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Criminalizing poverty during a public health crisis

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

By Annie Leomporra

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) came out with their recommendation on how to address homeless encampments during the COVID pandemic. The CDC statement read that

… if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living in encampments to remain where they are. Encourage people living in encampments to increase space between people and provide hygiene resources in accordance with the Interim Guidance for People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness

Image by Western Regional Advocacy Project

For advocates and people experiencing homelessness, this was an exciting statement that spoke to what we all know to be the truth, that homelessness is a public health emergency and that sweeps exacerbate health risks for those living outdoors. The CDC recommended providing access to clean water, hand washing stations, bathrooms, and regular trash pick up for people living outdoors. We thought maybe this would be an opportunity for communities across this country to re-think encampment sweeps, and the criminalization of homelessness. For a little while, in many communities, that is what happened. 

Meanwhile, due to funding cuts and social distancing restrictions, massive congregate shelters had to downsize their occupancy. Some people got transferred to hotels/motels or other services while others went outdoors. Further, as the pandemic economic downturn started to cause real hardship, more folks were forced to seek emergency housing assistance. With shelters at capacity, more people were forced outdoors and after just a few short months, municipalities across this country resumed encampment sweeps, going against CDC guidelines. 

Encampment sweeps aren’t the only thing that continued, the criminalization of ‘quality of life crimes’ came back in full force. In Hawaii, the Civil Beat, reported that the city of Honolulu received $38 million in CARES Act, and the Honolulu Police Department received at least $16 million of that for overtime pay. This overtime pay is suppose to be used to enforce they current mayor’s pandemic rules, however those who were most cited happened to be people experiencing homelessness.

One man has been cited nearly 100 times since March for 199 supposedly pandemic related violations. He has also received 37 tickets for quality of life crimes. Once someone receives a citation they are required to appear in court. A missed court appearance can turn into a bench warrant and lead into an arrest. In citing people experiencing homelessness for little else than not having anywhere to quarantine or social distance, the city of Honolulu not only is being incredibly cruel, but it is creating a dangerous situation for health of the entire community. 

The National Coalition for the Homeless urges localities put into practice the CDC guidelines on unsheltered homeless, and protect this vulnerable population from unnecessary risk of COVID infection, especially as the weather turns cold. We also demand that cities and states end of the practice of criminalizing poverty and homelessness!

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