Police Chief Refuses to Treat Homeless People Like Criminals, Despite New Law

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.

Take Action!

People shouldn’t be treated as criminals especially when they aren’t committing any crimes. Sign this petition to take action against such treatment.

Related Stories:

6 U.S. Cities That Criminalize Homelessness

Why Miami Wants to Treat the Homeless Like Criminals

Can Homeless People Own Anything?

Hawaii Decides to Ship Homeless People Back to Mainland

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Hemp Share
Hemp Share5 years ago

And I'm curious, when I own 7.2 Billionth of the World, how am I to be sure exactly where my land is in each city? My rule of thumb is the "Two Feet Rule". Where my two feet are standing is my 7.2 Billionth at that time. I will defend it with my life.

Hemp Share
Hemp Share5 years ago

Three cheers for Police Chief Ruben Santiago. It is about time there was some sanity in the Police departments. Keystone cops have been making a living fighting plants too long. They need to quit manufacturing work for Government employees. Which is what this is.

Mary Deforest
Mary Deforest5 years ago

It doesn't help that the FDA led the parade by getting court injunctions against groups that feed the homeless in Florida. Last year in Care2 some people were telling how they were forced to throw the food away, etc. They estimate that we have 3,000 homeless toddlers and babies.
While my city doesn't have enough police, etc., we're on lock down to pay the bonds off-etc. The city did a study of which 200 homeless people are the most vulnerable, but could live in a home, if they had one. We voted to increase our taxes and do this. One man in his 60s was in the ER about 30 times in 2 months. Homeless, diabetic, not too bad off mentally. He was given the use of a 1 bedroom home. A visiting nurse comes several times a week, and a social worker checks in on him. An emergency admission costs the city fire department that responds to the call $1,600, plus ambulance, ER bills, doctor fees, and meds which can be another $6,000 or more. The 200 families include people with children, handicapped, whatever, but they have a medical condition. Now we're starting 150 homes for homeless female vets, usually with a child or more. By the way, our mayor, who started this is a hard core Republican businessman. He got into it when he was trying to reduce costs run up by the fire department. The voters in a Democrat city are keeping him in office. This benefits the city in so many different ways. Any social security, food stamps, welfare actually helps the people. They can have a safe place to s

Jane R.
Jane R5 years ago

It's terrible to punish a person for being homeless! Leave them alone other than offering them a place to sleep when it's cold and providing them with a good meal at homeless kitchens. I do have to say that some of these people are homeless by choice. There have even been cases where a few had more money than they knew what to do with., they simply chose this lifestyle over another. I think it gives some of them a sense of freedom from the "rat race" of day to day life, (getting up and going to a job, paying bills, taxes, etc. The whole rushing through life thing).

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G5 years ago

What a nice guy!

GGma Sheila D.
Sheila D5 years ago

Right - lock them away because we mustn't upset all those good Christian sensibilities...you know, all those Christians who care so much about people they won't allow abortions. Who care what happens to the children when they become adults...or after Social Security, SNAP and rent assistance gets cut. After all, who wants to see the results of their "Christian" handiwork.

Angelus Silesius
Angelus Silesius5 years ago

Applause for this police chief having the balls to stand up against tyranny and denial of the socioeconomic realities all around us. Thank you for being a kind and just man chief santiago!

Bill C.
Bill C5 years ago

Psychosocial Rehab centers for homeless mentally ill are a great asset

The offer hope, requested treatment, GED, job opportunity, housing opportunity, daily basics, a meal, a shower, a washer and dryer, pet food, a nurse, a psychiatrist once a week, crisis intervention, social contact and if the person has Medicaid thy are billed or some services such s MD and nurse, if not the service is free ad or barter.

The facility is kept clean and grass mowed by people who use the facility

Angela Ray
Angela Ray5 years ago

Wow, this is insane! Absolutely ridiculous!!

Julie Evans
Julie Evans5 years ago

Well hmm, lets hope the authorities don't end up homeless in their lifetime! What an awful way to punish someone for hitting rock bottom in jobs, housing etc.... Imagine the depression homeless people endure! They're lonely, hungry, tired, ill, cold (in winter), and already listed above, depressed.
We live in an awfully sad little world. Remind me to never visit Columbia, South Carolina!