National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project
definition, people who are homeless live in public. A lack of housing
forces them to do in public what everyone prefers to do in private. This
indignity is one of many reasons we seek to end homelessness. Unfortunately,
it has also become the battleground for the most fundamental defense
of people who happen to be homeless: the right to exist.
Criminalization of Homelessness
cities with an admitted lack of day shelters and few jobs that pay
a living wage, people who are homeless sometimes rest at bus stops
or on sidewalks. Tucson, Arizona, has made it unlawful to be at
a bus stop for more the 30 minutes. Police in Seattle, Washington,
have been instructed to fine or arrest people who are homeless for
sitting on the sidewalk. In cities with an admitted lack of affordable
housing, people who are homeless are forced to carry their worldly
goods with them wherever they go. In Beverly Hills, California,
it is crime punishable by a fine or jail time to set baggage down
on the sidewalks. In Georgetown, a trendy part of Washington, DC,
an archaic part of the District Code is being applied to fine or
arrest people for storing property (including people themselves)
in doorways. There is an estimated 24 million people on the waiting
list for public housing in this country. Despite this acknowledgment
of insufficient housing options, the city mothers and fathers of
Dallas, Texas, and many other cities across this country (including
Phoenix, Jacksonville, Columbus, Boston, Austin, New Orleans, Long
Beach, Virginia Beach, Atlanta, Sacramento, Tulsa, Miami, and Buffalo)
have made it illegal to camp or sleep in a park.
flaws in this effort to criminalize homelessness are as numerous
as they are obvious. Though no one should ever have to sleep in
a park or beg for food, making those acts into criminal offenses
does not help the people driven by desperation to commit them. These
city ordinances (and similar state statues) are misguided because
they seek to hide homeless people, not end homelessness. They are
unjust because they seek to punish people for being poor. Because
people who are homeless don't have the option not to sleep
in public, walk through parking lots, set down baggage, etc. these
laws are illogical. We have laws against arson because we each have
the choice of not burning down buildings. People who are forced
to live on the streets don't have options - if they did, they wouldn't
be there. Though it is easier for cities to attack homeless people
than to attack the root causes of homelessness, it wastes scarce
resources and human time, energy, and dignity. It costs much much
less to secure permanent housing than to put people in jail and
prison-even shelters (still more expensive than permanent housing
in the long run) cost less than incarceration.
of citations have been issued nationwide. Police continuously misapply
and selectively enforce existing laws in order to harass people
who are homeless and move them from parks to neighborhoods to alleys
and back into parks. This strategy demonizes poor people and feeds
negative public sentiment to target people who experience homelessness,
rather than the root causes of homelessness itself.
addition to its other effects, the criminalization efforts tear
our focus away from long term, permanent solutions in order to fight
for the right of people who are homeless to simply exist.
Our greatest victories in combating these new civil rights attacks
will only secure an already inhumane status quo. With this in mind,
we must build a locally-based national movement to protect the civil
rights of people who are homeless that can seamlessly-even simultaneously-work
to end homelessness once these discriminatory threats are eliminated.
plan to prevent and combat the violation of homeless people's civil
rights focuses on linking homeless individuals and families, and
the grassroots efforts that they lead, into a national network in
order fortify those local efforts and to strengthen cooperation.
This plan will result in a coordinated sharing of strategies, a
greater ability to fight effectively, and increased public awareness
- all geared toward abolishing discrimination against people who
National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NHCROP) has established
nine field sites in different regions of the country: Los Angeles,
CA, San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, Chicago, IL, Jeffersonville,
IN, Cincinnati, OH, Atlanta, GA, Austin, TX, Washington, DC.
people at each location will work to bring together the efforts
of all local homeless advocacy groups and to fortify efforts in
communities that are resource-poor. People who are or were homeless
will be hired to fill field staff and AmeriCorps*VISTA positions
created by NHCROP.
is too often the case that the harshest anti-homeless attacks occur
in those communities that lack the resources to organize an immediate,
effective response. NHCROP will make it much easier for such locales
to hook into the knowledge, experiences and resources of other civil
rights efforts in order to improve their ability to best protect
the civil rights of people who are homeless.
of the primary goals of the organizing project is to collect and
use video documentation of police and private security guard abuse
of homeless people, along with interviews of individuals who are
victims of such abuses. Hundreds of hours of videotape have already
been shot, and the abuses continue to stack up. Communities that
presently document civil rights violations on tape (e.g., San Francisco,
Atlanta and New York StreetWatch programs) find that having abuses
on tape acts as both a deterrent to future abuse and a powerful
advocacy and educational tool. Taking these functions further still,
NHCROP will combine the footage to a) show the similarities
between tactics used by different local governments, b) organize
a well-planned counter-campaign against existing or proposed anti-homeless
laws, and c) support groups attempting to set up or expand
documentation efforts. Finally, we can use this information as a
springboard to pointing out the contradictions in blaming the victim
and the lack of appropriate policies for ending homelessness. At
that point we will be able to articulate more proactive, cooperative
community initiatives and organize for their adoption and implementation.
on the civil rights of all people, NHCROP seeks to address discrimination
not only through our organizing, but also in the way we are organized.
Our membership is open and is as inclusive as possible. Moreover,
we actively encourage those service providers and housed advocates
involved to engage people who are or were homeless in this effort.
It is our expectation that the bulk of our leadership and membership
and all of our new staff will be people who are or were homeless.
It is in this way that we seek to consistently address the issues
of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism that can - if we are
not vigilant - create incongruities in our values and an imbalance
between our internal structure and the outward manifestation of
who have no choice but to be homeless have no choice but to be public.
To punish them for this heaps injustice on top of indignity. As
one Santa Monica woman who is homeless wondered, "When does
it stop? Are we going to push homeless people off the face of the
earth? I do have a right to exist. I have the right to food, clothing
and shelter because I live."
more information on NHCROP (timeline, staffing, budget, and evaluation)
and the success of homeless civil rights efforts, please contact
Michael Stoops at the National Coalition for the Homeless, 202.462.4822
or e-mail at: email@example.com.