0

Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever

Homeless Around the FireWhen a city passes a No Sit/No Lie ordinance, the purpose is not just to forbid sleeping outdoors, but to criminalize existence in any state of consciousness whatsoever. Officially, there is no offense called Breathing While Homeless, but it exists de facto, and some cities just get worse and worse.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, we learn that:

… [I]n 1996, the Houston, Texas, Living Wage effort to raise the minimum wage to $6.50 per hour was stopped cold in the last week of the campaign. Moneyed interests poured over 1 million dollars into creating misinformation and then handily defeated the initiative.

Houston has had a No Sit/No Lie ordinance for quite some time, and earlier this year, there was ferocious public debate over the rules that, as some phrase it, “criminalize charity” by forbidding citizens from feeding the homeless. A certain amount of compromise modified the originally proposed law, which had aspired to be much stricter. Chris Mora writes:

The version passed Wednesday reduced the maximum penalty to $500, made registration voluntary and lifted the food prep requirements. The property restriction does not apply to the feeding of five or fewer people.

In Sarasota, Florida, authorities carted away the benches from the city’s Five Points Park nearly a year ago, and recently voted not to put them back. J. David McSwane writes:

Removal of the benches was prompted by complaints from downtown condo owners who claim that large numbers of homeless people in the park are hurting their property values.

In 2006, Los Angeles got going on its Safer City Initiative, which was supposed to target not only drug dealers in the central urban area, but criminals who prey on street people. In other words, the new toughness was touted as protecting the homeless, as well as the housed.

Dana Goodyear reported on the results, which included a lot of arrests for “minor infractions that would have gone unnoticed in any other part of the city.” Goodyear went on to say:

In an analysis of the first year of the program, Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor, noted that there had been, on average, a thousand citations a month, most of them for pedestrian violations, such as walking against the signal. Often the violators were unable to pay the tickets; warrants were issued for their arrest, and they were jailed.

Overly concerned citizens think that, when the urban space includes places to sit, it promotes drug sales. That rationale is lamer than a homeless person on crutches. News flash: An awful lot of illegal drug sales take place in houses, restaurants, bars, parking lots, college dorms, churches, and, yes, even condominiums. Once all those scenes of crime have been abolished, then let’s talk about forbidding people to sit in an urban area.

Civic authorities are suspicious of people experiencing homelessness, and that will never change. But if the homeless bear watching closely, doesn’t it counter the interests of the authorities themselves to chase them into hiding? Since street people are assumed to be guilty of something, shouldn’t the police favor a city plan that would encourage them to remain in plain sight for long periods of time — rather than, for instance, skulking in the shadows, doing who-knows-what?

From a law-enforcement angle, it does make a certain amount of sense. Why not have public space for people to sit around in? Any city that can tolerate football mobs or the occasional riot could certainly find a way to allow a modicum of space for people who don’t own or rent any space of their own.

A No Sit/No Lie ordinance (or Sit/Lie ordinance which, paradoxically, has the same meaning) wastes court and police time, is neither humane nor cost-effective, and just plain doesn’t work. Everybody’s got to be someplace, and they can’t always be standing up. Keeping people on their feet is a nasty habit of torturers the world over. Even a healthy person can only endure a limited amount of it.

A lot of people are experiencing homelessness because they can’t work, and they can’t work because they’re disabled. Resistance to a no sit/no lie ordinance in any city is about the needs of disabled people and the occasional needs of just about everybody. You never know when you’ll need a place to sit down, to take a splinter from a child’s foot. Or because the tubing of your portable oxygen tank got tangled up and has to be sorted out. Did your therapist ever suggest pausing to smell the roses? How can you, when there’s no place to linger?

Spaces in cities should not be planned just for the postcard views. They need to meet the people’s needs. You can buy ant farms or palaces for pet cats that are designed better than some cities. No Sit/No Lie ordinances are described as “quality of life” ordinances, which is a prime example of twisted thinking. Quality of whose life? People experiencing homelessness have lives too, and the quality of their lives is also important, especially if they’re sick or disabled.

In the years from 2005 to 2011, San Francisco issued 39,714 “quality of life” citations, which were recently remarked upon by T. J. Johnston of SF Public Press:

Of the total number of citations, alcohol-related offenses account for the majority, but sleeping in parks and trespassing are also among the most frequent infractions cited. Possession of an open container consistently led among all other violations with 12,250 citations issued. Overnight sleeping in a park yielded 3,512 write-ups. Running neck and neck for third place are two similar infractions for trespassing: Obstruction of a street or sidewalk at certain times resulted in 2,254, and trespassing, 2,222.

People can’t pay fines, so they are thrown in jail, and then having a criminal record prevents them from getting into public housing, followed by further Breathing While Homeless offenses, and so on ad infinitum. If there is a problem with people sitting on sidewalks and blocking the way, put benches there. Or build wider sidewalks.

Better yet, address the basic problems of a society that breeds such a problem. Who is outsourcing jobs? Who is foreclosing mortgages? Who is killing the bees and making food prices go up? If people sitting on the sidewalk are the problem, let’s take out our anger not on them, but on the appropriate causes of that problem.

Reactions?

Source: “Drastically scaled-back homeless feeding ordinance OK’d,” Chron.com, 04/04/12
Source: “Park benches not returning to Five Points Park,” Herald-Tribune.com, 04/02/12
Source: “Dana Goodyear, Letter from Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, May 5, 2008, p. 28
Source: “Thousands of tickets handed out to homeless,” SF Public Press, 06/04/12
Image by Alex E. Proimos, used under its Creative Commons license.