Don’t Even Think About Having a Picnic in the Park, by Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing
We are facing a moral crisis. Cities pursuing higher tourism revenues and greater economic development have declared a war on their poor residents. Unfortunately, it is perceived that those who are living without homes effectively “taint” the scenic vistas and make visitors uncomfortable. More than ever, tourism hot-spots are targeting people who are homeless by passing laws that force them to the outskirts of town or into jails. Popular destinations often treat these individuals like riff-raff and criminals, arresting them for menial crimes in an effort to keep them from unconsciously photo-bombing a couple’s photo of their trip.
When the economy is so reliant on tourism dollars, it is natural for a local government or tourism board to take complaints seriously. Often times, tourists complain that they feel unsafe or uncomfortable around homeless individuals. The reputation of a destination can be tarnished so quickly, it is almost remarkable to see how agile governments can be in responding to economic threats. They generally first introduce bans to keep people from sleeping in the most visited parts of town. Sometimes they will open up a resource center far from the center of town to try to lure homeless people away from the hot spots. Sadly, more often they will enact numerous so-called “quality of life” laws that they can use to round up and jail homeless individuals in periodic sweeps. Some examples of laws that are in place are bans on sitting on a sidewalk or sleeping in a park, bans on begging or panhandling, and prohibition of the use of blankets, chairs, tents, pillows, etc.
We all know the detrimental impacts a criminal record can have on the futures of low-income individuals. Being locked-up can preclude a homeless individual from ever being able to find future employment or stable housing, leaving them exposed and likely to get swept up in this broken system all over again.
These efforts even extend to those who are trying to help. 39 US cities actively punish individuals and groups that operate food-sharing programs, trying to offer their homeless neighbors basic sustenance. In Fort Lauderdale, Arnold Abbott, a 91-year-old World War 2 Veteran who has been running a food-sharing program twice a week for 24 years, has been wrapped up in these issues for years. Despite a court victory in the 1990s, protecting his religious freedom to feed those in need, he has received three court summons since the passage of the City’s latest anti-homeless law in October. With the threat of $1,500 in fines and up to 180 days in jail, he continues to support his homeless neighbors, acknowledging the importance of a consistent program that meets them where they are to minimize the challenges associated with receiving proper nutrition. He maintains that he has the constitutional right to continue preparing meals and will continue to do so despite any personal consequences.
When showing compassion becomes illegal, we know we have a serious problem to tackle. The perception of poverty in places like Fort Lauderdale is so tainted with generalizations and assumptions that almost no person who is down on his/her luck has a chance. Communities that pass these inhumane laws are not apt to take proactive solutions and give people a chance. They react to bad stigmas and punish people for trying to survive. If we cannot appeal to them on a human level, we must take a broader stance and try to communicate just how little we stand for this type of injustice. We must make these cities feel the consequences of these inhumane actions.
We at the National Coalition for the Homeless are calling on all conscientious citizens to pledge that they will not invest in this kind of discrimination. Our expectations of poverty-free clean beaches are unrealistic and encourage unjust practices. Recently, we have seen increased interest in eco-tourism and other forms of environmentally sustainable travel; the time has come to support conscious consumers who elect to travel to respectful and compassionate destinations. As tourists, we must all put people first and consider the human consequences of our decisions.
Fort Lauderdale has been one of the most egregious culprits. The city rapidly passed the largest number of bans in one year that I have ever seen, culminating with its infamous food-sharing restrictions. In the uproar, following the City’s decision to essentially ban compassion, thousands of individuals have stepped up and taken action. College students have pledged to not spend their spring breaks in this town that mistreats its do-gooders and its vulnerable citizens. They are committed to selecting destinations with more moral integrity. We hope that companies too will vow not to host meetings in a place that has arrested a ninety-one year old on multiple occasions for sharing food with the homeless population. We will all choose fairness over everything!