[Hpn] Manchester Union Leader Columns - July 30, 2003
Wed, 30 Jul 2003 08:38:01 -0400
City's campaign against homeless makes the situation worse
By CINDY CARLSON
AS RACIAL profiling has hit the headlines with the recent ACLU action
against the Manchester Police Department, another kind of profiling -
targeting homeless people - takes place everyday, unknown to most.
Dreams of developing high-cost housing and of attracting tourist dollars has
Manchester attempting to push the homeless out of sight by rigorously
enforcing laws against actions that the homeless must commit in public for
lack of any other place to go.
There are a couple of things I'd like everyone to think about. Local service
groups have determined that on any given night there are 1,086 homeless
people in Manchester. The shelters and the city welfare department may house
many of the homeless at night, but at New Horizon,s people are asked to
leave the shelter in the early morning. Many of the people that you may see
sitting in the downtown parks are our disabled and even elderly homeless.
They are waiting for their lives to begin again, waiting on Section 8
housing lists, waiting for approval for services from one agency or another,
and most of all they are waiting for rents to come down so that they can
actually find a place to live rather than sit on the street all day.
The fining and constant monitoring of the homeless has begun. I have
witnessed the bicycle patrolmen asking for IDs in the park from people who
are doing nothing more than sitting. I have witnessed police in unmarked
police cars pointing cameras out the windows and taking pictures. The police
department response is, "it's just in case there is park damage later, we'll
know who was sitting there."
I have had many citations handed to me by people asking for advocacy,
sometimes finding that the person just missed the court date because of poor
reading skills or other issue. What city governments don't know is that
their policies may actually prevent people from escaping homelessness. Most
of the things homeless people are cited for are what I call minor
misdemeanors. The fines are relatively small, less than $100, but for
someone who is struggling to find basic necessities from day to day, a $100
fine is impossible to pay.
People who don't pay citations are supposed to go to court, but this proves
difficult for many people on the streets. Like housed citizens, the homeless
are often uninformed of their rights within the justice system and have
limited, if any, access to legal advice. Coupled with distrust of a system
that is working against them, many feel going to court is useless. Even
those individuals who want to go to court face challenges in doing this.
When living on the streets, being in court on the right day can be a
challenge. Without a calendar, clean clothes, transportation and other
conveniences that the housed take for granted, the possibility of making it
to court on the right day and time becomes dim.
If the person pays the fine, his or her daily living funds are cut short. If
they have neither paid the fine nor showed up in court, a warrant will be
issued for their arrest. Outstanding warrants then prevent a homeless person
from accessing shelter services, rehabilitation centers and housing, thus
trapping them in homelessness. A city's attempt to get rid of the homeless
through criminalization comes full circle and actually exacerbates the
If Manchester would simply recognize that most of the crimes committed by
homeless people are public nuisance crimes and that sentencing the homeless
to jail time would simply disrupt their participation in programs aimed at
getting them back in housing, the courts and the police department might
find other solutions such as community service to the Manchester parks
Criminalizing homelessness has done nothing to reduce the number of people
on the streets. It is not a cost effective system. It costs the city more
money than it gains to run a $50 citation for curfew through the court. Tell
the Manchester Police Department and the mayor's office that you want the
ticketing for basic life activities to stop. No more tickets for sleeping or
public lounging and no more photographing of homeless people. What if it
were you sitting in the park when the lens blinked? Would you accept the
Cindy Carlson is coordinator of Under The Bridge N.H. and a member of the
National Coalition for the Homeless civil rights organizing project.