Homelessness: Multiple US Cities

Homelessness. It’s not something any one of us could imagine we’d ever have to deal with, and we all hope that we never have to. But, conjure up in your mind, if you will, the terrifying thought of losing it all. Maybe it’s through a series of unfortunate events, such as a house fire on an uninsured property or inability to find work (for whatever reason) after leaving the Armed Forces. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, some 40,000 veterans were homeless on any given night in 2016. Imagine being in that situation; a horrifying thought, isn’t it? Now, imagine that not only are you homeless, but you are also breaking the law and could potentially be fined or even jailed for not having anywhere to sleep.

It might sound crazy, but that is an unfortunate and rather despicable reality for homeless people in multiple American cities and states. States such as Colorado where, while being homeless in and of itself isn’t a crime, it might as well be. Many activities, all associated with homelessness have been outlawed and are punishable by fines or even imprisonment. There are fifteen cities cities where legislation is in place which has a direct impact on the homeless in the state. Who else is going to be affected by laws against say, loitering, curfews, trespass on public property, overnight camping, as is illegal in Wheat Ridge, CO.

It isn’t just in Colorado though; according to the New York Times, Seattle has experienced issues in the past in relation to it’s own homeless crisis. Seattle’s homeless hub known as “The Jungle,” a small community of homeless people, camping under a freeway. Unfortunately, in early 2016, a shooting which left two people dead and three injured prompted city officials to evict the homeless that had been camping there. Where they’d be evicted to, is anyone’s guess. One year after the shooting in January of this year, under Interstates 5 and 90, new encampments sprang up, known as “The New Jungle” or “The Triangle”. Seattle’s homeless problem shows at least some signs, however, of being addressed to some degree. As on April 26, 2017, Mayor Ed Murray and philanthropist Paul Allen announced a $35 million dollar investment in fighting homelessness.

These are but two examples among many, in fact, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty published a report in 2014. Among its findings are the following:

Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive. The Law Center surveyed 187 cities and assessed the number and type of municipal codes that criminalize the life-sustaining behaviors of homeless people. The results of our research show that the criminalization of necessary human activities is all too common in cities across the country.”

Further findings in the same report by the NLCHP specifically related to the changes in criminalization laws, which affect homeless people found that “city-wide bans on camping in public have increased by 60%,” and that “city-wide bans on begging in public have increased by 25%.” While bans on loitering, loafing, and vagrancy have increased by 35%,” laws against sitting or lying down in public places have increased by 43%, and laws prohibiting sleeping in cars have increased 119%.

Two key conclusions arose from their report: the  criminalization laws are ineffective, and that these laws are a violation of civil and human rights of the homeless people which they affect. The NLCHP made several recommendations, the first of which is that the Federal Government increase funding to “build affordable housing on the scale necessary to end and prevent homelessness.” The second important recommendation was: “Criminalization is not the answer to meeting the needs of cities that are concerned about homelessness. There are sensible, cost-effective, and humane solutions to homelessness, which a number of cities have pursued.”.
Such constructive solutions, rather than criminal solutions could be the following: Firstly, all levels of government must stop passing laws that criminalize being homeless — I can’t think of anything more inhumane than to say to someone that you’re going to further immiserate their lives by adding criminality to an already fairly grave situation – as the NLCHP has suggested, increase funding to affordable housing projects. Also, one could stop criminalizing churches who help the homeless with food and shelter — religious institutions in general provide a service to their communities that does not only encompass faith and spirituality – they are often the primary go-to organization for those seeking help; the homeless are among those people. To criminalize someone for an act of charity is antithetical to entire concept of being a decent human being.

There are myriad solutions that could be implemented to help severely reduce or even eradicate homelessness in America. But it has to start with recognizing another’s humanity, rather than seeing them as the nuisance or the lesser because they were the victim of losing their home — whether by choices they made or those which were made for them. Homelessness is something that could afflict any one of us at any given time and if that most unfortunate of circumstances were to befall any one of us, we’d like to think that people would be there to help us.
Seattle, Denver, and the 185 other cities, stop criminalizing people and start helping them.

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