Criminalizing the Homeless

Photo By Vincent Flanagan

As the New York Times noted in its 17 July 2014 editorial, “Shunting the Homeless From Sight,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down the City of Los Angeles’ ban on citizens living out of automobiles. We all should be grateful for the wise decision of the Ninth Circuit, which described the ban as a law that “criminalizes innocent behavior” and was “broad and cryptic.”

Unfortunately, this was just one battle in a growing war to criminalize homelessness. Statistics compiled by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reveal that 81 cities banned sleeping in a car last year, compared to 37 in 2011. The Center also noted that 46 communities have now banned sleeping in pubic places, up from 40 in 2011. In the last three years, 100 communities have enacted bans on sitting or lying in certain public places. Perhaps the most disturbing statistic is that over 30 communities banned providing food to the homeless.

(For more information on the criminalization of homelessness, read the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.”)

These dehumanizing laws separate the homeless into a lower class, and they reflect the desire to make the homeless disappear. It is a clearly a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Some of these bans were meant to drive homeless people to use the services of shelters and food kitchens. However, shelter beds are not always readily available. For some homeless people, especially those with physical and mental disabilities, it is not always easy to get to a location that provides food or to enter a shelter. Others are scared away by rumors of violence in shelters, despite the best efforts of shelter staff.

In some places, I would be committing a crime if, on a blistering hot day, I gave a homeless person a bottle of water. As a lawyer, I find that perverse. It also strikes me as ludicrous that I could buy a sandwich for a friend that lost his or her wallet without fear of committing a criminal act but could not do the same for a homeless person.

As a society, we already struggle with a class system that offers a different life to the rich, the middle class and the poor. We cannot afford to create yet another class that paints people who are experiencing homelessness as less human than the rest of us.

My wife and I live one block off of the Boston Common, where we walk our dog daily. The dog has befriended almost every homeless person in the Common, showing them the love and kindness that they so desperately need and are so grateful to receive. Why is it that so many human beings cannot find it in their hearts to do the same?

Unfortunately, the Ninth Circuit’s decision only covers certain states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, the Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon and Washington. As a lawyer who worked for twenty-five years for the federal judiciary, I have little faith that all the other federal circuits will adopt the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. The solution has to be legislative. I urge you to make your voices heard, especially in local, state, and federal elections. Ask the candidates what their stand is on ensuring rights for the homeless.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is working on a Homeless Bill of Rights, including a right to housing. Please think hard about its importance and lend your support. Everyone who experiences homelessness is a member of the human family—your family and mine.

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