Stop Punishing the Homeless - CSMonitor LETTER to the editor FWD

Tom Boland (
Mon, 13 Dec 1999 20:15:37 -0800 (PST)

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FWD  Christian Science Monitor - Thursday, December 9, 1999


     Maria Foscarinis

New York Mayor Giuliani's policy of arresting
homeless people reflects a recent negative trend. As
growing numbers of ragged, destitute, often ill
people populate public places, US cities have
enacted punitive measures that "criminalize"
homeless people's public presence.

While there is a growing awareness in some cities
of the futility of this approach and the need for
constructive responses, Mr. Giuliani is turning the
punishment of his poorest constituents into a
political crusade.

For two decades, American cities have been
struggling to get their homeless residents off the
street. Ironically, instead of finding solutions to
help homeless people become self-sufficient, many
cities have simply criminalized activities associated
with homelessness - an effort to "sweep" the
problem away.

For example, in Dallas it's a crime to "sleep or
doze" in a public place. In Tucson, it's a crime to lie
or sit on public sidewalks. The city even considered
privatizing its sidewalks to allow business owners
to enforce this restriction. In Chicago, where the
police regularly "sweep" areas of homeless people,
the city has built fences around public areas and
issued permits to businesses to use them.

In one major court challenge to laws like these, a
federal judge in Miami invalidated that city's policy
of arresting people for sleeping in public places.
With at least 6,000 homeless people in Miami and
fewer than 700 shelter beds, the judge said that it is
unconstitutional to punish people for the necessary,
otherwise innocent act of sleeping simply because it
is done in public - if there is nowhere else to go.
The absence of an alternative is the crucial, often
overlooked, point. We're not advocating a "right" to
sleep in public.

Certainly human beings should not be living in
public places. What some cities have lost sight of is
that the logical, humane, constitutional, and
effective way to stop the use of public places as
living spaces is to ensure there are indoor
alternatives. Yet by the cities' own estimates, the
resources available are woefully inadequate.
Nationally, according to the US Conference of
Mayors, cities surveyed must turn away 26 percent
of requests for emergency shelter because of lack of
space. The shortage of permanent affordable
housing is even more severe. Nationally, according
to government data, three extremely poor
households compete for every unit of affordable
housing. The shortage of mental health and
substance-abuse treatment is severe too.

In the Conference of Mayors survey of 30 large
cities, 19 identified the lack of substance abuse
treatment and 17 identified the lack of mental health
services as major causes of homelessness.

Jailing the ill and addicted isn't just cruel, it
perpetuates and deepens their problems. And while
most homeless people risk only their own safety,
untreated mental illness or addiction may also pose
dangers to the public.

In New York, where Giuliani is making a crusade
of punishing homeless people, there are up to
81,000 people without homes and just 27,000
spaces in shelters and temporary housing. The
waiting list for federal housing assistance is as long
as eight years. What's more, the city has cut back
its own production of housing for homeless people
by 87 percent.

More recently, however, some cities have begun to
realize this approach isn't only inhumane and
potentially unconstitutional, but it's also senseless
and ineffective. Punishing people for living in
public when they have no other place to go simply
won't work. Creating solutions to the reasons
people are on the streets will. Now, some cities are
adopting more constructive, pragmatic approaches.

In Miami, the county government has adopted a 1
percent meal tax to fund shelter, housing,
mental-health care, and job training; neighboring
Broward County is considering a similar gas tax. In
Portland, Ore., police work with social-service
groups to help homeless people move into housing.
In Memphis, a specially trained police unit works
with social workers to provide outreach and aid.

Some business groups are joining in. Tellingly, in
New York, the Times Square business district
provides outreach, shelter, and housing referral
services. While all these efforts are small steps, they
are at least steps in the right direction. They should
be built upon and expanded.

Humane, pragmatic, and forward-looking policies
to address homelessness exist and are now being
implemented. Political leadership is needed to move
forward constructively. It's imperative that the
mayor of New York get with the program.

  Maria Foscarinis, a lawyer, is executive director
of the National Law Center on Homelessness &
Poverty, in Washington, D.C.

   The URL for this page is:
   For further information:

       Spotlight on Homelessness in N.Y. Senate Race

       Homelessness emerges as campaign issue
       for Clinton and Giuliani - AllPolitics

       Hillary goads rival over homeless arrests
       - Sunday Times

       National Coalition for the Homeless

       National Alliance to End Homelessness

       Civil Rights of Homeless People -
       National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty


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