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#NHHAW – From Street to Cell

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

From Street to Cell: The Criminalization of Homelessness – Deirdre Walsh

It’s a cold, winter evening. There is no place for you to go. You have no place to sleep, no money, and no options. You find a corner near a subway terminal where warm air blows. You settle in for the night in hopes that tomorrow you will find shelter. All of a sudden, you are woken by a police officer conducting a sweep and told that you are not allowed to sleep in the terminal. If you protest, you risk being arrested. You are out of options and it is colder than it was before.

For too many Americans, this scenario is a reality. Instead of helping people to get the services they need, state and local governments are criminalizing everyday activities that target people experiencing homelessness. Theoretically, new measures seek to combat the rising numbers of homeless women, men, and children, but do little to address the causes of poverty that lead to homelessness. Criminalization can be carried out in a variety of ways. Carrying out sweeps of city areas known to be hubs for the homeless community while confiscating personal property including tents, bedding, clothing, and/or medication. Local ordinances are enforced that prohibit panhandling or sleeping in cars and parks. “Quality of life” requirements are issued pertaining to public activity and hygiene. Actions such as sharing food with people experiencing homelessness in public spaces are made illegal in an effort to keep homeless people from congregating in public spaces. The criminalization of homelessness has many faces, but it has one goal to reduce the visible signs of poverty on the streets of US cities and towns.

Many cities and tourist locations hope these ordinances will reduce the visibility of homelessness and poverty. News and media outlets have reported the various attempts to remove homeless individuals from street corners and sleep on park benches. Cities such as Honolulu, Fort Lauderdale, and Dallas impose anti-homeless laws in order to keep homelessness away from the eyes of passing tourists. They start with one ordinance that does not seem too bad and then expand into 5-10 restrictions on life-sustaining activities. When these cities succeed, homeless individuals have almost no choice but to relocate (if economically feasible) or go to jail because it is just too unreasonable to try to stay on the move and comply with all of the restrictions.

While cities across the country are focusing on developing new strategies to “clean the streets” and make homelessness illegal, the causes of poverty and homelessness go unaddressed. The leading cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Americans spend close to half of their income on housing and are left with little to use for additional expenses including food, clothing and healthcare. The demand for shelters is not met, affordable housing and rental assistance is not attainable for millions and healthcare to treat mental illnesses and addictions is not provided. Millions of homeless men and women are labeled “criminals” for being poor and disenfranchised. Many state and local governments seek to sweep the issue of homelessness off the street, out of sight, and out of mind, which New York City did in the 1980’s. Poverty in America, however, must be addressed. Criminalizing homelessness does not remove the problem from the streets. It infringes on the rights of homeless persons and abides an endemic cycle of poverty.

In order to address poverty and homelessness in the United States today, it would be more beneficial for government officials and policy makers to look at the journey from street to home instead of street to cell. The criminalization of homelessness does not end homelessness. It only sustains the suffering of individuals today and ensures of future of poverty for tomorrow.

New Report: The Criminalization of Food-Sharing Practices

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Civil Rights, Community Organizing, Food Sharing

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On Tuesday, October 21, Fort Lauderdale Commissioners will vote on a proposed ordinance that will severely limit the capabilities of groups to distribute food to people experiencing homelessness. According to our research, over 30 American cities that have tried to introduce similar legislation in the past two years.

The new report, Share No More: The Criminalization of Efforts to Feed People In Needdocuments the recent known cases of food-sharing restrictions throughout the country. Since January 2013, 21 cities have restricted the practice of sharing food with people who are experiencing homelessness while at least ten others have introduced ordinances that are pending approval.

These restrictions primarily come about in three different forms; the first is by restricting the use of public property. In this scenario, individuals and organizations are generally required to obtain a permit, often for a fee, to share food in a park or in another public space. 12 cities have recently passed legislation that imposes this type of restriction.

The second type of legislative restriction is to require groups to comply with city/county/state food-safety regulations. Since January 2013, four cities have passed legislation that required individuals and organizations to comply with their food-safety regulations when sharing food with people experiencing homelessness.

The last method utilized to deter food-sharing are community actions driven by the principle of “Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY)”. Often, local businesses and homeowners do not want to attract people experiencing homelessness to their community join together to put pressure on local government or directly on individuals and organizations that share food with people experiencing homelessness. These groups are harassed and in result feel compelled to relocate their food-sharing efforts or cut the program all together. Since January 2013, four cities have successfully utilized this tactic, with local community pressure, to pass legislation to restrict sharing food with people experiencing homelessness.

Share No MoreThis year’s food-sharing report attempts to address the myths and motivations that often drive the demand for food-sharing restrictions. While the evidence is overwhelming that this practice is too common, there are some success stories that prove that these restrictions do not need to stand. Citizens can use the same community pressure to stop these laws from taking effect. Some faith-based organizations have led the fight to protect their First Amendment Right to openly practice their religion. There are a number of policies we can advocate for on the local, state, and federal level to protect the civil rights of those experiencing homelessness.

Since January, 2013 the following 22 cities have passed ordinances that restrict the food-sharing process.

Public Property:

Food Safety:

Forced Relocation:

  • Fort Lauderdale, FL
  • Lake Worth, FL
  • Daytona Beach, FL
  • Houston, TX
  • Shawnee, OK
  • Costa Mesa, CA
  • Chico, CA
  • Hayward, CA
  • Manchester, NH
  • Olympia, WA
  • Columbia, SC
  • Medford, OR
  • Raleigh, NC
  • Salt Lake City, UT
  • Myrtle Beach, SC
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Pasadena, CA
  • Lafayette, IN
  • Harrisburg, PA
  • Seattle WA
  • Charlotte, NC
  • St. Petersburg, FL

 For more information about food-sharing restrictions please read this year’s report and/or contact the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Letter to the Editor by Guest Matias Vega

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Hate Crimes, Violence Against the Homeless

Guest Post – by Matias Vega

Following last weekend’s devastating murders of two homeless individuals, Matias Vega of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, Inc. wrote this piece to gather media attention.

Vulnerable to Hate: A Survey of Hate Crimes Committed Against Homeless People in 2013

This is the title of a June 2014 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) on the national trend of hate crimes and violence targeting people experiencing homelessness. I am a family physician who has worked exclusively with the homeless community over the past 26 years, am the current Medical Director at Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless where I have worked for the last 16 years, and am a 24 year member of the NCH Board of Directors.

Hate Crimes By Class

For the past 15 years, we at NCH have been documenting hate crimes against homeless people across the nation. Sadly, what has happened locally in Albuquerque over the past 2 months is neither unique nor surprising. Since 1999, there have been over 1400 acts of violence against homeless individuals and over 375 deaths reported in 47 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC. 72% of the victims were men over the age of 40, and 48% of the perpetrators were males under the age of 20. For reference, homeless hate crimes leading to death have been greater in number than all other deadly hate crimes combined in 14 out of the last 15 years across all of the US.

These deaths all meet the definition of homeless hate crimes: crimes committed against people simply because of their homelessness and vulnerability. Much can be done to protect the lives of people experiencing homelessness including designating homeless status as a protected class, adding homeless status to existing hate crime laws, or passage of City or State homeless hate crime legislation or a Homeless Bill of Rights, and requirement of law enforcement to complete trainings on how to interact effectively and respectfully with the homeless community. Since most of these hate crimes are committed by teenagers, creating educational curricula in grade and high schools on homelessness can be essential in preventing future homeless hate crimes. As the NCH report documents, “Bias crimes send a message to the attacked group, as well as a message about society as a whole. There is a correlation between the criminalization of homelessness and hate crimes against homeless individuals. Without protection under hate crimes legislation, homeless individuals are targeted as a class because of their status in society. We need to send a message that people who are homeless are still people and, as such, should not be attacked.”

This is the time for NM and Albuquerque to lead the way in making crimes against people who are homeless a hate crime. In America and New Mexico, people deserve the right to a quality of life and safety from violence, and especially, murder, regardless of their housing status. Homelessness should not be a death sentence. We can and must do better in protecting the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

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