When cities outlaw homelessness, homeless people become outlaws. The latest city to do just that is Columbia, South Carolina, where the city council unanimously approved an Emergency Homeless Response plan to lock people away just for being homeless.
But their plan will be for naught if Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago prevails in his refusal to round-up the unfortunate.
Scott Keyes described the city’s Orwellian plan at ThinkProgress:
Police officers will now be assigned to patrol the city center and keep homeless people out. They will also be instructed to strictly enforce the city’s “quality of life” laws, including bans on loitering, public urination, and other violations. And just to ensure that no one slips through, the city will set up a hotline so local businesses and residents can report the presence of a homeless person to police.
In other words, the city council wants police to arrest every homeless person and encourages residents to report each other just for looking homeless to ensure the removal of all undesirables from the downtown area.
The homeless can avoid arrest in only two ways: by fleeing the area, which I’m thinking is exactly what Columbia would like; or by surrendering themselves to an overcrowded shelter guarded by police who ensure they don’t escape on foot. Once in the shelter, the only way to leave is by scheduling a ride on a shuttle van to a specific appointment. The only way to stay is by complying with all prescribed services, like mental health treatment. Otherwise, off to jail.
The city isn’t trying to hide and doesn’t seem bothered by the complete absurdity of its plan. Columbia’s homeless population numbers 1,518. The approved shelter has only 240 beds.
Another flaw in Columbia’s plan is its assumption that all unhoused people have the capacity to make rational choices, even if both alternatives are crappy. For the one-third of homeless people who have untreated mental illnesses, however, there will be no choice, just the nightmare of arrest and jail without understanding why or how to help themselves. Apparently the city council just doesn’t care.
Realistic or not, the Emergency Homeless Response plan definitely won’t work if the cops aren’t on board. It is up to them to either arrest people or keep them holed up in a shelter for falling on hard times.
Columbia is far from the first city to attack its own residents for the offense of being desperately needy or incapacitated. City officials in Los Angeles, for example, appropriated homeless people’s property and destroyed it with no due process until the courts smacked them silly with a couple of little-known laws called the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Kevin Mathews of Care2 Causes has rounded up a bunch of other sadistic cities. He reported that Philadelphia banned feeding homeless people outdoors to “prevent foodborne illness.” Apparently feeding non-homeless people outdoors is guaranteed germ-free in the Keystone State. The predictable effect has been to move homeless people indoors, where they won’t offend other residents’ delicate sensibilities. Orlando, Florida, went the extra mile, not caring who got caught in its dragnet. It outlawed providing food for all groups of people, homeless or not.
Other municipalities are more to the point, like those that punish people for sleeping outside. California’s Nevada City prohibits sleeping anywhere but in a proper building. Kalamazoo made sleeping on park benches a criminal offense that goes on the vagrant’s permanent record — try getting a job that does background checks after that. St. Petersburg, Florida, had an idea similar to Columbia’s, though less organized: people who sleep outside must, when caught, either repair to any shelter — and there are lots of good reasons to avoid shelters — or go to jail.
Miami is looking to get on the criminalization bandwagon too. It is working towards a law that would make “homeless people who sat down, made themselves a meal, or relieved themselves” criminals.
In the face of this onslaught, Ruben Santiago is a desperately needed breath of fresh air. “Homelessness is not a crime,” he says. “I think there are some misconceptions out there that police are going to go out there and scoop up the homeless.” Not on his watch.
Rejecting the notion that police would bully people into going to the shelter with the threat of arrest, he says, “We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.” He observes that forcing that choice on homeless people is “basically coercion.”
Columbia is likely to move forward with its big-government plot against homeless people. Santiago is only an interim police chief, so unseating him probably won’t be hard. But others will pick up his torch: several organizations have promised to sue the city over the Emergency Homeless Response plan.
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