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Veterans Day in Austin, 2015

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Veterans Day with Mayor Steve Adler, who has pledged to end veteran homelessness in Austin, Texas by December 31st, 2015.

Back in August, Austin mayor Steve Adler announced an ambitious plan to end veteran homelessness in the city by tomorrow (Veterans Day 2015). The first thing to understand is that finding viable permanent housing for all people in that situation would be impossible. Mostly, the goal here is temporary housing for all. A first step, but by no means a final one.

Donations For Homeless Housing

Before long, the news came out: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans.” But an attentive reading of the press release discloses that it was actually the National Association of REALTORS® who made the generous grant. What the local Austin Board of REALTORS® Foundation did was donate $5,000 to a fund for such expenses as housing repairs (though it does seem that should be the landlord’s responsibility anyway). The literature says:

The Housing Our Heroes Initiative is part of the national Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Austin’s effort involves a coalition of Austin landlords, business leaders and service providers, who are working together to provide stable housing, extensive support services and temporary financial assistance to Austin’s homeless veterans.

It was announced that “seven leases have been executed on REALTOR®-managed properties to date, and additional units have been committed to this purpose.” Although every bit of help is appreciated, seven units doesn’t make much of a dent in the number of homeless vets.

Journalist Kayla Stewart questioned the director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) who made some cogent points. For one thing, between January and August, the number of homeless veterans in Austin appears to have doubled to around 500. Stewart says:

While about half are housed, property owners tend to be reluctant to rent to veterans.

The reluctance to rent to veterans is saddening. In the past, Texas has been perceived as holding military veterans in high esteem. Maybe the state has changed a lot, or maybe it’s just that Austin is its own place. Maybe it’s simply that a saturation point has been reached.

By ECHO’s count, the percentage of Austin homeless people who are veterans is higher than the national average—around 20%. They add:

Veterans are not only more likely to become homeless, but are also more likely to stay on the streets longer than the average homeless person. And within that group, yet another group is overrepresented: almost 50% of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are African-American.

These facts are found in a substantial and impressive Austin Chronicle piece by Kahron Spearman that recapitulates a ton of important backstory and enumerates in exhaustive detail the obstacles faced by many veterans. Another factor in the crisis is that the housing program “ceiling” is $800 per month, which presumably means a landlord cannot ask more. Still, that seems like an awful lot for a single person.

Obstacles to Housing Veterans

But Megan Podowski of Caritas explains: the city’s rental units are 98% occupied, and landlords are in a position to demand that prospective tenants present impeccable credentials. Many veterans, especially those who struggle with personal demons and service-inflicted disabilities, have gaps in their residence histories and may have been late with their rent on occasion. And indeed, Spearman goes on to say:

The majority of homeless veterans are male, suffer from mental illness or recurring disorders, [and] abuse drugs and/or alcohol.

What so many folks really need is supportive housing, with full-bore and hard-core Housing First philosophy behind it. But Austin is doing the best it can with the resources at hand. Also quoted is Tu Giang of Front Steps:

We take veterans based on a vulnerability scale…Once we complete intake, that individual gets with a case manager [and is assessed for current needs]. We’ve really ramped up our resources, with a lot of aggressive and concerted outreach.

As such projects will do, this one ran into problems. As of mid-October, 100 housing units were still being sought, and the goal date was moved to December 31, 2015. Mayor Adler’s three-pronged call to action includes his request to spread the word via social media. At the Housing Heroes website (which still publicizes the old deadline) a person can house a veteran, donate, sign up for the email newsletter, and write to a member of the mayor’s staff.

Finding the Homeless

Other parts of the overall plan continue uninterrupted. On October 16, representing Legal Aid for the Homeless and House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell participated in a two-hour training session, led by the mayor’s aide Earl Jones. The following day, the various teams spent three morning hours in outreach to veterans experiencing homelessness. Richard says:

As we located homeless folks, we offered Veterans information about Coordinated Assessment and offered them a Pathway out of homelessness. We also offered immediate shelter and a reserved shelter bed at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH. For uninterested veterans, but those in desperate need, we offered 45 days of transitional housing in a local motel when we would provide other service like health care, supportive housing, Legal Aid, etc.

The volunteers also distributed Plastic Resource Pocket Guides from House the Homeless. Overall, it was a successful outreach effort. Much more information is available from ECHO, a recommended destination for those who want more details and especially for those who want to help. December 31 is approaching fast.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin Board of REALTORS® donates $15,000 to house Austin’s homeless veterans,” NewsRadioKLBJ.com, 09/16/15
Source: “Mayor’s Plans to End Veteran Homelessness Halted,” patch.com, 10/12/15
Source: “Collateral Damage,” AustinChronicle.com, 07/17/15
Image by Sly Majid, Office of the Mayor

 

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Bell v. City of Boise Lives On, Kind Of

fallen leavesRecently, House the Homeless discussed Bell v. City of Boise and its importance. Quick review: More than a decade ago, Los Angeles was sued over its severe anti-homeless ordinances. The outcome was awaited with great interest. If the city lost, then conditions would improve for people on the street.

If the city won, then the case would be appealed to the Supreme Court, which might engender some real fireworks. If it came to challenging the constitutionality of “breathing while homeless” laws, the American landscape could change radically. In due time, Judge Kim M. Wardlaw laid down words that would look good engraved in stone:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

The U.S. Constitution may not be perfect, but it’s the best tool we have for securing liberty and justice for all. Judge Wardlaw coupled that basic fact with the realization that everybody’s got to be someplace, and while they’re there, they just might need to sit down, or even lie down and sleep. For people experiencing homelessness all across America, things were looking up. But the aftermath dragged on, and optimism was quenched when, subsequent to a compromise agreement, the judgment was vacated.

But Judge Wardlaw’s words were not forgotten. More recently, when Boise, Idaho, was sued for similar reasons, the Justice Department stepped in (critics would say “interfered”) by filing a statement of interest. It is the federal bureaucracy’s way of putting the city on notice—“We will be keeping an eye on you.” In its official communication, the Justice Department quoted Judge Wardlaw’s words, and the whole issue started to pick up momentum again.

Boise’s Version of the Truth

Associated Press writer Samantha Wright noted the total number of people charged with public camping in each of four consecutive years, ranging from 12 in 2012 to 293 in 2015. That is more than a 24-fold increase. To put it another way, for every one person cited with public camping in 2012, 24 were cited in 2015. To put it yet another way, that is 24 times as many. Clearly, some kind of escalation has taken place.

Yet, soon after the Justice Department declared its concern, the City of Boise reacted by saying they had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Wright explained:

The Department says it is opposing the Boise law that makes it a crime for homeless people to sleep or camp in public places because it unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. But city spokesman Mike Journee says the law was changed and police can no longer give tickets for camping if homeless shelters are full. And if there is room at a shelter, police will try to convince people to go there…The suit was originally brought by seven homeless people in 2009 who were cited under the law, even though there was no room for them at local shelters.

But two months later, it became obvious that the constitutionality of forbidding people to sleep would not see its day in court. Judge Ronald E. Bush of the U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit. He and the other Boise officials hold that the only people who have been punished for sleeping outside had refused to procure a shelter bed. In this version of reality, if no shelter space is available, the police don’t bother anybody.

The Future for Anti-Homeless Laws

Eric Tars is an attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs. He told journalist Frankie Barnhill that one reason the suit was dismissed was that “all but two of the plaintiffs are no longer homeless, so they don’t have a fear of being arrested for camping in public.” Which is ridiculous, because what about all the other people who are, currently, homeless? Besides, just letting time go by is a reprehensible way to run a legal case. Stall long enough, and everybody’s dead.

The director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, Sara Rankin, warned other cities not to become over-confident about their own anti-homeless laws, saying:

Cities would be very ill-advised to interpret the Bell v. Boise case as carte blanche to enact broad anti-camping ordinances. The reason for that is the decision in Bell v. Boise was not rendered on the merits.

Clearly, this issue will keep popping up over and over in different cities until somebody makes a definitive ruling that is an irresistible call to action. In the meantime, anyone who cares about housing or otherwise helping the homeless could start by learning just what the laws are in her or his own city. It might be enlightening.

Reactions?

Source: “City Weighs In On DOJ Criticism Of Boise Homeless Camping Law,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 08/07/15
Source: “Advocacy Group Responds To Dismissal Of Boise Homeless Case,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/01/15
Source: “Boise Homeless Case Dismissed, What Happens Next?,” boisestatepublicradio.org, 10/02/15
Image by Thomas Quine

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To Criminalize Homelessness is Massively Counterproductive

Bits and piecesLast week we looked at some of the life problems that particularly affect homeless youth, in the cauldron of social unrest known as California. Although these conflicts are more evident in that state because of sheer numbers, they exist in all American cities.

Among the righteously housed folk, anti-homeless laws are known by the politically correct term “quality of life ordinances.” Always the big question is, whose life? For housed people who dislike the chaotic ambiance of urban streets, there is a place to escape to and shut the door on it. “Unaccompanied” young people don’t have the luxury of that alternative.

The California Homeless Youth Project report says:

The use of “quality of life” as a characterization of such policies fundamentally excludes the lives of people surviving on the streets.

Such policies are in fact discriminatory and abusive, and they provide far too many occasions for contact between street kids and law enforcement personnel. This is unfortunate, because the odds are against any one police contact turning out well, and the more contacts, the worse the odds become.

At the very least, officers will probably demand that kids “move along,” and in most cases that involves relocating from populated and relatively safe areas to more isolated and dangerous patches of territory. At best, it’s harassment, and at worst, an invitation to disaster. The same report quoted Ric Declan, an Oregon police sergeant with a maverick spirit, as saying:

We know that homeless youth are more often the ‘victims’ rather than the ‘perpetrators’ of crime and should be treated as such.

The authors of that document also noted that “not one youth interviewed reported ever turning to police for help when they needed it.” What does that say about the often-mythical slogan “Protect and Serve?”

When a community is allowed to enforce rules that violate basic human rights, nobody wins and everybody loses. Tax revenues are used to extend police hours into overtime, open more courtrooms, hire more guards, pay more public defenders, and rent more space in penal institutions for people whose initial crime is having nowhere to live. Laws that criminalize homelessness are so counterproductive they can do nothing but make situations worse—not only for the people convicted, but for society as a whole.

The tragedy of all this is multiplied when young people are the targets. They are already teetering on the edge of oblivion. Even a teen with a full complement of parents, extended family members, teachers, and coaches can have a rough adolescence. Imagine how much more difficult it is to grow up in the middle of nowhere, with no support system, and surrounded by predators. No kid needs a criminal record, which is likely to become Step 1 in a career of recidivism. Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, says:

Laws criminalizing homeless youth deprive them of the opportunity to succeed in life, creating additional barriers to housing, employment, and education, and only serve to punish them at a time when they are most vulnerable.

These things (again, according to the California Homeless Youth Project) need to be done:

  • Decriminalize necessary human behavior that occurs in the absence of alternatives
  • Create a continuum of housing options
  • Convene community forums to facilitate dialogue among service providers, law enforcement, business owners and associations, and homeless youth
  • Increase resources for homeless youth
  • Create Homeless Outreach Teams that are trained to respond to the unique circumstances of homeless residents
  • Address need for affordable transportation

Other than mentions of mental health and substance abuse, the list of high-priority policy recommendations does not include physical health care outreach. House the Homeless hopes to see it join the list.

Reactions?

Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” September 2015
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc

 

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Unaccompanied Youth in California

the kids aren't alright“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” went the refrain of a once-popular song. California was Shangri-la, a land of magic and hope, the preferred destination for the abandoned and disaffected youth of our entire nation.

These days, it’s a good place for homeless teens and young adults to steer clear of. With facilities stretched to their limits, helping organizations work harder than before, trying to accomplish more with ever-shrinking budgets. Housed people fall prey to compassion fatigue, and there is a steady increase in laws designed to make life unpleasant for the peasant.

Currently, the golden state contains more homeless youth than any other state, and they are more likely to be unsheltered than in most other states. Among the nation’s cities as rated by their “mean streets,” California has three of the top ten spots.

The last two decades have seen the creation of numerous restrictive ordinances, and over the past five years, the pace of anti-homeless legislation has picked up, according to Shahera Hyatt and Jessica Reed, the credited authors of “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.” Though only two names are on the cover, this 16-page report utilized all the resources of the California Homeless Youth Project, with help from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Things Are Tough for Unaccompanied Youth

Many of the offenses that people experiencing homelessness are charged with have nothing to do with age. They may be forbidden to sit, stand, rest, or sleep in public places; or to set up a tent or lean-to shack anywhere. They may not be allowed to ask for contributions or sort through trash receptacles for food or recyclable materials. Organizations that want to serve them food may be told they are not allowed to give away so much as a sandwich.

Then there is another layer of legal difficulty known as selective enforcement, when homeless people are not allowed to do things that are apparently okay for others. The most well-known example is sidewalk camping. People who wait in line all night to buy concert tickets or the latest model phone are allowed to set up tents or sack out in sleeping bags while homeless people, of course, would be breaking the law.

The things that unaccompanied youth most often get in trouble for are, the report says, “sleeping in public or private spaces at night, or sitting in public space during the day.” The other big problem is traveling to places where help is available. Kids often sneak rides on public transportation and get nailed for theft of services.

Age-Related Crimes

Then there is the problem of “status offenses,” or things that are illegal for a person under 18 to do unless a court has previously deemed her or him an “emancipated minor.” Curfew violations get kids in trouble while not affecting adults. Kids are supposed to be enrolled in school until a certain age, and not showing up makes them truant. Truancy is a crime even for the homeless. Young people have been locked up for that crime, which makes no sense whatsoever. Incarcerating a kid for skipping school has got to be one of the most irrational government actions ever. The report says:

Homeless students are much better served by community-based organizations, which have been shown to be more developmentally appropriate, cost effective, and humane than the juvenile justice system.

For an adult, running away from home may not always be the wisest choice, and can even cause problems to multiply, but at least it isn’t illegal in and of itself. But for a minor (which in California means under 18), mere existence is a status offense, because kids that age are not supposed to be anywhere else except under their family roof. Here is what the authors say:

Youth who run away do so for their own survival, often fleeing their homes due to abuse, extreme poverty, and/or rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression. Yet in many jurisdictions, runaway youth may be apprehended by law enforcement and returned to their home of origin, even if that home is dysfunctional and/or abusive.

Reactions?

Source: “Adding Insult to Injury: The Criminalization of Homelessness and Its Effects on Youth.
September 2015
Image by Senia L

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Richard Gere in Time Out of Mind

2009-07-22There were rumblings and inklings of this for months—of actor Richard Gere feeling his way into a movie role by going out incognito and blending in with people experiencing homelessness in their daily pursuits. For instance, a French tourist gave him some pizza but remained clueless until a picture of the two of them showed up in a newspaper.

Last month the film, Time Out of Mind, was released. It’s about a man trying to survive in New York, a tough city in which to be homeless (not that anyplace is easy). For those accustomed to appreciating Gere playing romantic leads or “shifty power mongers,” this performance is unsettling. National Public Radio’s Ella Taylor says:

George scrambles to keep body and soul together, shuttling between welfare offices, an overwhelmed homeless shelter in Bellevue hospital, and the streets. There, enraged and frustrated at being alternately ignored and ringed around with rules and red tape, he conducts himself like a man trying to bargain without chips.

From Taylor’s review, it sounds like a movie worth seeing, with several great characters, like other street people played by Ben Vereen and Kyra Sedgwick. For aficionados of cinematic technique, the writer mentions how the 66-year old Gere is in every scene, but hardly ever at the center of the action. She says director Oren Moverman…

…shoots Gere in very long shots through wire fences and glass doors and windows, down hallways, up and down the streets he roams aimlessly, into the shelter where he retires to bed down for the night…a man for whom the simple business of feeding himself and finding a bed for the night requires constant, unrelenting effort.

This review makes the film seem very layered and nuanced, with plenty of psychological and emotional kinks, just like real life. It ends by saying, “it’s the finest portrait of homelessness I’ve ever seen.” The comments garnered by the piece are interesting too, like the one from a person who credits the Salvation Army for—true to its name—making a save.

HuffingtonPost.com offers a 25-minute video segment in which Gere discusses his connection with the Coalition for the Homeless and his longtime determination to make this film whose script he first read in 1988. He discusses the history of how the movie came to be made, and many aspects of the homeless scene including the crucial difference between housing and warehousing.

Gere also references Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, a book by a fellow known as Cadillac Man, who at one time was the most famous homeless person in Northern Queens. It made a deep impression on Gere and greatly influenced the contributions that he made to the Time Out of Mind script.

Reactions?

Source: “Richard Gere Plays homeless Man Convincingly
NPR.org, 04/29/14
Source: “Richard Gere Shines In The Bleak ‘Time Out Of Mind’
NPR.org, 09/10/15
Source: “’Time Out Of Mind’ Star Richard Gere LIVE
HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/15
Image by arincrumley

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When Pope Francis Came to Town

Pope TeesWhen Pope Francis visited Washington, D.C., recently, there had been a tentative plan for him to stop by the sculpture installed on a bench outside the headquarters of Catholic Charities. Sadly, this viewing of “Jesus the Homeless” did not fit into the schedule—but the Pope had, of course, already seen a smaller version of Timothy P. Schmalz’s touching work of art last year when it was brought to the Vatican to receive his blessing

At St. Patrick’s Church, the Pope spoke to about 250 people experiencing homelessness who currently depend on Catholic Charities. One does not need to be the least bit religious to grasp the basic idea behind his strong words:

We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.

Outside, a tent had been set up where 300 lunch guests waited. They included residents of the Catholic Charities shelter and the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, all of whom had signed up and then been vetted by the shelter managers. Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times reported:

A few minutes later Francis came out the church doors to cheers and applause from the lunch guests. He gave a brief blessing, then said “Buen apetito,” to loud laughter. He himself did not eat, but he waded through the tables, stopping to lay his hand on the heads of children…

The Pope’s next stop was New York, where custom-designed metal spikes were installed to prevent homeless people from lingering or sleeping within the pitiful shelter of alcoves in the walls of buildings near Madison Square Garden. At the same time, 18 “seating pods” disappeared from a nearby pedestrian plaza, and the property management company responsible for their removal told a reporter that these “homeless magnets” would not be replaced.

Hiding the Homeless in Philadelphia

In the City of Brotherly Love, preparations for the papal visit included the displacement of people experiencing homelessness from any chance of encountering him. According to Amy S. Rosenberg, all was peaceful in the Parkway area as authorities established the Secure Pope Perimeter. She provides many heart-warming anecdotes to illustrate how incident-free the process was, as the people who usually sleep in the park simply made alternate arrangements. But other reports differ, relating how the police threw everyone’s belongings in the trash. The city’s local CBS affiliate quoted outreach worker Amir Robertson:

If you’re homeless, the best thing I can suggest you do is stay off the streets because you’re either going to go to jail or they’re going to put you in the worst part of the neighborhood where you’re going to end up getting killed.

Nearly two weeks before the Pope’s arrival, six families who were unable to obtain either emergency housing vouchers or shelter beds set up housekeeping in an empty lot. Photos went out via social media, and next thing you know, television crews showed up. While the city spent millions of dollars to prepare for the pontiff’s visit, the homeless continued to suffer. Organizers pointed out the bitter irony of this, especially in the face of the Pope’s demonstrable affinity for the homeless.

The protestors challenged the city to figure out how to turn unused buildings into livable places and put people into them. At last count, there were something like 40,000 abandoned houses, commercial structures, and empty lots in Philadelphia. (As House the Homeless has discussed, HtH President Richard R. Troxell initiated the Philadelphia Stabilization Program here back in the 1980s.) Coverage of the campsite proved that poverty is no respecter of race, and that the public cared enough to bring food donations to the “pantry” tent. It also proved that public shaming can be effective. The Philadelphia Housing Authority stepped up and found public housing vouchers for the six families.


Source: “Pope Francis to See Statue of Homeless Jesus During Visit to DC,” CBSLocal.com, 09/18/15
Source: “Pope Francis’ Most Welcome Words to Homeless: ‘Buon Appetito’,” NYTimes.com, 09/24/15
Source: “Photos: Sharp Anti-Homeless Spikes Have Been Installed Near Pope’s Route,” Gothamist.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Outreach workers get homeless to leave the Parkway.” Philly.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Homeless People Being Relocated In Preparation For Papal Visit,” CBSLocal.com, 09/25/15
Source: “Six Homeless Families Living in Tents in Philly Lot,” NBCPhiladelphia.com, 09/16/15
Image by Mike Maguire

 

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Breathing While Homeless – in the News Again

Where do they all belongTo speak of the crime of “Breathing While Homeless” is no joke any more—not that it ever was. In the late 1880s, singly and in groups, thousands of jobless, impoverished people roamed the countryside. The homeless wanderers were called tramps, and in Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy quotes a local newspaper’s report on what happened when 250 tramps approached the settlement. “They were marched to the river, made to wash themselves, given something to eat, and rushed out of town.” That can be looked at as an unconscionable violation of Americans’ rights, or as a relatively benign intervention.

On the other hand, what were the untold stories? Scores of people were herded to the river and—what? Made to strip down and wash their clothes by pounding them with rocks? Or were they forced to just wade into the river in what they wore, regardless of the ambient temperature, their state of health, the precious identity papers and photos they might have held onto…There is a lot we don’t know. At least the tramps were fed, but again, we don’t know exactly what that means.

Anyway, such an incident could provide opportunity for many kinds of abuse and even assault. It would not occur to the news editor to mention it, because everyone would assume it was business as usual. Nothing to see here, folks, so move on. Does our romanticized view of the country’s past throw a rosy glow over atrocities?

The point is that America has never rewarded those who just can’t make it. Adding insult to injury, the people who most despise the homeless are, often, the very ones who caused the dire and desperate financial conditions against which the rest of us struggle. Because the misery is so widespread, many journalists have done stories about its manifold aspects. In so many places it is either de jure or de facto illegal to sit, sleep, eat, or eliminate. But people have to do those things. This is the basis of the currently controversial Bell v. City of Boise legal case. A judge once said you can’t punish people for what people can’t help doing. The Justice Department, which appears to have sat mute on this question for a couple of decades, has decided to take an interest. Change may come. Only last month, Alan Pyke wrote:

Any community that makes homelessness illegal may soon find it harder to obtain Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for building shelters and staffing outreach positions.

The criminalization of homelessness enriches certain industries and provides better employment opportunities for certain workers (like police and prison guards). For a person experiencing homelessness, every encounter with law enforcement is potentially lethal. When a community legislates against non-violent non-crimes like sitting on the sidewalk, the frequency of interaction goes up, and so does the fatality rate. Listen to what Allen Arthur said, also last month:

Nearly a third of those living in New York City homeless shelters are employed—at jobs that obviously don’t pay them enough to afford rent….Around 12 percent of homeless are veterans –their job deified when wartime profits call, but left for dead in the streets when their usefulness is exhausted…Both politically and economically, for the ruling class, the problem is more profitable than the solution.

Arthur has a great deal more to say, and does it clearly. He points out that 18 million housing units are empty in the United States. Some critics would wander off into the woods, arguing the exact amount of theoretically liveable space, or why it shouldn’t be lived in anyway. This writer breaks it down for us in terms of exactly who has benefited from the impoverished and homeless condition in which so many Americans find themselves. We can’t say “jobless” because today’s homeless and inadequately housed people are unlike those displaced people who entered and exited a Wisconsin town so long ago. Today, many of the people experiencing homelessness are working, and even working full-time. Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless says:

For me, the issue is simple. If someone is prevented from pursuing a basic act of survival, then the fault lies with the entity that is disrupting the individual’s ability to survive unimpeded, be it another individual, a government, a system or a community.

Thanks to Richard and many, many other hard-working and highly-principled people, the city of Austin has been, in some areas, a pioneer. Please do visit “No Sit/No Lie: Troxell’s Testimony,” or one of our several other posts about this hot-button topic.

Reactions?

Source: “ Wisconsin Death Trip”
Source: “Local Officials Have Pushed To Criminalize Homelessness For Years. The Feds Are Starting To Push Back,” ThinkProgress.org, 08/18/15
Source: “Homelessness is the crime, not the homeless,” SocialistWorker.org, 08/09/15
Image by Christiaan Triebert

 

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Bell v. City of Boise – History and Implications

Homeless in Jerusalem

Homeless in Jerusalem

Are anti-camping ordinances constitutional? This question has lain dormant with occasional ominous tremors like those that precede an earthquake. It is a question with the potential to change the landscape literally, figuratively, and extensively. There was a big rumble in 2006, when Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim M. Wardlaw made what seemed like a groundbreaking legal decision that turned out not to be. We discussed why Jones v. City of Los Angeles kind of fizzled out.

But recently, the Ninth Circuit case became a factor to be reckoned with when the federal government turned its attention to Bell v. City of Boise, a case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The Justice Department’s “statement of interest” quoted Judge Wardlaw, who said:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

Here is the same news event, presented from the vantage point of a different mindset. The NY Post‘s Betsy McCaughey believes that living on the street is not acceptable. About that, we agree—but the meaning we assign to the words is vastly different. We would like clean, safe and affordable living conditions for all humans. McCaughey seems to wish that large segments of the population could somehow magically be made to disappear.

When a homeless advocate says that people should not be punished for their status, McCaughey characterizes that basic human decency as a “wacky ideology.” In our view, if people have no choice but to live on the streets, they should at least be legally protected.

McCaughey, on the other hand, is all about criminalizing survival, and sees the Justice Department’s interest in the Iowa case as the Obama administration “siding with vagrants against local governments.” We wish we could tell you the upcoming quotation was found in The Onion or some other satirical publication, but alas, we cannot. The outraged McCaughey says of people experiencing homelessness:

Their insistence on street living punishes the rest of us. We have to endure the heart-wrenching sights of human beings in rags lying on sidewalks.

Jones v. City of Los Angeles was vacated because of a compromise deal, but the analysis provided by Judge Kim M. Wardlaw was solid, which is why it is being called upon in Bell v. City of Boise. Writing for Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern mentions other cases that influence the judiciary’s thinking in this matter. Robinson v. California and Powell v. Texas were both ruled on by the nation’s Supreme Court. Stern says:

In Robinson the court struck down a California statute that criminalized addiction—not just use or possession—of narcotics. California, the justices explained, could outlaw the conduct of drug use, but it could not criminalize the status of being addicted to drugs. Powell dealt with a similar law, one that criminalized public intoxication in Texas.

Since homelessness is a status, not a conduct, it seems reasonable to assume that the Supreme Court would also say that the Constitution forbids cities to arrest people for sleeping rough when shelters are full. Stern doubts that Bell v. City of Boise will reach that far, but it might slow down or partially reverse the criminalization of homelessness. Even if it doesn’t go to the Supreme Court, the lower-level resolution of Bell v. City of Boise will create a precedent that can be called upon in similar cases elsewhere, for better or worse. Stern adds:

It’s quite depressing to see the DOJ defend homeless people’s right to sleep by analogizing them to drug addicts and alcoholics. But its brief is really an indication of just how profoundly America has failed its homeless communities.


Source: “Team Obama’s fight to keep the homeless living on the streets,” NYPost.com, 08/18/15
Source: “Justice Department Tells Cities to Stop Criminalizing Homelessness,” slate.com, 08/14/15
Image by Albert Ter Harmsel

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The Roots of Bell v. City of Boise

iPhone 5cIn Colorado Springs, the mayor is working hard to change an existing ordinance (which forbids anyone to lie down anywhere) so it will criminalize sitting down anywhere in the city. In San Francisco, the mayor doesn’t care whether people experiencing homelessness are sitting, lying, standing straight up, or kneeling in prayer. Whatever their posture, he vows to chase them all out of there before the Super Bowl. Currently, one-third of American cities have laws against sleeping outside. Last week, House the Homeless talked about the “statement of interest” filed by the Department of Justice regarding a current case brought by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

At the core of this topic is the question of whether anti-camping ordinances are constitutional or not. It is a “currently unsettled area of the law” about which various courts disagree. That is what Bell v. City of Boise is about, and the outcome will have massive policy implications throughout the system.

This started 9 years ago, with a Los Angeles ordinance under which people experiencing homelessness could be arrested for sleeping on the street even when no shelter beds were available. Since there were twice as many homeless people as shelter beds, this meant that, on any given night, half the homeless population of LA was vulnerable to arrest.

Jones v. City of Los Angeles

The ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit against the City of Los Angeles. Judge Kim M. Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that the draconian ordinance should no longer be enforced, stating:

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.

At the time, there was great rejoicing. Mark Rosenbaum, the ACLU attorney who had argued the case, called Judge Wardlaw’s decision “the most significant judicial opinion involving homelessness in the history of the nation.” Sadly, it didn’t turn out that way. But thanks to more recent developments such as Bell v. City of Boise, that bold prediction might still come true.

A year and a half after Judge Wardlaw’s ruling, Los Angeles and the ACLU finally quit arguing about what would happen next, and reached an agreement that no one was really happy with—in other words, a workable compromise. As long as they stayed 10 feet away from entrances and driveways, homeless people could sleep on city streets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. But the police could start enforcing the no-lying ordinance again as soon as the city built 1,250 units of supportive housing. Not shelter beds, but actual places where a person could settle in and get help to set her or his life on track.

And, says journalist Evan George, they went on to quibble about whether housing units that were already in the process of construction would count. The police department complained about “shelter-resistant” street people who refused to claim available beds. A law professor did a study and found “a median of just four shelter beds available on a given night when the LAPD was counting more than 1,000 people sleeping on the street.” Homeless advocates pointed out that, even if there had been enough shelter beds, it’s not the same thing as supportive permanent housing.

Several years later, when street people were allowed to return to a physically cleaned-up Skid Row, Councilman Bill Rosendahl was called upon by his constituents to explain the situation:

On October 15, 2007, the City entered into a legally binding settlement, agreeing not to enforce the law prohibiting sleeping on the streets, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. until it builds 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing. The City entered this agreement after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals…found that the law against sleeping on the streets amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment…,

In the words of Evan George, these were the consequences:

By agreeing to the settlement, the ACLU has given up any claim of using the Ninth Circuit court ruling as precedent for future lawsuits. However…attorneys for the homeless may still cite the decision in future lawsuits.

In other words, even though Judge Wardlaw’s ruling was vacated, the reasoning behind it was sound, and valid enough to use in Bell v. City of Boise, which is why the Justice Department recently wrote:

The statement of interest advocates for the application of the analysis set forth in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a Ninth Circuit decision that was subsequently vacated pursuant to a settlement. In Jones, the court considered whether the city of Los Angeles provided sufficient shelter space to accommodate the homeless population. The court found that, on nights when individuals are unable to secure shelter space, enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated their constitutional rights.

Reactions?

Source: “ACLU of Southern California Wins Historic Victory in Homeless Rights Case,” ACLU.org, 04/14/06
Source: “City, ACLU Settle Street Sleeping Case,” LADowntownNews.com, 10/15/07
Source: “Skid Row Homeless Say LAPD Is Trying to Bully Them off Their Freshly Cleaned Turf,” LAWeekly.com, 06/22/12
Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness.” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Image by Sascha Kohlmann

 

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Will Nationwide Change Start in Idaho?

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Faceless force: police officers strut between Austin’s homeless shelter and Salvation Army building.

On August 6, something interesting and potentially very significant happened. A federal court case filed in the District of Idaho in 2009 is just now being considered, and the Department of Justice filed a “statement of interest” based on the premise that people experiencing homelessness are being unconstitutionally punished for sleeping in public places, even when no shelter beds or any other alternatives are available to them.

The case, titled Bell v. City of Boise et al., was brought by several homeless plaintiffs who were convicted of violating a Boise ordinance that forbids “camping” in public. In this instance, camping does not mean setting up a tent and a barbecue pit and a gravity shower and a volleyball net. It means sleeping, an activity that every human being has to engage in, which means the law makes as much sense as convicting people for breathing.

The Justice Department calls sleeping “conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human,” and references the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that Americans should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In effect, anti-camping ordinances criminalize people for being homeless. These days, it is certainly not unusual, but it is undeniably cruel.

Who Are the Criminals?

The parties responsible for the economic meltdown have not spent a single night in jail, or for that matter, a single night sleeping behind a dumpster. The parties responsible for starting and perpetuating wars for the further obscene enrichment of billionaires have not attended a single Veterans Stand Down looking for a toothbrush or a pair of socks. Yet thousands of Americans have acquired criminal records because they have to sleep someplace, and thousands more live in daily fear of being punished as criminals because of the human physiological imperative known as sleep. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote:

Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights…Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.

The lawsuit that is finally getting its day in court was originally filed by Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), which issued a report last year announcing the result of a three-year survey that gathered information from 187 American cities. They found that 34 percent (a solid one-third) of these municipalities have laws that ban public camping (also known as sleeping). Almost half—43 percent—prohibit sleeping in vehicles, which is about as senseless as a law can be. Who in their right mind believes that sleeping in a vehicle is worse, for either the homeless person or the general public, than the other alternatives?

Criminalizing Homelessness

As of last year, the agencies responsible for counting people experiencing homelessness came up with 153,000 to represent the number of unsheltered homeless people in the United States on any night of the year. In the main, these unsheltered sleepers are Americans. Some are very young children, whose chances of actually learning anything in school are gravely reduced. Some are teens, who are at risk for more kinds of damage than the average housed person can even imagine. Some are fathers with intense and undeserved feelings of personal failure. Some are mothers whose desperation occasionally makes sordid headlines.

Some are women escaped from domestic situations so violently abusive that even the streets seem like a better deal. Some are mentally ill people for whom the world is a vast unrelenting puzzle. Some are sick and disabled people who would barely be able to take care of themselves even indoors, much less out in the wild. Some are veterans who made a good-faith bargain with the government that was only kept on one side. Some are elderly people who worked hard all their lives and ended up with less than nothing.

And we call ourselves the greatest country on earth.

(…more on this court case next time…)


Source: “Justice Department Files Brief to Address the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Justice.gov, 08/06/15
Source: “It’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside, the federal government says,” WashingtonPost.com, 08/13/15
Image by Richard R. Troxell

 

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