NATIONALHOMELESS.ORG
Twitter Facebook Facebook Facebook Facebook

Guest post: What are the implications of drug testing recipients of government benefits?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Criminalization, Poverty

We are happy to share today’s guest post from NCH member Laura Epstein who interned with us this past summer.  Laura is currently studying Government and Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College.

Recently, many states have introduced policies that would require drug tests for welfare recipients, as reported by the New York Times. States hope that these new policies will be more “fair” and will cut the budget. However, studies show that these policies are ineffective and hurt those who need the most help.

Though some argue that these programs are better because they restrict welfare only to those who want it enough to stop using drugs, this argument fails to take into account why those in poverty would use drugs in the first place. In the 2002 study, “Substance Use Among Welfare Recipients: Trends and Policy Responses” by Harold Pollack and others found that “adverse experiences, such as childhood trauma or experiences of violence, may lead some women both to seek welfare and to initiate or to increase their substance use.” Therefore, restricting welfare recipients harms more than just those who choose to use drugs; it hurts those who experience both poverty and prior abuse.

Pollack expressed his unchanging beliefs, as in a 2011 blog post he wrote, “[Alcohol and drug] disorders are important within specific populations – most crucially, welfare recipients facing child abuse or neglect issues.” Laura Schmidt, in the 1998 Alcohol Research Group study “Substance Abuse and the Course of Welfare Dependency,” had similar findings: “AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] recipients’ substance abuse problems appeared to have little effect on their future prospects for leaving welfare…. the strongest determinants of welfare dependency…correspond quite directly to…the economic hardships of single parents and their young children.” Quite simply, the argument that new welfare policies requiring drug tests just hurt those who choose to irresponsibly use drugs makes little sense.

Furthermore, the new welfare laws fail to provide means for people to have substance abuse treatment. In response to the New York Times article mentioned above, Director and President of the Legal Action Center New York wrote, “The vast majority of testing legislation also fails to allocate money for treatment, even though it is an extremely efficient use of taxpayer money.” Not surprisingly, in a 2000 study, “Sever Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders among Former Supplemental Security Income Beneficiaries for Drug Addiction and Alcoholism, Dr. James Swartz and others found that “studies of former welfare recipients…have found that substance dependence and psychiatric illness are among the most notable barriers to gaining and maintaining employment.” Welfare reform that encompasses treatment and job training would be much more effective at improving the livelihood of those in poverty than removing all assistance from those with drug problems.

The “Housing First” method of ending homelessness also contributes to the arguments against drug testing welfare recipients. Under this method, those experiencing homelessness can begin to receive transitional housing and job training without first becoming sober. It is much easier for someone to become sober when in a hospitable environment as opposed to when living in the streets without much food or other needs. Requiring welfare recipients to first have a negative drug test is directly at odds with the successful method of Housing First. In a 2010 presentation to the Society for Social Work and Research Annual Conference, Benjamin Henwood found that “Housing First providers were able to focus more on clinical concerns since consumers and already obtained permanent housing.” Housing First programs recognize that facilitating a person’s successful recovery and employment opportunities requires assistance to put the person’s life back on track. Housing First contributes to the argument that welfare services as a whole must meet people at their level of need, including potential substance abuse.

Luckily, some of the new welfare laws have been deemed unconstitutional. However, we cannot rely on the courts to ensure that these laws do not have effect. These new laws should not pass in the first place because they disproportionately hurt those in society who need the most help in finding employment to move out of needing welfare.

*Studies show that only 20-30% of the homeless population suffers from substance abuse.  It is often the case that people believe the majority of people who are on the streets suffer from substance abuse, but lack of affordable housing remains the number one cause of homelessness. Read more from Jaqueline Dowd, Poverty Lawyer, on how advocates are pushing to make drug-testing welfare recipients illegal.

Soup Kitchen Limits End in Gainesville

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Criminalization

In March 2009, a city developer informed the Gainesville, Florida city Plan Board about an 18 year old ordinance that was regularly violated. The ordinance, located here in city code, limited soup kitchens to serving up to 130 meals within a 24 hour period. The Plan Board listened to the developer and voted for stricter enforcement of the limit. After two years of protests and activism, the 130 meal limit will now be replaced with a new policy that allows soup kitchens to serve as many people as they can within a three hour period each day.

The Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW! lead a grass-roots effort to repeal the ordinance.

Due to exemptions in the original ordinance for churches and the Salvation Army, St. Francis House was the city’s only soup kitchen affected by the limit. Commissioner Jeanna Mastrodisca had stated that the limit was in place to keep soup kitchen patrons from being concentrated in the downtown area where many receive meals from the St. Francis House, saying “What we’re trying to do is spread [patrons] out. […] That’s our goal.” City Spokesman Bob Woods said in 2009 that Gainesville is currently developing a “one-stop” homeless center that will provide food, shelter, and services. Woods also said that Churches can hand out up to 20 meals without a permit.

But with the center still yet to break ground in August 2011, the hungry have limited options in Gainesville: according to the Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW!, “the St. Francis House, in order to keep its license to operate, has had to turn away anyone after number 130 in line to be fed, despite lines approaching 300 people.” The meal limit was featured in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ (NCH) 2010 report on food sharing prohibitions and also helped garner Gainesville the fifth spot on NCH’s 2009 Ten Meanest Cities.

People began protesting the meal limit by picketing city hall and demanding that it be overturned in the summer of 2009. A petition to lift the limit on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and another holiday of St. Francis’ choosing quickly reached the city Plan Board later that year, and the unelected group of Gainesville residents recommended that the City Commission investigate overturning the limit all together. The Plan Board unanimously reaffirmed its position in 2011.

As the amount of time that the meal limit was enforced increased, so did its opposition. On December 1, 2010, the Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW!formed with the mission of ending the need for their organization to exist as soon as possible.

The Coalition planned to post a billboard with this design to raise awareness and rally support against the limit.

The Coalition brought together a number of people and groups, including Food Not Bombs, Veterans for Peace, and the International Socialist Organization, acting as an umbrella to coordinate protests of the meal limit.

By August 2011, the Coalition had grown immensely. According to Sean Larson, the Coalition Convener, “we currently have 18 member organizations, with many of those sending regular delegates to our bi-weekly meetings. […] We [also] have had over 700 local residents sign the Coalition’s petition, and almost 15,000 supporters sign an online petition at Change.org.”

The petitions have brought attention to the issue, but not nearly as much as the Coalition’s pickets and protests. Larson says that their presence at city hall and downtown has drawn local, national, and even international attention to the meal limit, putting considerable pressure on the City Commission. According to Larson, their campaign gained even more momentum following a revelation that it was only a select group of land developers who pushed for the limit, allowing the Coalition to single out those responsible and hold boycotts and pickets. In October 2010, Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe still defended the meal limit, saying that it was the best way to keep the downtown community safe until an alternative could be found. But less than a year later, on July 27, 2011, Lowe announced his support of ending the limit, endorsing a plan that allows soup kitchens to serve an unlimited amount of people within a three hour window each day.

Larson says that the Coalition’s protesting is what truly made a difference: “[Mayor Lowe’s] indefensible support of the meal limit became unsustainable in the face of the mounting pressure engendered by the Coalition’s public actions, which generated a large public outcry against the mayor in particular. He changed his position because he had to.” On August 18, 2011, a repeal of the 130 meal limit won its first City Commission vote, and in its place will likely be the “three hour window” plan that Lowe eventually backed.

*This marks the last post by our Civil Rights Summer Intern Daniel Honeycutt. Thank you Dan (and all of our summer interns) for your great work this summer!

The 10 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws – Part II

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness, Civil Rights, Criminalization, Food Sharing, Tent Cities

The National Coalition for the Homeless would like to offer a preview of our upcoming report on the criminalization of homelessness by choosing the top ten most ridiculous anti-homeless policies enacted in cities across America. Our criminalization report will offer narratives for many more cities and occurrences than the ones listed here, as well as rank the nation’s ten “meanest” cities. This post counts down our choices for the 5 most ridiculous anti-homeless laws/actions. An earlier article ranking policies 10 through 6 is available.

10 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws
~From 2010 through June 2011~

 5. Panhandling Bans – Multiple Cities

A rapidly increasing number of cities are designating areas where it is illegal to ask for any item of value. In Miami FL, for instance, panhandling is not allowed around American Airlines Arena and other tourist-heavy areas. Dallas TX also banned panhandling in popular tourist destinations in preparation for hosting the Super Bowl. Some cities, like St. Petersburg FL, even issued bans that cover the entire city.

Despite laws already being in place to guard against “aggressive” panhandling and asking for help clearly being a first amendment right, the courts have had mixed conclusions on these ordinances. An appellate court in New York said that such bans are unconstitutional, while panhandling bans for certain areas, such as around ATM’s and banks, were upheld in Minneapolis MN.

Oakland Park FL decided to take their roadway panhandling ban a step further: not only is it illegal to ask for anything of value, it is also illegal to give. In the name of traffic safety, anyone caught giving to or purchasing something from anybody on the road can face either a fine of $50 to $100 or up to 90 days in jail.

4. Camping Bans – Multiple Cities

Some cities, including Anchorage AK and Kansas City MO, have passed “anti-camping” ordinances and are destroying homeless camps both within metropolitan areas, such as those under bridges and in abandoned lots, and deep within parks and forests. Many municipalities interpret “camping” to mean setting up structures such as tents, while others will issue citations for simply using a sleeping bag because it provides shelter from the elements. For example, Salt Lake City UT has produced horror stories of people receiving camping citations for sitting on their backpack in a park.

Police “sweeps” of homeless camps, which are intended to clear out residents and their makeshift shelters, have resulted in the loss of very important property, such as medication, birth certificates, ID, and personal mementos. Due to legal challenges nationwide, like one in Portland OR and another in Sacramento CA, many cities that perform these sweeps have instituted systems to provide warning time to campers and to retain their seized belongings for a fixed period of time. Without this process, numerous homeless victims have illegally lost what little property they had, and even with it many more still stand to lose their belongings due to the difficulty of retrieving it. Ultimately, these crackdowns on homeless camps only waste taxpayer money and cause unnecessary hardship in order to move the problem of homelessness instead of solve it by providing adequate access to housing and services.

3. Sit/Lie Ban – San Francisco, California

“Stand up for the right to sit down!” This is the rally cry of those who are protesting a San Francisco ordinance that makes it illegal to sit or lie down on the city’s sidewalks between 7 am and 11 pm. The city claims that the ordinance is intended to limit panhandling and to reduce San Francisco’s homeless population by discouraging homeless people from living there. Opponents say that it is unconstitutional to force somebody to walk and stand all day simply because they have nowhere to go. Similar ordinances exist in cities across the country, including Austin TX, Seattle WA, and Reno NV to name a few.

2. Food Sharing Limits – Orlando, Florida

Since when is it illegal to give somebody food? In Orlando FL, it has been since April 2011, when a group of activists lost a court battle against the city to overturn its 2006 laws that restrict sharing food with groups of more than 25 people. The ordinance requires those who do these “large” charitable food sharings in parks within two miles of City Hall to obtain a permit and limits each group to two permits per park for a year. Food sharing is considered to be a form of speech, but the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ordinance still provides ample areas for groups to practice their first amendment rights because they can still share food elsewhere in the city.

The law was not enforced during the legal battle, but after the lawsuit against the city failed, Orlando began cracking down on those who chose to defy the ordinance, resulting in multiple arrests of activists from Food Not Bombs. “‘They basically carted them off to jail for feeding hungry people,’ said [Douglas Coleman from Orlando Food Not Bombs]. ‘For them to regulate a time and place for free speech and to share food, that is unacceptable.’”

Food sharing prohibitions are far from a new development and are not only found in Orlando. In 2010, NCH and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released a report on the growing popularity of these ordinances.

1. Sleeping Bans – Multiple Cities

Many city ordinances that ban public sleeping, like one in Santa Cruz CA, refer to all sleeping in public as “camping,” but the act of camping is interpreted in this article to be the use of personal shelter, such as a tent, and those laws are addressed in #4 of this list. Number one on our countdown is focused on ordinances that strictly ban all public sleeping outright, which includes cities such as Santa Cruz that make sleeping outside illegal in a de facto manner via a “camping” ordinance’s broad interpretation and enforcement.

No other type of law can quite compare to these bans when it comes to the overt criminalization of homelessness: it is undeniable that people experiencing homelessness are the only segment of the population commonly affected by ordinances that do not allow sleeping outside. To exacerbate the problem, many places with these laws, like Ashland OR, simply do not have enough shelter and services to offer violators.

Thankfully, courts have usually required cities with these ordinances to have enough shelter space available for every offender, as was the case in San Diego CA. But this policy ignores that shelters, which usually have curfews, tough crowds, and crammed beds, are not necessarily the most desirable places to live, so many people would much rather stay on the street than in what are sometimes “jail-like” places. And all too often the homeless have no choice: in St. Petersburg FL, those caught sleeping on the sidewalk are told that they can either go to a shelter or a real jail, denying them the option of avoiding systematic and strict harboring altogether. In the end, these policies can severely hurt people experiencing homelessness, resulting in jail time, outstanding fines, and a restriction of their freedoms.

For more information on the criminalization of homelessness, you can visit our 2009 Homes Not Handcuffs Report and our 2010 report on Food Sharing Prohibitions.

By Daniel Honeycutt, NCH Intern

NATIONALHOMELESS.ORG

National Coalition for the Homeless | 2201 P St NW, Washington, DC 20037 | (202) 462-4822 | info [at] nationalhomeless [dot] org
© 2018 National Coalition for the Homeless | Privacy Policy
Powered by Warp Theme Framework