing number of city ordinances targeting homeless people.
Homeless advocacy groups are responding with alarm to the trend of criminalization. According to groups like the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), such trend has been steadily increasing over the last 30+ years.
The trend of criminalization “includes measures that target homeless persons by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public,” the NCH said in a report: “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” Picnics and other permitted events are allowed, but charitable groups are forbidden to hand out food to poor people.
The two advocacy groups in 2005 ranked cities with tough criminalization laws as the “20 Meanest Cities.”
Although Philadelphia did not make the list of the 20 meanest American cities, the City of Brotherly Love and Mayor Michael Nutter are defendants in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania over a new ban on feeding people in public parks.
The ACLU said the ban on feeding the hungry violated the First Amendment. “These regulations are directed at the homeless, and no one else,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a press release. “The city clearly values its public image over our clients’ constitutional right to practice their religion, and the needs of the homeless.”
Atlanta is number four on the meanest cities list. Yet Mayor Kasim Reed launched a Street Homelessness Initiative in April, meant to help people get off the street. In a speech, Reed said the initiative “is the next step in the down payment on our commitment to make sure that Atlanta is not a only city that is too busy to hate, but to make sure that we are not too busy to love as well.”
The crackdown by municipal governments has prompted one federal agency to study and recommend alternatives to criminalization.
In its 2012 report “Searching out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness,” the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness called on cities to offer “constructive alternatives” rather than punitive measures to address the problems of homeless people.
According to a press statement from NLCHP, the federal report said such criminalization policies “undermine real solutions and may violate the constitutional and human rights of homeless people.”
“The publication of this report is a welcome act of leadership on an issue that is critically, and increasingly, important for homeless Americans,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of NLCHP, in a statement.Foscarinis added that “the true significance of the report will depend on the federal government’s willingness to hold local communities accountable to protect these rights, instead of allowing cities to violate them—often while using federal funds.” She also called on the federal government to provide the resources for alternatives proposed.
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