When Homelessness Became a Crime

Many cities have targeted homeless people by creating ordinances that prohibit activities of daily living for the homeless. One set of restrictions focuses on service providers’ feeding programs. Historically, cities have attempted to restrict feedings on public property through zoning laws.

In Orlando, Florida, members of Food Not Bombs have been arrested repeatedly for feeding homeless people in parks. Food Not Bombs has been feeding homeless people in parks all over the country since they began in the 1980’s.

Food Not Bombs has been fighting a court battle in Orlando for the past five years. They lost the fight in April of this year. The courts said that Food Not Bombs must apply regularly for a permit to feed no more than 25 homeless people at a time.

On May 25th, according to Susan Jacobson of the Orlando Sentinel, Jessica Cross, 24, Benjamin Markeson, 49, and Jonathan “Keith” McHenry, 54, one of the Co-Founders of Food Not Bombs, were arrested for feeding 40 people in the park in violation of the ordinance. The penalties for the arrest were 60 days in jail or a $500 fine or both.

Just recently, police surveillance has identified what they call the “Top 20”, the most-wanted of all homeless individuals. They have been branded as the most aggressive and violent of the homeless population. In Sarasota, Florida, the police have made 108 arrests of the homeless since the beginning of August. They focus on younger homeless individuals and are quite ambitious. Officer Lt. Randy Boyd stated that one of the men targeted has been arrested 200 times in the state for various crimes. Another of the homeless “Top 20” was arrested 41 times on various charges in Pennsylvania and Florida, including charges for disorderly conduct and possession of cocaine.

There are different sides to this story. More and more cities have passed Anti-Panhandling Ordinances, which target the homeless by prohibiting panhandling, solicitation, or begging. Many of these laws infringe on the right to free speech under the First Amendment; when challenged, courts have found begging to be protected speech.

Some courts declare laws prohibiting begging or panhandling as constitutionally vague. A law is constitutionally vague if the language it is written in is not definite enough to give people notice of what is prohibited or if the police could enforce the law in an arbitrary manner.

In Costa Mesa, California, Don Matyja, an Army veteran, was just getting by living on the street, (if you can call it that), when he was issued a ticket for smoking in the park. Matyja, according to the Boston Globe, has been homeless for two years. The ticket was $25 and because he hasn’t had the money to pay it, the fine has now grown to $600.

The anti-homelessness laws in Matyja’s area are multiplying. In Orange County, California, ordinances were passed banning smoking in parks, sleeping in cars, and leaning bicycles against trees- all in a region filled with beaches and over 30,000 homeless people. These new ordinances are not restricted to California. They are happening across the country, as various towns and cities try to remove their growing homeless populations that reflect the growth of government policies favoring the rich and penalizing the poor.

Homeless people say that these policies are obvious attempts to drive them from one city to another by criminalizing the activities that people perform as part of their daily life. Some towns have ordinances against sitting, lying down, or sleeping on public property. Other laws prohibit standing on a public street, loitering on the sidewalk, jaywalking, and panhandling, said Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for The Homeless.

“It definitely is more pervasive and it is more adversarial I think in the past we found examples of it but it’s not simply just growing, but it’s growing in severity and in its targeted approach to America’s unhoused,” said Donovan. He compared it to a civil rights issue. “There’s the whole notion of Driving While Black. Well, this is Sitting While Homeless.”

The people in Denver, Colorado, voted to make urban camping illegal. They totally ignored homeless activists. Atlanta, Georgia also prohibited “Urban Camping.” Some courts have challenged these laws because they violate homeless persons’ rights. They say that arresting homeless people for sleeping outside when no shelter exists violates their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

In June, Philadelphia prohibited feedings in public parks. The ordinance was put on hold when homeless groups sued the city. There’s also a new curfew for pets owned by homeless people on the Las Vegas Strip.

Some cities engage in sweeps of areas frequented by homeless people or areas where people live outside. In one of these areas, off Greenough Boulevard in Cambridge, I saw a beautiful homeless residence, built in the trees and hidden from the road, being torn apart by authorities. The people who lived there, not bothering anyone, were driven off.

There are cities that have passed laws that impose curfews on minors. These curfews can pose extreme problems for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. In many cities, it is common for parks to have curfews, which can be selectively enforced on the homeless.

It seems as if, as homelessness increases, the penalties for being unhoused or homeless become more severe. Public lands, such as the Boston Common, no longer exist for homeless commoners.

-Marc D. Goldfinger

Marc D. Goldfinger is a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Spare Change news. Formerly homeless, he serves as the paper's poetry editor.

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