The solutions to homelessness may not be simple, but that doesn’t mean we have to compound the problems. Yet that’s precisely the route that several of American cities have taken. Rather than finding ways to provide assistance to some of the country’s least fortunate citizens, lawmakers have developed strict regulations to criminalize homeless people’s activities, as if they were sleeping on the sidewalk and panhandling out of malice rather than necessity.
Here are 6 cities that have tried to eliminate its homeless population – many of whom are either mentally ill, grappling with addiction, or facing financial woes – by declaring them criminals (Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t work):
1. Los Angeles, California
Advocacy groups have labeled L.A. the city that is the “meanest” toward homeless people. By prohibiting sleeping on sidewalks, holding belongings in certain public spaces, and asking passersby for change, the city has made life as difficult as possible for its homeless population.
Perhaps most egregious is LAPD’s notorious “selective enforcement” of minor infractions like loitering and jaywalking. Homeless individuals in particular find themselves a target of these often overlooked crimes, resulting in fines they cannot pay and arrest. In fact, Los Angeles spends more money funding extra officers to monitor Skid Row (the area with the city’s highest concentration of homeless people) than it does on services for the homeless.
2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Mayor Michael Nutter decided to ban “outdoor feeding of the homeless” to “prevent foodborne illness” and “help charitable agencies reach the homeless more easily.” While the first reason amounted to a lame excuse, the second proved to be just plain false. Hiding these services made them less accessible to those in need, and its real intentions were clear: move homeless individuals indoors so they are out of sight, out of mind to the general public. Church groups, however, have defied the law and continued to serve food outdoors anyway.
3. Orlando, Florida
Organizations in Orlando are facing similar problems due to the city’s ban on providing food to groups of people. Despite the law, volunteers at Food Not Bombs have continued offering free food in parks, claiming they won’t cower to an unjust law. This defiance has resulted in multiple arrests. In essence, the city has found a way to not only criminalize homelessness, but also criminalize people who offer aid to the less fortunate.
4. Nevada City, California
After the area’s homeless population grew in the past year, Police Chief James Wickham convinced the city council to pass new ordinances that banned people from setting up tents, sleeping in the woods and living in an automobile. While the city grants some exceptions to this law in the form of permits, since they are only offering 6-10 permits to a homeless population of at least 10 times that number, most of Nevada City’s homeless residents are subject to arrest.
5. Kalamazoo, Michigan
Though Kalamazoo cites its homeless population for trumped up infractions like the other cities, it also literally criminalizes them by turning something like sleeping on a park bench into a criminal charge, which stays on the individual’s permanent record. As a result, this criminal record prevents homeless people from obtaining housing, thus exacerbating their situation.
The city also has a history of ticketing/arresting people waiting at bus stops police deemed were not actually waiting for the bus. Even after the citations were found to be discriminatory and dropped, similar citations have continued.
6. St. Petersburg, Florida
St. Petersburg has enacted harsh panhandling laws throughout the entire city. Those who are caught begging are fined $500 or sentenced to 90 days in jail. It’s a brutal tactic to drive impoverished people out of the city… or into prison.
In fact, prison seems to be the city’s go-to approach. After the city banned outdoor sleeping entirely, police who find homeless individuals outside overnight give them an immediate proposition: find a space in a shelter, or come to jail.
The list need not stop at six — throughout the country hundreds of cities have enacted similar laws that prevent homeless people from sleeping outdoors, receiving food or asking for financial assistance. The idea may be for these cities to intimidate the homeless population into leaving for other areas, but with just about every region pulling these stunts, where do the less fortunate have to go?
Making homelessness illegal will not make the problem go away.