A Dream Denied:
The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
Narratives of the Meanest Cities
#1 Sarasota, FL
In February 2005, the City Commission unanimously approved an ordinance prohibiting “lodging out of doors.” The previous “no-camping” rule was ruled unconstitutional by a state court last year because it was too vague and punished innocent conduct. The new rule prohibited using any public or private property for “lodging” outdoors without permission from the property owner. While not completely mitigating the negative impact of the law, the city took a more positive approach to the issue in this law by including a requirement that police officers, once a year, offer people who violate the law a ride to the shelter, instead of jail. The commissioners said that the ordinance would protect public safety and property while helping homeless people find shelter. Although the city was confident that this ordinance would stand up in court, critics said that it was still too vague. It was not clear how many “lodging” activities, such as making a fire, laying down blankets or a sleeping bag, and putting up a tent, would have to be happening in order for a person to be arrested. Moreover, the police were not required to give a person a ride to the shelter if the person was intoxicated, using drugs, or did not have proper identification.
Like its predecessor, this ordinance was short-lived. In June 2005, a state court found the “no lodging law” unconstitutional. County Judge David L. Denkin said the ordinance gave police officers too much discretion in deciding who is a threat to public health and safety, and who is just taking a nap on the beach. The judge, however, recognized the “good intention” of the city commissioners. The city claims it is important to the city’s residents. City commissioners have long insisted that the ordinances are about protecting people, but the ordinance has been used to arrest homeless persons. Assistant Public Defender Chris Cosden believes the city should give up: “The city has tried twice, and failed twice [with its ordinances]. The city has to step back and realize there are some things you just can’t do.” On a positive note, Fredd Atkins, a Sarasota City Commissioner, agreed that the city has “spent enough money trying to do the wrong thing right,” suggesting the money be committed to solving the root causes of homelessness.
Nonetheless, in August 2005, the city commissioners passed yet another ordinance, strangely similar to the previous two that were ruled unconstitutional. The new ordinance makes it a crime to sleep without permission on city or private property, either in a tent or makeshift shelter, or while “atop or covered by materials.” The city commissioners invented a list of criteria to determine if a person violates the new law. One or more of the following five features must be observed in order to make an arrest: “numerous items of personal belongings are present; the person is engaged in cooking activities, the person has built or is maintaining a fire, the person has engaged in digging or earth-breaking activities, or the person is asleep and when awakened states that he or she has no other place to live.”
Advocates are shocked that the ordinance actually includes being homeless, or having “no other place to live” as itself a criterion for arrest. Advocates argue that this ordinance, like its predecessors, targets homeless people.
The new law has been challenged in state court by defendants who were charged under the law. The court upheld the law, finding it constitutional.
#2 Lawrence, KS
Downtown street merchants complained to city officials in December 2004 that homeless people were intimidating customers with “aggressive panhandling,” and that groups of people regularly spent the night camping on the rooftops of their businesses. Downtown Lawrence, Inc. members gave city officials copies of many ordinances used in other communities against homeless people to encourage similar measures in Lawrence. Some of the proposed ordinances make sitting on the sidewalk from 7 A.M. to 9 P.M., and closely following someone to solicit money illegal. In addition to these suggested ordinances, a few businesses proposed cutting social services, arguing “We didn’t have this problem until we had a handout on every corner.” Shelters were viewed as hurting downtown Lawrence’s image rather than providing invaluable and scarce services to homeless people. Loring Henderson, Open Shelter’s director, disagrees, stating that “it doesn’t seem logical to me that when you have a place where there are 21 people who have a place to stay for the night, rather than being on the streets, that you’re contributing to the problem.”
According to Phil Hemphill, a downtown business owner who addressed a meeting of the City Task Force on Homeless Services, efforts to help homeless people are useless without sanctions imposed on the ill-behaved individuals among them. He described how he regularly saw homeless men and women urinate, defecate, and fornicate in public. Hemphill said it was wrong to expect the public and private sectors to finance services for homeless people when such behavior is tolerated. Hemphill later complained that the Task Force balked at imposing sanctions on trespassing, panhandling, and public drunkenness. Several Task Force members replied that Hemphill was misinterpreting their deliberations.
At a January 2005 meeting of the Task Force on Homeless Services, downtown business owners proposed that homeless service providers require people who want to use shelters, soup kitchens, and other services to obtain an official identification badge. The badges would require people to go through an application process and a police background check. This would give police and service providers a way to punish people by denying certain services over a specific period of time. Moreover, business owners argued, the badges would help ensure that homeless services are not enabling people to remain homeless.
In July 2005, city commissioners approved three “civility” ordinances, responding to concerns from downtown patrons about aggressive panhandlers. However, in a more positive step, they rejected an anti-camping law in spite of neighbors’ concerns about homeless camps along the Kansas River. Commissioners approved ordinances that would prohibit panhandlers from asking for money in an aggressive way, make it illegal for people to trespass on rooftops, and limit how people could sleep or sit on city sidewalks. Yet, Kalila Dalton, a member of Kansas Mutual Aid, views panhandling as a logical response to a basic need: “If it is cold outside and if you have no warm place, it seems reasonable to build a fire. If you have no money, it seems reasonable to ask someone who appears well off for money.”
The anti-panhandling ordinance will ban aggressive panhandling by prohibiting repeated attempts to solicit money from the same individual, blocking someone’s path or touching them, or soliciting within 20 feet of an automatic teller machine or a bus stop or from anyone in a vehicle. Another of the newly-passed ordinances makes it illegal to lay or sit on a sidewalk in a way that blocks the path of a pedestrian or requires pedestrians to reroute their course, with the exception of protests or other activities protected under the First Amendment. This ordinance was approved on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioner Mike Rundle and Councilman Highberger opposing. Highberger said he thought the ordinance simply addressed “things that people didn’t want to look at,” rather than genuine public safety concerns. Lastly, the council approved an ordinance that prohibits going onto the rooftop of a building without the permission of the building owner. The passage of this ordinance was motivated by complaints from several downtown merchants that homeless persons camp on their rooftops.
Fortunately, the Commissioners unanimously rejected the bulk of the proposed anti-camping ordinances because they said the city’s current criminal trespass ordinance allowed them to address the issues when problems arose. The main difference between the trespass ordinance and the proposed anti-camping ordinance was that under the trespass ordinance, campers have to first be given a warning to leave before they could be ticketed. However, the Commissioners did agree to approve a portion of the ordinance that would make it illegal for people to camp on private property without the express permission of the property owner.
#3 Little Rock, AR
In March 2005, Saint Francis House, a daytime homeless center, was forced to reduce its hours for the second time in one month due to decreased funding. The cutback in hours came as police began cracking down on “professional” panhandling in the downtown area. An undercover task force arrested 41 people.
The city’s agenda with regard to homeless people has become more aggressive and blatant in the following incidents. The only day shelter, and only place where homeless people could wash their clothes, Saint Francis House, closed in 2005 after a long history of police harassment of homeless people using that facility, as well as a withdrawal of funds for its operation. When asked to comment upon the closing of Saint Francis House, Sharon Priest, a spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership, said that she was "glad" it was gone, but was still not satisfied, because of “that soup kitchen [Stewpot] which is right there.”
Other reports compiled by Hunger-Free Arkansas indicate the criminalization of homeless men and women throughout the city. In a case of illegal search and seizure, a state trooper illegally searched and detained a homeless man, by claiming he suspected the homeless man was dealing drugs. The state trooper arrested the individual, who spent the night in jail and missed work the next day. The homeless man had no record of any drug-related offenses. Upon release from prison, only his driver’s license was returned. He did not receive his wallet or other property before he was told to leave. Due to the arrest, the homeless man was suspended from work for 30 days and taunted by employees for having to spend the night in jail.
In another incident, two homeless men reported officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station. Both men were holding valid tickets and transfers. Despite showing the police their tickets, both men were told that although the buses they were awaiting would arrive within 30 minutes, they could not wait on the premises because they were loitering. The police subsequently evicted the men. In some instances, others have been told that they could not wait at the bus station "because you are homeless."
Over the summer in 2005, a free public event was held at Riverfront Park in Little Rock, at which various businesses and manufacturers of goods (including the Tyson Chicken Company) set up booths and tents to give away free samples of their merchandise to the public. Vendors encouraged homeless persons at the event to take free samples, which many homeless people gratefully did. However, officers of the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department told the homeless individuals, including a handicapped man at a picnic table, that they had to leave the event immediately or be subject to arrest for loitering in a park. Another homeless man was denied entrance by tour operators to the free and public tour of the Old Statehouse Museum.
#4 Atlanta, GA
Amid waves of public protest and testimony opposing the Atlanta City Council’s proposed comprehensive ban on panhandling, the city and mayor passed a bill in August 2005. The ban made panhandling illegal within the “tourist triangle” and anywhere after dark. The ordinance also prohibits panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM, bus stop, taxi stand, pay phone, public toilet, or train station anywhere in the city. Many opponents believe the ban outlaws panhandling virtually everywhere, rendering it unconstitutional. The new ordinance also states that anyone who asks for help, both monetary and non-monetary, can be detained until an outreach worker either evaluates the detainee or refers him/her to social services. State Senator Vincent Fort, said the 12-3 vote “was an unabashed rush for campaign support.”
Two days after the signing, the Atlanta Police Department announced in The Atlanta Journal Constitution that homeless people would be rounded up and identified for entry into the City's new facility called The Gateway, which provides 250 shelter beds and supportive housing. The Gateway, the recipient of $10 million in private and public funds, was developed to provide a constructive solution to coincide with the panhandling ban. Unfortunately, although The Gateway houses homeless people, there is an overall net loss of places to sleep in Atlanta; 125 emergency beds for women and children were closed by the Mayor at the end of May 2005. Up to eighty of those women and children now sit up all night, waiting for shelter at the Task Force for the Homeless.
The business community and the city administration claim that many homeless people are “service-resistant” and should be forced to receive the services they need. However, more than half the current requests for shelter and services in Atlanta go unmet because of insufficient resources. Most shelters and support service agencies report turning away dozens of desperate people daily. In addition, the Mayor's Commission is persuading service agencies to relocate into the Gateway, making formerly independent, voluntary services available only there.
“This ordinance affects a huge population of the poor and homeless who just ask for help to eat everyday. We do not need a blanket law for one person asking another person for help,” said Murphy Davis of the Open Door Community. According to Anita Beaty of the Task Force for the Homeless, “Atlanta planners seem to believe that if you remove people’s housing, eliminate emergency shelter that they will then need, and then make asking for help illegal, their necessary support services available only through an incarceration program, the poor people will go someplace else.”
Jason Gibbes, a resident of the Peachtree-Pine facility, testified before City Council, stating, “I work every day. In two weeks, I will have enough to rent my own apartment, and I have it all picked out. I'm sure not proud of it, but when I first got my job, I begged for MARTA fare to get to work -- a couple of times. If I hadn't been able to ask for help, I wouldn't be working today.” He also reported that the police stopped him and forced him to produce identification while merely walking down the street.
In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta has stood firm in its resolve to criminalize panhandlers. James Scott was sleeping in his car with his brother, his sister, and her two young children after seeking refuge in Atlanta. After living in their car for several days, the family panhandled at a mall in the affluent Buckhead neighborhood.
Police arrested Scott for solicitation about a half hour later, even after he showed them his Louisiana driver’s license, car tag, and registration as proof that he was a Katrina evacuee. “It’s the most expensive mall in Atlanta, I thought I could get some help,” Scott said. According to Atlanta Police Department spokesman John Quigley, while soliciting on a public sidewalk is allowed, soliciting in traffic is prohibited. According to Kevin, a homeless man interviewed by the Task Force for the Homeless, “nobody has the right to expect people to help. It’s their money to decide what they want to do with it. I just think I have a right to tell somebody what I need, and let them decide.”
A homeless woman with children was arrested in Atlanta for “impersonating” a Katrina survivor in order to get help for her children. There was an outpouring of emergency assistance from churches that only offered help to hurricne evacuees, thereby creating a desperate competition for much needed shelter.
In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to file a lawsuit against Atlanta once it finds a suitable plaintiff because of the ban’s potential violations of the First Amendment. Gerald Weber, the legal director of the ACLU’s Georgia branch, calls Atlanta’s ordinance “too broad,” likening it to a similar ban in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which was ruled unconstitutional in 1999. City Councilman C.T. Martin believes the threat of a potential lawsuit has caused the city to withhold aggressive enforcement of the panhandling ban.
#5 Las Vegas, NV
Although homeless advocates in Las Vegas stated that shelters are overcrowded, city officials have done little to increase resources for individuals experiencing homelessness. Due to a lack of funding, the city’s Crisis Intervention Center was recently closed. Similarly, charitable organizations scrambled – albeit unsuccessfully – to replace the services the Crisis Intervention Center provided.
The police conduct habitual sweeps of encampments, which lead to extended jail time for repeat misdemeanor offenders. Homeless inhabitants of a campsite on Owens Avenue were forced to vacate the area just before Christmas 2004. Las Vegas’s Department of Neighborhood Services gave the order to clear the lot, because the property owner was “in violation of Las Vegas Municipal Code…dealing with nuisances.” Many social service providers were caught off guard by the notice, wishing the city had informed them before the sweep to ensure they could find places for homeless men and women to stay. Former residents of the campsite worried about finding a bed in one of the shelters because most of them are reserved for older men and women.
Despite reports that city, county, and state agencies were working together to provide homeless persons displaced by a January 2005 sweep of a downtown bridge, only 45 people out of 150 residents of the camp were placed in temporary housing. The site was declared a health hazard in August 2005 because people were urinating and defecating in the area around the camp. Bob McKenzie, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, commented, “we need to do whatever we can to help the homeless, but we need to take care of public safety first.” Transportation crews threw away inhabitants’ possessions, including tents, blankets, and family photos.
City officials’ attempt to break up another homeless camp in February 2005 was met with criticism by local homeless advocates, who argued that breaking up the camp would only create another camp elsewhere. They also noted that homeless people need treatment, supportive services, and permanent housing, all of which are not available. Several homeless people were unable to receive help from local agencies, because they were already receiving money from the federal government.
An analysis of Las Vegas police records revealed that arrests for charges such as trespassing, jaywalking, and pedestrians failing to obey traffic signals increased after a recent cleanup of a homeless camp. When homeless people are ejected from the camps, they move to other public places where they interact more with members of the community. The ACLU of Nevada suggested that Las Vegas police went out of their way to cite and arrest homeless people as a part of the sweep. According to Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, “It will take political will to dedicate the resources needed to move this situation in a positive direction. I haven’t seen anything from any jurisdiction to indicate that exists.”
In April 2005, plans to clean up a homeless encampment that had previously been swept at Owens Avenue were postponed due to lack of organization. Officials attempted to avoid criticism by posting signs at the site in both English and Spanish, warning people that the authorities were going to clean the area. The Southern Nevada Homeless Coalition was not informed of the sweep. Linda Lera-Randle El, director of Straight from the Streets, believes the sweep was “like penalizing the homeless for the shortcomings of the city, county, and state.”
Frank Wright Plaza, a small park across from City Hall, was a favorite daytime spot for homeless people seeking a place to nap. Regular visitors to the park said that it is a safe and comfortable place to recover from a tough night on the streets. However, city officials saw the park as a public nuisance, and have assigned marshals to patrol the area several times daily. In order to keep homeless individuals out of future parks, the city considered privatizing the parks, enabling owners to kick out unwanted people. Mayor Oscar Goodman fervently supported the idea, saying, “I don’t want them there. They’re not going to be there. I’m not going to let it happen. They think I’m mean now; wait until the homeless try to go over there.”
In a more positive step, Metro Police are expected to begin seeking a liaison for homeless people, raising its level of commitment after being criticized for its handling of the homeless situation. The Metro Police have been at the center of the homelessness controversy on many occasions in recent years. In addition to their role in homeless camp sweeps, the Metro Police have faced allegations that officers were targeting homeless people for misdemeanor crimes, such as urinating in public. The new liaison would work with both public and private agencies to help homeless people, and will hopefully prevent future arrests and sweeps.
#6 Dallas, TX
Officials attempted to address the growing homeless population by making it illegal to take a shopping cart off store property. Instead of acknowledging the root causes of homelessness, the new law only spurred homeless people to become more creative. Fleets of damaged baby strollers and shopping carts are now common in the area.
The Dallas Homeless Neighborhood Association investigated sweeps that occurred in December 2004. A positive result of its investigation was that the Interim City Manager, Mary Suhm, vowed to replace the personal property, including blankets, identification, and medication, that the city officials confiscated during those sweeps. Suhm also promised to provide oral or written notices at least 24 hours in advance of sweeps, giving homeless people time to relocate.
In an attempt to gain more federal aid for homeless services, volunteer canvassers surveyed and counted homeless people in the Dallas area. Volunteers accompanied by the police walked the streets to gain knowledge and “humanize the condition of homelessness.” The count itself was not an attempt to chase people from their shelters, but the police and transportation crews later evicted dozens of homeless people from their encampments.
One of Dallas’ most elaborate homeless camps, with cardboard shacks, tents, porta-potties and a microwave powered by electricity tapped from a billboard was raided in May 2005. The city bulldozed the camp several times before, but the inhabitants kept rebuilding their homes. City officials hoped that demolition would give the residents an incentive to seek help for their drug and alcohol addictions, as well as mental illnesses. James Waghorne, a formerly homeless social worker, disagrees with the city’s logic, saying “more residents may seek help if the city offered a higher level of services instead of driving people from the only homes they know.”
Starting in September of 2005, a new ordinance will penalize charities, churches and other organizations that serve food to the needy outside of city designated areas. Anyone who violates this ordinance can be fined up to $2000. Romano’s Hunger Busters pledges to feed homeless people “wherever they are,” and will violate the new ordinance. Romano worries that many people experiencing homelessness will be unable or scared to go to the new feeding locations, falling “through the cracks.” The city claims portable feedings both enable homeless camps to exist and generate litter.
Currently, the city is considering Mayor Laura Miller’s suggestion to ticket people who donate to panhandlers, because a blanket ban on panhandling has proved largely ineffective since its inception two years ago.
#7 Houston, TX
A coalition of businesses and residents, called the Avondale Association, is petitioning city officials to protect the near-downtown neighborhood from homeless persons by using a so-called “civility ordinance” passed by the Houston City Council in late 2004. The Avondale Association has gathered enough signatures to require a public hearing on whether the ordinance should be expanded beyond the Central Business District. The ordinance, which is currently confined to downtown, prohibits people from sitting or lying on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., as well as placing items of bedding or personal possessions on the sidewalk.
Paul Luccia, owner of Keystar Events Complex, says the conduct of homeless people at nearby Interfaith Ministries hurts his business, which provides a venue for business meetings and weddings. Luccia also claims many of his customers are intimidated by the daily overflow of sidewalk trash and illegal activity around Interfaith Ministries’ site. Luccia sees the ordinance as the city’s main line of defense against the growing encroachment of homeless people on struggling business. Others contend that if local business paid a living wage people could work to get themselves off the streets.
The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County believes the civility ordinance is ineffective, as well mean-spirited. “This is just more or less shuffling people around [and we] do not support any laws that somewhat outlaw or consider homelessness a crime,” said Anthony Love of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. Love also argues “blaming service providers for an increase in homelessness is like blaming hospitals for an increase of sick people. If service providers weren’t there, the problem would be worse.”
Citing a need to “reflect changes in society,” the Houston City Council also passed new regulations under which patrons with offensive bodily hygiene that constitutes a nuisance to others will not be allowed inside the library. In addition, these laws prohibit people from sleeping or putting their head, feet or legs on tables, using library restrooms to change their clothes, bathe, or shave, as well as outlawing large backpacks and blankets in the building.
In opposition to the new laws, City Councilwoman Addie Wiseman noted, “When we have heat waves, they encourage people, including homeless [people], to go into public buildings, including our libraries. What is the plan now?” She also said, “I understand what they’re trying to do but when you start targeting a community like the homeless [population], I think that’s a poor policy.”
#8 San Juan, PR
Cieni Rodriguez, Executive Director of La Fondita de Jesus, expressed that “no significant positive advances have been made during the calendar year of 2004.” She further states, “it is ironic how frequently city officials publicly say how they are working on behalf of the homeless population, while at the same time they are supporting the passage of new legislation that further countermands civil liberties. Anti-constitutional laws that, if passed, would permit the governments [central and municipal] to intervene with a person’s liberty by transporting them somewhere else against their will.”
Osvaldo Burgos, attorney and Executive Director of the Commission for Civil Rights stated, “There has been an alarming increase in city ordinances and city codes designed at targeting […] homeless [people].” A recent study by the commission revealed that over half of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities have passed anti-homeless ordinances into laws. Sweeps of homeless people are also becoming commonplace in Puerto Rico. Sweeps have taken place in Sicardo, Old San Juan, Caguas, Yabucoa, and Vega Baja, during which 17 homeless people were arrested for violating “quality of life” ordinances. At least five homeless deaths have been attributed to these sweeps.
People experiencing homelessness have also reported being victims of police violence and intimidation. One man reported that he has frequently been a victim of police violence including being assaulted with nightsticks and pepper sprayed for the fun of it and having his bicycle tires slashed while being mocked by police. Another man also reported verbal abuse by the police while they trashed the place where he slept.
#9 Santa Monica, CA
Under a new proposal soon to be floated by City Council Member Bob Holbrook, city groups that provide meals to homeless people in parks may be fined for clean up costs. Food providers may be required to pick up the yearly-estimated tab of $40,000 that Santa Monica spends annually providing park rangers and a cleaning service after meals. The free meals are currently being handed out in Reed Park, Palisades Park, and on the City Hall lawn. Holbrook contends that the new “clean up law” would be enforced equally so that it doesn’t target one person or group. Moira LaMountian, co-founder of Helping Other People Eat (HOPE), has been feeding homeless people in Palisades Park for over 13 years. She fears that going after the food providers’ pocketbooks could cause nonprofit groups to stop providing food to those who need it. She also contends that they leave the park cleaner than when they arrive each day, and that there is no need for park ranger supervision.
The city of Santa Monica would also like to move meal dispersion indoors to connect the food programs with other services offered to the homeless people. City officials who work on the issues surrounding homelessness admitted that there is no such indoor location available at this time. An ordinance, enacted in 2002, reduced outdoor feeding locations from 26 to 4, and bans feeding more than 150 homeless persons without a permit, because some official believed food providers were only exacerbating the homeless problem by handing out free meals. Human Services Manager, Julie Rusk, said that moving handouts indoors was essential in stopping what she called the “revolving door” of homelessness. Nonetheless, only one of the feeding sites in the city is linked to established homeless services.
Recently, with the election of Bobby Shriver to the city council, homeless people in Santa Monica are facing what may be the single biggest push in the nation to pass a massive wave of new anti-homeless laws. The new collection of proposed city laws would
make it illegal for any homeless person to set down a backpack for more than ten minutes on any sidewalk, lie, or sit, on any sidewalk in the city, shave, bathe, wash clothing items in any public restrooms, and sleep anywhere in a vehicle. The laws would also sweep homeless individuals from all freeway sides and ramps.
In addition to the new local laws, anti-homeless forces are proposing to close all showers that open before six a.m., many of which serve homeless men and women who work. Santa Monica Memorial Park Gym Director, John Hines, estimates that nearly fifty homeless people shower at the park, many before work. The city cites complaints and growth of sports activities at the park as their reasons to close the facilities. The displaced bathers may seek refuge at St. Joseph’s Center, where shower-seekers must sign up a day in advance. Furthermore, they propose that the Santa Monica city police now transport anyone found intoxicated in the city to a new “sobriety center” five miles out of town in Culver City.
Laws in the city already attempt to ban all outdoor meals from groups, like Food Not Bombs, which serve up to half of the city’s 1,000 homeless people. Another notorious law literally bans even the giving of a cookie to any member of the “public” without a city permit. According to the manager for the City’s Human Services Division, “[…] groups [that] continue to sponsor these [feeding] programs [run] counter to the policy that the City has been trying to promote.”
#10 Flagstaff, AZ
Soon anyone camping or sleeping in a car or in public within the Flagstaff city limits may be subject to trespassing and camping violations, totaling up to $2,500 in fines and six months in jail time. The current ordinance’s wording only allows prosecution of people arrested in city parks. City Attorney Patricia Boomsma supports the new, stricter ordinance, because “[…] prosecutors need to prosecute the person actually doing the camping.” The proposed ordinance aims to eliminate litter, human waste, and illicit campfires. According to Flagstaff chief of police, J.T. McCann, the ordinance is intended to promote public safety. However, local service providers, such as Stephanie Boardman of Hope Cottage, believe these ordinances are counter-productive, especially to the domestic violence victims that Hope Cottage takes in. Boardman said, “A lot of them are embarrassed to go to shelters. They just want their freedom. You penalize the people in crisis because 10, 15, 20 people are really causing an upheaval.” While Flagstaff law enforcement officials have written 162 citations for camping, all charges were dropped because camping is not yet illegal in the city.
#11 San Francisco, CA
After responding to complaints of homeless people loitering outside the San Francisco Public Library, the police decided to provide homeless individuals, unhappy living in the city, with one-way bus tickets. The plan would “reunite them with loved ones for the holidays.” The Police Department recommended coordination with the bus companies and local businesses to fund tickets, along with boxed lunches.
L.S. Wilson, coordinator for the Coalition on Homelessness, believed that such a plan would only give the police an opportunity to harass homeless people. “If they need a one-way ticket out of here and they can get it, good, but it’s saying they can’t come back. It’s another PR thing…Just try to hide or get rid of our homeless problem.” The Department of Human Services offers bus tickets to anywhere in the continental U.S. if the recipient has housing or a job to go to. While some 10 to 30 people use the program each year, the Director of Human Services pointed out that it was difficult for homeless individuals to start a new life just by moving to another city.
Under Mayor Newsom’s “Care not Cash” ballot initiative, panhandlers who are supposed to be getting services are sometimes going to jail instead. Instead of Care not Cash, San Francisco panhandlers are receiving citations, which, are translating into jail time. In his argument for Proposition M in August 2003, Gavin Newsom wrote, “Prop. M seeks to divert people who aggressively panhandle because of addiction or illness away from the jail system and into the public health system.” However, this is not the case as arrested panhandlers spend the time before their court date in jail instead of in service programs.
Under Proposition M, panhandling and solicitation is prohibited in five locations: near ATM machines, in parking lots, on public transit, on median strips, and on freeway on-ramps. Section F of Prop. M gives the Department of Public Health the mandate to “establish, administer and/or certify diversion programs appropriate for treatment of violators.” Nonetheless, “people are going to jail because there aren’t enough services for everyone that needs them.” Panhandling is an infraction that does not bring jail time; after three infractions, future cases are handled as misdemeanors, making the defendant eligible for incarceration. Critics contend that this process of racking up citation convictions does not help homeless people get services. Since Mayor Gavin Newsom took office in 2003, the number of camping citations among the homeless population nearly tripled.
Just the presence of homeless men and women is stirring up negative reactions in the city. In the heart of San Francisco’s downtown shopping district there have been complaints of people loitering outside of a charity organization, St. Vincent DePaul Society, that serves free lunch daily to those in need. The meal service provides for over 100 people a day, most of whom are experiencing homelessness, but many are disabled or elderly. The city has been trying to relocate the charity for over 15 years, nearly as long as it has been in existence. There is heavy criticism from business owners that the sight of homeless people lined up on the street is not conducive to attracting new businesses and customers to the district. The city manager of San Francisco, Barry Nagel, commented, “We know the need to serve [homeless people] is there, we just don’t need them in the downtown area.”
Court records show that the police are writing more tickets for illegal camping in city parks outside the downtown area, and homeless advocates point to the trend as proof that the city’s February homeless count was wrong when it showed that the population dropped by more than 2,000.
#12 Chicago, IL
In September 2004, the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that prohibits panhandling within 10 feet of a bus stop, ATM, or bank entrance, at sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and fines panhandlers $50 for first and second offenses and $100 for each additional offense in the same year. Chicago modified its criteria after a 2002 ordinance banning all panhandling was challenged in a class-action lawsuit, which resulted in a $474,000 settlement for the plaintiffs, as well as a repeal of the law. According to Deputy Police Chief Ralph Chiczewski, Chicago police fine about 50 panhandlers a month, although collect far few fines.
However, many advocates, including Julie Dworkin of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, believe this ordinance does not provide a solution either. She argues, “If you ticket them, they are not going to have money to pay the ticket. So, you haven’t solved the problem. People are panhandling out of great need […] To get rid of panhandling, you must deal with the issue of homelessness.” Amy Bishop, a downtown worker, believes that “[you] can’t legislate away all the things you don’t want in a city,” demonstrating that even some business owners are skeptical of Chicago’s second attempt in two years to curb panhandling. The city’s initial attempt was repealed after a class-action lawsuit was filed on the grounds that the ordinance violated panhandlers’ civil rights. Even the police chief, that suggested the strict ordinances, recognizes that they will not completely dispel panhandling. Homeless activist, John Maki commented that, “Once people believe that panhandlers represent all homeless [people], it is very difficult to engage them in productive conversation about the reality and causes of homelessness. Too often, such encounters devolve into debates for and against panhandling, which then easily play into the stereotypes and fears many people have.”
#13 San Antonio, TX
After the city passed new ordinances targeting aggressive panhandling, sleeping in public, urinating in public, and camping without a license (including sleeping in vehicles), many local homeless people complained that the City Council was persecuting them. These violations are class C misdemeanors and carry up to $500 fines. However, District 1 Councilman Roger Perez said that these laws would be applied to everyone equally because they target behaviors rather than people. According to West side Councilwoman, Patti Radle, 400 people have been cited for illegally sleeping on sidewalks or “urban camping” and 82 people have been cited for urination on sidewalks since these activities were criminalized earlier this year.
Reverend John Flowers of Travis Park United Methodist Church said that the ordinance presents a justice issue because of the lack of public restrooms and shelter space downtown, stating “If we’re going to tell people you can’t do this in public, then we need to provide them options.” Instead of spending money on enforcement, the city could use it to strike at the root causes of homelessness. Flowers and other advocates argued that the city has an obligation to provide better facilities for homeless people before cracking down on their activities. Texas Homeless advocate Richard Troxell noted, “As long as people are forced to live on the streets of America due to the lack of affordable housing, adequate health care and livable incomes, we cannot allow their condition to be criminalized. The same things that these people are being targeted, fined, and arrested for in public, are found to be acceptable and considered to be the norm when conducted in the privacy of our own homes.”
#14 New York, NY
In response to a New York Times article attributing a January 2005 fire in the subway to the extensive use of the subway tunnels as shelters for homeless men and women, Mayor Bloomberg’s Administration argued that police routinely patrol the tunnels and rarely find any homeless people. When officials do find anyone, they are transported to shelters or arrested. Arrests of homeless individuals “have skyrocketed in the past few years,” totaling 3,086 last year compared with 737 in 2000.
The New York City Police Department took aim at minor crimes like unlicensed street peddling and fare-beating on buses in an attempt to deter more serious crimes. Undercover police officers began riding the M35 bus at night to arrest those who do not pay the $2 fare. Many of the arrested bus riders were on their way to homeless shelters. They could not walk to these shelters, because the only footbridge from Manhattan is closed in the late fall and winter. Five criminal court judges, including Kathryn Freed, questioned the wisdom of the arrests, because they interfered with the services the homeless persons were seeking: “I consistently put on the record how outraged I am by the whole thing. It’s a complete waste of the court’s time [to prosecute the illegal bus riders]. It takes a lot of person-power to process them, house them, and feed them. Meanwhile, the shelter, where they’re heading, is set up to do just that.” Shaver, one of the men arrested on a M35 bus, told police “You’re setting me up. They’re the easiest victims, the homeless. It’s entrapment. Why don’t you [the police] go fight some real crime?”
In June 2005, an individual who panhandles filed a suit on behalf of a class of individual panhandlers who had been charged with violations of a New York state law that prohibits begging. The Second Circuit had found the law unconstitutional in the Loper case in 1993. The plaintiffs allege that arrests and prosecutions under the unconstitutional law violate their First Amendment rights. On June 11, 2005, the day after the suit was filed, the Bronx District Attorney’s office admitted that they should not have prosecuted any arrests made under the unconstitutional part of the state penal code and issued a written agreement with the City and the police to stop arresting and prosecuting people under this statute. According to the agreement, police officers received notice that the statute is void. As of November 2005, the lawsuit is ongoing.
#15 Austin, TX
In late 2004, the city was considering four proposed changes to ordinances concerning public sleeping, panhandling, and loitering. The proposals are a response to increased pressure from downtown business owners for the city to address the “transient problem.” Highlighted by new restrictions on panhandling, the proposed ordinance would criminalize all door-to-door and roadside solicitation throughout town, sleeping in public, blocking sidewalks, and panhandling near schools, childcare facilities, and outdoor restaurants. On December 14, 2005, council members will vote to fine anyone found lying, sleeping, or sitting anyway in the Downtown area $500.
Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless, worries about the potential impact of this ordinance on the Austin Advocate, the local newspaper produced by homeless people and sold on the street for donations. He also comments that, “another ordinance they wish to address is the sidewalk ordinance; what they intend to do is outlaw [all] sleeping or resting on the sidewalk whatsoever.” On November 19, 2004, the Austin Area Homeless Task Force voted to adopt a Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, saying, “strategies to solve the problem lie in affordable housing, access to health care including mental health and substance abuse treatment, and livable wages.” On the other hand, downtown business owners are complaining of increased problems with loiterers and panhandlers in the area.
In July 2005, an Austin municipal court found the city’s roadside anti-begging statute unconstitutional, in which panhandling in select roadside locales was illegal. While defending a homeless Austin citizen, who was arrested for carrying a sign that read “Donations of any kind will help,” the Texas Civil Rights Project argued the panhandling ordinance violated the First Amendment rights of people experiencing homelessness. Under the panhandling ordinances, anyone “[…] who is in or next to a street, on a sidewalk, or in a private parking area commits an offense if the person solicits, or attempts to solicit, services, employment business, or contributions from an occupant of a motor vehicle.” According to Wayne Krause, the goal of these ordinances is to decrease visibility of the homeless. He says, “Officials at the city are very anxious to promote 6th Street and their perception of Austin’s tourist image, and they’ll sweep the undesirable urban realities out of sight to do it.” Other advocates say we need to work toward solutions that combat the problem of homelessness rather than targeting homeless people.
In December of 2005, the Austin City Council passed ordinances that ban panhandling after 7 p.m. in the downtown area, ban panhandling totally near schools, child-care facilities, and outdoor food and drink establishments and prohibit sleeping, sitting, and lying down in public areas downtown. People violating the no sleeping/sitting ordinance face a $500 fine. Only one Council Member, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, voted against these ordinances. The new ordinances went into effect on December 25.
#16 Anchorage, AK
In April 2005, Ed O’Neill, an advocate who helps maintain homeless camps, wanted to establish a corporate-sponsored legal homeless camp. The camp would include toilets and garbage facilities, as well as require a small fee for residents to live there. After consulting with homeless people, O’Neill concluded that some could benefit from being allowed to camp—safely, legally and securely—at an established place. People would not be allowed to drink in a legal, organized camp. However, Fairview Community Council president, Darrell Hess, does not share O’Neill’s enthusiasm, citing the adverse effects a camp would have on the neighborhood, such as the difficulty of monitoring inhabitants.
In Anchorage, camping anywhere, including both government and private property, is considered trespassing. Police have trouble dealing with camp inhabitants; if they move them on, homeless campers will turn up somewhere else. O’Neill continues to work closely with campers, advising them where to move and how to address the police. For him, having people camp in the woods is perfectly fine, as long as they do it right: haul out trash, use proper toilet facilities, do not drink, and do not disturb others. Even if the legal camp never wins local approval, O’Neill thinks he and like-minded supporters are improving the living conditions in the city woods.
The city and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership are trying to discourage motorists from giving to panhandlers. The citywide program is titled “Change for the Better” and uses slogans such as “give change in ways that make change.” Local businesses and buses sport the signs. The Partnership is urging motorists to give donations to social service agencies rather than panhandlers, because public officials believe voluntary donations to homeless people pay for alcohol or drug addictions. A 2004 law makes panhandling or giving to panhandlers from a motor vehicle stopped on a public street, as well as aggressive panhandling, illegal. According to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, “The idea [of the program] is to dry up the source of funding so street people will seek help that might let them to improve their lives.”
While Anchorage considers alternatives to proposed homeless camps, Anchorage’s SAFE City Program used funds from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to implement the Pathways to Sobriety project. According to a 2005 evaluation of the project by the University of Anchorage, “the primary components of this project include involuntary engagement by chronic public inebriates from the target population into detoxification and substance abuse treatment services via individualized intensive care management services; increased access to therapeutic court for the target population involved in criminal act; and invigoration of the alcohol involuntary commitment program.” In this way, Anchorage’s “sleep-off” center not only shelters public inebriates from potential health risks of cold weather, such as hypothermia, but also the potential risk of being targeted for a quality of life violation.
#17 Phoenix, AZ
The Phoenix City Council voted to ban camping in all city parks in order to preserve the parks as “family places” in December 2004. The measure was aimed at keeping homeless people from areas where children and others gather. Even though few of the homeless people caused trouble, “many people are intimidated by the homeless and won’t use the park.” Homeless advocates argued that the ordinance would not solve the problem. According to Jeff Taylor of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, “If you close the parks, homeless individuals will gravitate to another area. This will squeeze individuals into other areas where they may be more invisible.” The Executive Director of the Phoenix Rescue Mission, Jerry Sandvig, doesn’t see any alternative with such an overwhelming homeless population in Phoenix, saying, “There really isn’t any place for them to go.”
#18 Los Angeles, CA
In February 2005, the L.A. City Council unanimously passed a law that prohibits loitering outside of public facilities, such as libraries, between 9 P.M. and 9 A.M.
Six homeless individuals also filed suit to prevent the Los Angeles Police Department from ticketing and arresting people who sit, sleep or lie on public sidewalks pursuant to city codes. They argued the codes were in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as applied to homeless persons. The plaintiffs argued that homelessness in an involuntary condition, as long as homeless people outnumber the number of available shelter beds. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments and granted summary judgment for the city.
In September 2005, the mayor of Los Angeles ordered an investigation into allegations that other jurisdictions were “dumping” homeless people, mentally ill persons, and criminals onto the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Skid Row is a 50-block area of downtown Los Angeles containing between 8,000-11,000 homeless people. A week later Police Chief William Bratton vowed to get tough and clean up the area he refers to as “Dante’s Inferno.” His department has conducted sweeps of the area looking for parole violators and strictly enforces “quality of life” statutes such as public urination and sleeping on public sidewalks.
Many believe that the outrage over the “dumping” of homeless people and the increased enforcement are a result of gentrification in the area. “That’s why there’s a big brouhaha about the ‘dumping’ now. Five, six, seven years ago there weren’t any plans to gentrify Skid Row with condos and lofts that sell for $700,000 or more and a Grand Hotel a few blocks away. The rich simply don’t want the homeless to be part of the landscape anymore,” commented a local social worker.
Police Chief Bratton insists that his department does not target homeless people. “What we focus on is behavior, he said. “If the behavior is aberrant, in the sense that it breaks the law, then there are city ordinances…. You arrest them, prosecute them. Put them in jail. And if they do it again, you arrest them, prosecute them, and put them in jail. It’s that simple.”
#19 St. Louis, MO
In October 2005, the City of St. Louis settled a lawsuit filed against it by twenty-five homeless and impoverished people, claiming they were illegally “swept” from the downtown area before the city’s Fourth of July festivities. The city paid $80,000 in damages to the plaintiffs. The payment of damages will be shared by the city, the police department and the Downtown Partnership, all of whom were defendants in the case. The plaintiffs claimed that homeless people and those who appeared to be homeless were abused, harassed, and illegally detained in order to clear the city streets before the holiday festivities, and alleged that the defendants have a policy “of intimidating and driving homeless people and homeless-appearing people from downtown St. Louis.” Plaintiffs also alleged that some of them were told they would be released if they performed free community service - cleaning up after the festivities - even before they saw a judge. City Counselor Patricia Hageman admitted these accounts were accurate. Attorney for the plaintiffs, Steven Gunn, stated, “This agreement makes it clear that sweeps violate the law and human dignity.” Although the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in granting a preliminary injunction and the city agreed to the settlement, the city has not admitted any wrong-doing.
As a result of the settlement, the police department has agreed to do the following: avoid arresting homeless people or removing them from downtown areas without probable cause that a crime was committed; institute a policy, where under most circumstances, a summons to court will be issued for “quality of life” violations rather than arrest; re-affirm to its officers that an “individual’s status (homeless or non-homeless) will not be considered in any of [their] decisions;” and acknowledge begging is not a crime, if it is not “aggressive.”
In early November 2005, police officers swept a downtown park, instructing homeless people to leave. No arrests were made but park workers removed belongings for temporary storage. The sweeps sparked a protest march from the park to City Hall. The marchers demanded an end to sweeps and more services for homeless people.
#20 Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh city leaders recently amended its panhandling ordinance. The new law expands on the existing panhandling ordinance by restricting solicitation for charity to daylight hours. The bill also bans panhandling within 25 feet of an outdoor eating establishment, 25 feet of an admission line, 25 feet of the entrance to a place of religious assembly, within 25 feet of money dispensing areas, and 10 feet of a food vendor or bus stop. The bill also outlaws “aggressive panhandling” and solicitation of money that hinders traffic. Activist groups, such as the ACLU, believe such a comprehensive ban infringes on free speech rights.
The ordinance classifies solicitations from religious groups and other charities as panhandling. According to Major Deborah Sedlar, “If we [the Salvation Army] raise less, that could mean we have less resources to support the services we provide.” Dr. James Withers, a medical doctor and founder of Operation Safety Net, believes that services, rather than laws, are what Pittsburgh’s homeless population needs. Dr. Withers said, “The needs of street people are so much more intense than current agencies can grapple with. A lot of people have such complex psychological issues, it’s very difficult to get them off the street.”
The ordinance stems from complaints from downtown business owners. “Our stakeholders feel that panhandling is becoming a bit more of a problem than it used to be,” said Regina Casey, an employee of Jenny Lee Bakery, which is a member of the Downtown Partnership. Police Chief Robert W. McNeilly, Jr. added that crimes, including robbery, retail theft, defiant trespass, simple assault, and disorderly conduct, are “typical” of panhandlers. However, Officer Charles Bosetti, who patrols the Market Square area, sees it differently. Bosetti maintains that businesses were demanding that police drive “grubby looking” people from the area. Bosetti feels that this is outside of law enforcement’s role and should be left to social agencies. “Are you using aggressive police tactics where social solutions are more appropriate?” he asked. Bosetti also believes that writing more citations would take officers off the streets for hearings and would require the city to pay more overtime. District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr. contends the successful panhandling ban would fine or jail aggressive panhandlers, while directing homeless persons to social services.
HOME | FULL REPORT (pdf) | Acknowledgements | Executive Summary | I. Trends in the Criminalization of Homelessness | II. Criminalization Measures Violate Constitutional Rights | III. Criminalization Measures Violate Human Rights Norms | IV. Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization | V. T op 20 Meanest Cities | VI. Meanest Cities’ Narratives | VII. Other Cities’ Narratives | VIII. CASES: Challenges to Restrictions on Sleeping, Camping, Sitting or Storing Property in Public Place [FEDERAL] [STATE] | Challenges to Anti-Begging, Anti-Soliciting and Anti-Peddling Laws | Challenges to Vagrancy, Loitering and Curfew Laws | Challenges to Restrictions on Feedings | Miscellaneous | IX. Prohibited Conduct Chart | X. APPENDIX:Survey Questions | Sample Know Your Rights Card | Sources for City Narratives |