Earlier this week, at George Washington University in Washington, DC the student chapter of Amnesty International hosted a sleep out to help students better understand the issues of poverty and homelessness. NCH speaker Steve Thomas attended and gave the students a first person perspective on what it is like to sleep outside in the nation’s capital.
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.
By Daniel Honeycutt, NCH Intern