Criminalization of Homelessness

If criminalization is not the stated policy, the consequences of allowing people to sleep where they want in public—which in our community too often means the American River Parkway where 300 to 400 people are estimated camping illegally any given night—leads to serious degradation of public safety, as this article from Governing Magazine reports.

An excerpt.

Officials in San Francisco last week sought to sweep out one of the city’s more conspicuous tent cities, declaring the area a health hazard in need of a cleanup.

Dozens of homeless people have been camped out on sidewalks beneath a freeway near downtown. The city’s decision came after residents and business owners complained for weeks that the homeless encampment made them feel unsafe.

The incident highlights the difficulties that city officials face when they try to keep people from sleeping in public spaces. Forcing homeless people to move along is a time-honored urban tactic, but advocates for the homeless — and federal officials — contend that it’s a shortsighted policy.

“Criminalization of homelessness is essentially lazy policymaking,” said Eric Tars, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “You’re being confronted with constituents who are saying, ‘We see homeless people on the street and they make us uncomfortable. What are you going to do about it?’”

In San Francisco, health inspectors say the Division Street encampment is unsafe and unsanitary.

“People are living without access to running water, bathrooms, trash disposal or safe heating or cooking facilities,” said the Department of Public Health in a written statement. “The encampments … are unsanitary due to accumulation of garbage, human feces, hypodermic needles, urine odors and other unsanitary conditions.”

But Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, columnists with the San Francisco Chronicle, cite City Hall sources who concede that “having the health department take the lead on declaring Division Street uninhabitable was intended in part to deflect criticism that [Mayor Ed] Lee’s administration is criminalizing homelessness.”

The Lee administration recently opened a 100-bed shelter it hoped would attract some of the people living in the Division Street encampment. Since giving notice about the sweep, an outreach team has placed at least 27 adults in shelters, according to Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman for the public health department. Shelters have space for more, she said.

Even though the city gave people in the encampment three days to relocate, Public Works employees arrived early to clean the sidewalks. The Coalition on Homelessness, a San Francisco nonprofit, documented city workers throwing away a tent and a walker, despite a city policy to tag and store people’s belongings. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area condemned the sweep as illegal and suggested that the city compensate people for the destruction of their property. As of Sunday afternoon, police hadn’t arrested the few dozen holdouts who remained in the area after the health department’s Friday deadline.

The clearing of homeless encampments is hardly unique to San Francisco. City officials from Baltimore to Honolulu have sought to remove clusters of tents and relocate the inhabitants to shelters, permanent housing or just somewhere else out of sight.

Last summer, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake drew criticism from homeless advocates when the city cleared an encampment beneath an underpass. As in San Francisco, city officials said they were doing it out of concern for the well-being of the inhabitants.

Part of what rankled advocates in Baltimore was the abrupt nature of the sweep. Usually the city gives advance notice so service providers can try to help the people being forced to move.

But the bigger issue is providing permanent housing for those who feel shelters are less sanitary and safe than the streets, said Joe Surkiewicz, a spokesman for the Baltimore-based Homeless Persons Representation Project.

“It’s very disingenuous for a city to say, ‘Well, you’ve got to move to a shelter,’ because they won’t,” said Surkiewicz. “The city is just moving people around.”

A mayoral advisory board actually sided with advocates and providers, recommending that Baltimore hold off on any more encampment razings until it could guarantee rental vouchers for the displaced people.

Last year, Boise, Idaho, faced a legal challenge to its “sleeping ordinance,” which banned camping on streets, sidewalks, parks and public places. The plaintiffs in the case, people who are or were homeless, argued that enforcement of that ban was tantamount to criminalizing homelessness. A federal judge dismissed their suit, though, on the grounds that the homeless individuals lacked legal standing. By that time, the U.S. Justice Department had weighed in, calling anti-camping ordinances “both unconstitutional and misguided public policy.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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