Editorial: Empty gestures on homelessness

It’s easy to fault Rhode Island’s recently passed Homeless Bill of Rights as a gimmicky gesture. The bill, among other things, guarantees a person the right to use public sidewalks, parks and transportation as well as public buildings “without discrimination on the basis of his or her housing status.” It also guarantees a “reasonable expectation of privacy” with respect to personal belongings and assures the homeless of their rights to equal treatment by law enforcement, and to equal access to voting and emergency medical care.

Critics complain that the homeless already enjoy the same protections as the housed to equal treatment. That common decency can’t be legislated. That what the homeless really need are the supports to find work and affordable housing.

Those may seem like valid points. Equal treatment of the homeless should go without saying. Sadly, it doesn’t always.

Philadelphia just made it illegal to give the homeless food in a public place like a park, one of a few cities to pass anti-camping or anti-food-sharing laws. San Francisco last year passed a “sit-lie” law, a ban on sitting and lying on sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., with repeat offenders facing a $100 fine or arrest. St. Louis,
Missouri recently tore down three tent cities used by the homeless along an industrial section of the riverfront, with officials saying the encampment was unsafe and unsanitary.

Anti-vagrancy ordinances in cities around the nation are designed to chase away street people, essentially criminalizing homelessness instead of addressing its root causes. Out of sight, out of mind.

These laws are a blowback of the tenseness of the homeless problem. Many still think homeless people are drug addicts, drunks, mentally ill, lazy, don’t want to work, panhandlers, etc. That’s the back-story and
the underlying but veiled sentiment.

Boston is blessed, unlike many other cities, with facilities such as a Saint Francis House or a Cardinal Medeiros Center, where the homeless can go during the day hours when they are disallowed from being in the shelters. That doesn’t mean Boston’s homeless aren’t made to feel unwelcome in coffee shops, public libraries, and on sidewalks in front of businesses – they are. That will continue until we address the root
causes of homelessness and poverty. Symbolic laws – whether it’s public nuisance laws or bills of rights for the homeless – appeal to our craving for easy answers, but accomplish little.

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