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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

The 10 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws

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

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 ten most ridiculous anti-homeless laws/actions.

These five anti-homeless policies are only the tip of the iceberg. Check back in with the Bringing America Home Blog next week for five even more ridiculous laws and actions that not only ignore human rights, but constitutional ones as well.

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

10.  “Homeless Meters” – Multiple Cities

San Antonio TX, Virginia Beach VA, Anchorage AK, and many more cities across America are installing converted parking meters to collect donations for homeless service organizations. These meters are being marketed as a possible solution to panhandling by encouraging do-gooders to give their spare change to established groups instead of directly to the homeless to avoid the possibility of their money being spent on drugs and alcohol.

Donating to vetted homeless service organizations is a positive thing, so we at NCH want the placing of “homeless meter” programs on this list to not necessarily mean that we are against the use of parking meters to collect donations. But we also urge the public to be aware of the negative effects of these efforts.

Personal interaction, which these meters may eliminate, can be just as important to a person experiencing homelessness as an actual monetary donation. A short talk can go lengths and bounds to renewing a feeling of inclusion in society, a feeling that is all too often lost among the sometimes invisible homeless. Donations to service organizations are always encouraged, but we should never let these meters discourage acknowledging that those who ask for money are fellow human beings. Just as ignoring the issue of homelessness will not help end it, ignoring the people directly affected by homelessness will not help them help themselves.

9.  RV Sleeping Ban – Venice, California

In 2010, Venice CA began strict enforcement of an ordinance banning sleeping in RV’s. This action is reportedly due to resident claims of annoyance from noise and inconvenience from the bulky vehicles. But many homeless live in RV’s, and they need to be close to the city so they can access services. Not allowing them to park and sleep in the city makes getting help all the more difficult. The ordinance was enacted due to reports of some RV owners dumping their sewage in public, but this ban punishes Venice’s homeless who have to choose between living either in their RV or on the streets. This homeless population is assuredly much larger than a couple of bad apples who do not care where their waste ends up.

8.  Smoking Ban – Sarasota, Florida

A ban on smoking in some public areas in Sarasota FL may sound fine at first: after all, New York City recently banned smoking in public parks. But the real issue here lies within the City Commission’s intentions, not the validity of the effects of second-hand smoke or cigarette butt pollution. The ban was originally proposed in conjunction with park bench removal at Selby Five Points Park (#6) to discourage the homeless from using the public area. The ban was later expanded to all public parks out of fairness, but this ordinance still remains far from fair: a city-owned golf course was given an exemption because, according to City Manager Bob Bartolotta, “so many of the golfers are smokers.” What is so special about golfers that they should not be required to follow the laws that are in place across the rest of Sarasota’s public parks?

7.  Water Sprinklers – Manteca, California

“Creative” is one way to think of this method of keeping the homeless from sleeping in public parks in Manteca, CA. “Cruel and unusual” is another. In order to discourage the homeless from camping in Library Park, the city purposely changed the water sprinkler schedule so that people could not sleep in the park without an unwanted shower. The policy also includes shutting off power in the park’s gazebo to keep the homeless from using it to charge their cell phones.

6.  Bench Removal – Sarasota, Florida

In response to complaints about gatherings of “vagrants” in public parks from downtown Sarasota FL condo residents, the city decided to remove the presumed host of these gatherings: benches. Sarasota went forward with its plan to remove the benches in Selby Five Points Park in May 2011 in order to please those who pay “the highest property tax value in the county” by discouraging the homeless (and apparently everyone else) from using the park. Combined with a panhandling ban around parking meters and a smoking ban in certain public spaces, which the City Commission originally proposed to further discourage the homeless from using parks (#8), it is all too clear that the Sarasota Commissioners are willing to go to ridiculous lengths to keep their poorest citizens out of the sight of their wealthiest.

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.  Be sure to check back next week for the top 5 Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws!

By Daniel Honeycutt, NCH Intern

Legislating Hate

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

Hate exists in American society.  Sadly, some individuals act upon hateful urges and cause harm to innocent human beings; harm ranging from minor assault to brutal death.  In an effort to curb hateful violence, Congress and many State governments have enacted statutes that increase punishment for those acts targeted at individuals because of such individual’s status.  The intent of such laws, and the punishments attached, are to send a message to society that our criminal justice system does not tolerate hate.

Unfortunately, the federal government and most States do not categorize homelessness as a protected status from hate.  This means that in most places in America a “homeless hater,” unprovoked, could attack a homeless person sleeping on a bench, and when being tried for the crime, the hater would be punished for the action, but not for the motive of action.  Not punishing a person’s reason for acting sends the message that the act is wrong, but the motive behind the act is acceptable.

On August 9, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, three young men beat and stabbed David Ballenger, 46, to death.  David had no valuable possessions to steal.  David was not involved in drugs, or the associated violence. And David did not verbally or physically entice his attackers. David was simply murdered because he was homeless. In fact, a Seattle newspaper quoted one of the perpetrators boasting that there was “one less bum on the face of the earth.”

The attack began as a verbal barrage, the young men criticizing David for not being able to make a living.  When David walked away, his attackers followed and began beating him.  Resisting, David escaped, but the young men found him, elevated the violence, and stabbed the helpless David Ballenger to death.  This senseless murder is not the only instance of inhumanity toward the homeless in Washington.  In fact, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2009 there were 21 reported incidents of violence directed at homeless individuals, 12 of which resulting in death.

Over a decade after David Ballenger’s brutal murder, on January 10, 2011, Washington State Senator Scott White (D-Seattle) introduced legislation in response to the violence toward the homeless.  White’s legislation seeks to include offenses that were intentionally committed because the defendant perceived the victim to be homeless to the criteria for aggravating circumstances under which an exceptional sentence above the standard range may be imposed.  On March 2, 2011 the Senate passed White’s bill with a vote of 49 – 0. The bill was then sent to the House, and the following month the legislation was passed 92 – 1 (Republican Jason Overstreet was the sole dissenter; Republican members Terry Nealey, Kevin Parker, Jay Rodne, and Charles Ross, abstained from the vote) Finally on April 15, 2011, almost 12 years after the brutal murder of David Ballenger, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed White’s bill into law, making offenses committed because a victim was homeless an aggravating circumstance.

But what does this really mean once we climb past the legal jargon?

Practically, the passage of Washington S.B. 5011 (White’s bill) means that if an offense against a person was intentionally committed because that person was perceived to be homeless (the aggravating circumstance), courts will have the option to impose tougher penalties (the exceptional sentence).  However, before a Judge can make a decision regarding the exceptional sentence, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance exists.  S.B. 5011 did not create the concept of increased punishment for certain acts.  Rather, it added homelessness to an already lengthy list of other aggravating circumstances existing in Washington State criminal law.  This statute does not create homelessness as a protected category from hate, but it is a step in the right direction.

by Shane M. Poole

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