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V. Model Programs

Cities have turned to the criminal justice system for housing, treatment, and even as a means of "disappearing" homeless people.

This trend can only be reversed through the organizing of homeless people and concerned advocates to hold policy makers and business owners accountable for their actions and policies. Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Ft. Lauderdale are all spotlighted in this report for their positive steps towards ending the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness.

(A) Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee of the Minneapolis City Council ordered the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness (CABH) to address building code issues and homelessness. The result was the creation of a Decriminalization Task Force to "review all laws, policies, and practices that have the effect of criminalizing homelessness, and reporting back to the City and County with recommendations."

The Task Force sets the foundation for an increase in social services and assistance as a pathway to ending the criminalization of homelessness in Minneapolis. The following recommendations have been presented to the City Council for discussion and approval.

1) Ordinance changes. These include the repealing of an anti- camping ordinance and the rewording of other ordinances such as trespassing, panhandling, loitering, shelter restrictions, interference with traffic, and public urination.

2) Police Protocols. Training police to link homeless people to services will meet the needs of homeless people while insuring the protection of their civil rights. Changes include the requirement of a complaint before police presence, a notice to campers before eviction, referrals to providers, and improvements in the handling of property belonging to those experiencing homelessness.

3) Vagrancy Charges. Vagrancy laws are remnants of a previous era of law enforcement. Minnesota’s vagrancy statute should be repealed.

4) Public Testimony. Time should be allotted whereby public testimony is scheduled to allow advocates and people who have or are currently experiencing homelessness to come forward and speak to the City Council and Mayor on the issues stated above.

These four items are part of a serious effort to address some of the immediate issues homeless people encounter on a daily basis. At the same time, CABH began dialogue between the City Attorney’s office, the Police Department, and the Civil Rights Department to deal with long-term issues and create constructive alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness. The Decriminalization Task Force will also conduct ongoing discussions to address the following:

1) City Attorney Policies and Programs. Geographic restrictions resulting in banishment in certain areas should be halted and a less punitive approach should be taken towards people experiencing homelessness.

2) Civilian Review Authority. In its role as a police watchdog body, the Civilian Review Authority should work with homeless providers to make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to report police misconduct.

3) Police Protocols. Mental health workers should respond to calls involving those experiencing mental illness while 911 dispatchers should review procedures to see if more calls can be directed to mental health workers.

4) Police Training and Instructions. All officers should be instructed to treat every resident, even those experiencing homelessness, with respect. In addition, officers should undergo training on services that are available to people experiencing homelessness. Officers would also be issued resource cards to guide people to appropriate services.

5) Police Positions/Services. A police officer should be assigned to help homeless people who are perpetrators or victims of crime and a mental health specialist position should be created to provide training and services.

The action taken by CABH is a model proposal that all cities should take to address and solve the criminalization of homelessness in cities across the nation.

(B) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In contrast to many other cities across the nation, the City of Philadelphia has reportedly found ways to reduce the number of homeless people in the city without infringing on the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness. Instead of pushing the problem around the city, marginalizing people, or busing individuals to jail or out of town, the city requires police officers to contact a social worker who will respond within 20 minutes. For instance, homeless people sleeping outside are referred to local shelter and transitional housing services rather than being fined or arrested for camping or trespassing.

Through a combination of permanent housing, counseling services, dedicated workers, and multiple 24-hour shelters, Philadelphia has found a way to help the chronically homeless people of the city. Responsibility for this progress is credited to Sister Mary Scullion, a nun who lives and works with the people she dedicates her life to help. Her constant pestering of local officials resulting in the building of hundreds of housing units dedicated to help those with special needs. While reports indicate Philadelphia has indeed removed nearly 75 percent of its chronically homeless population from the streets, what this report intends to highlight is the City’s method. Although Philadelphia may have criminalized homeless people in the past, the City has decided to solve the problem by providing homes instead of jail.

(C) Fort Lauderdale, Florida

An outreach program in cooperation with the police department and local services is comprised of one formerly homeless individual and one police officer. After publicizing the pick-up point through street contacts and service providers, the pair goes out each afternoon, where they assess individuals one by one. Some individuals are sent to a shelter for the night, some are given bus tickets to reunite with family, and others are enrolled in long-term programs. By helping individuals get off the streets and into shelters, the impact of criminalization has been significantly decreased. Other police officers in the community are also taking individuals to shelters rather than jail. Police are currently conducting their own trainings, and educating officers about homelessness.

Full report in .pdf form | Introduction | Background | Methodology | Problem Statement/Consequences of Criminalization | Model Programs | Conclusions & Recommendations | The Cities Included in this Report | Meanest Cities | Narratives of the Meanest Cities | Narratives of the Other Cities | Prohibited Conduct Chart | Survey Questions | Incident Report Form: English & Incident Report Form: Spanish | Sources