Tulin Ozdeger is a civil rights staff attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
Recent attempts in Las Vegas and Orlando to restrict sharing food with poor and homeless people are only the latest examples of a nationwide trend by cities to target homeless people.
Las Vegas’ new ordinance prohibits sharing food with homeless or “indigent” persons in public parks. Orlando’s ordinance requires groups wishing to share free food with 25 or more people in downtown parks to purchase a permit from the city’s parks department and limits the number of times a group may do so to only two times a year.
As homelessness has grown in the United States over the past two decades, so have laws that essentially criminalize those who have no home. In a misguided attempt to grapple with the phenomenon of people living on our streets, city governments have passed laws that make it illegal to sit, sleep and eat in public spaces. These laws criminally penalize our poor and homeless neighbors merely for the fact that they have no place else to go.
The 2005 Hunger and Homelessness Survey of 24 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors shows that the homeless situation is getting worse. Even while requests for emergency shelter increased by 6 percent from the previous year, cities fell far short of providing adequate shelter space to meet the need. According to the survey, an average of 14 percent of overall emergency shelter requests went unmet along with 32 percent of shelter requests by homeless families. This lack of available shelter space—a situation made worse by the Gulf Coast hurricanes—leaves many homeless persons with no choice but to struggle to survive on the streets of our cities.
Laws that criminalize homelessness are not only an inhumane way to treat some of our most vulnerable neighbors, but they frequently pose constitutional problems and do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness. Many of these measures have been successfully challenged in court as violations of homeless persons’ civil rights.
In addition, these laws that frequently apply to downtown areas have the effect of moving homeless people away from areas where services and other resources are located. When people are arrested or cited under these laws, they develop criminal records, which make it more challenging for them to find housing or employment.
Further, using the criminal justice system to deal with homelessness is an extremely inefficient use of law enforcement and other resources. In a nine-city survey of supportive housing and jail costs, jail costs were on average two to three times the cost of providing supportive housing—a solution that actually works in ending homelessness.
The latest trend of restricting groups that share food with homeless people is truly baffling. Clear gaps exist between the needs of homeless and poor people and federal, state, and local government efforts to deal with homelessness. Instead of embracing private efforts to fill those gaps, cities are now trying to punish those private actors for their good deeds. Las Vegas and Orlando are hardly alone in this trend. Dallas passed a law in 2005 that punishes groups or individuals serving food to the needy outside of designated areas of the city. Fort Myers, Florida, is presently considering a law very similar to Orlando’s restriction.
While criminalizing homelessness has not proven to be a successful approach on any level, other approaches have been. For example, Philadelphia has been able to dramatically reduce the number of homeless people living on the streets in its downtown area by dedicating additional resources to affordable housing, shelter space, services, and, importantly, outreach. The Philadelphia model does not rely on arrests and citations as a means to achieve its goals. In fact, a police protocol in place in the city provides that police cannot arrest a homeless person for violating the city’s sidewalk regulation if no shelter space is available.
Instead of wasting law enforcement resources on enforcing these laws, and city resources on defending them in court, cities should be looking for more constructive ways to grapple with the real challenges facing them. Removing a crucial food source for a hungry homeless person will not solve the problem. Jailing a homeless person for sleeping or resting in a public space will not make that person go away.
The fact that massive homelessness persists in the richest country in the world is shocking. An even greater scandal is that so many of our city leaders persist with criminalization measures that only make the situation worse. Cities need to stop wasting resources on misguided laws and focus on solutions that can end homelessness for all our neighbors.