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With A Series Of Small Bans, Cities Turn Homelessness Into A Crime

Wed, July 16, 2014 8:06pm

Story by Pam Fessler




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Susan St. Amour panhandles on a median in Portland, Maine. The city tried to ban loitering on medians last year, but a judge found the law unconstitutional.

Laws that criminalize homelessness are on the rise across the country, according to a new report by an advocacy group. The laws prohibit everything from sleeping in public to loitering and begging. Advocates for the homeless say the laws are making the problem worse.

Susan St. Amour is among those who could be affected by the new restrictions. Twice a week, she stands on a median strip at an intersection in downtown Portland, Maine, asking passersby for cash. She says she needs the money to get by.

"[If] for some reason I don't get a bed at the shelter and I have nowhere to stay, it means I can't eat that night unless I have a few dollars in my pocket," she says. "Or it may be because I need to take the bus to the other side of town. I might have a doctor's appointment."

Last year, though, the city passed a law that banned loitering on median strips. A federal judge has since declared the law unconstitutional, but the city plans to appeal. Council member Ed Suslovic says the goal of the legislation was not to hurt the homeless — just the opposite, in fact.

"This was a public safety threat, mainly to the folks in the median strip, but also to motorists going by as well," Suslovic says.

To Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, such measures are counterproductive — as well-meaning as they might be. Especially if they subject individuals to jail time or fines they can't afford to pay.

"It's really hard to get a job when you're homeless anyway, or to get housing," Foscarinis says. "You have no place to bathe, no place to dress, no money for transportation. But then, if you also have an arrest record, it's even more challenging."

Still, her group says such laws are on the rise. The National Law Center found that local bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased almost 120 percent over the past three years. Citywide bans on camping have grown 60 percent, and laws against begging have increased 25 percent. This all comes at a time when the U.S. government estimates that more than 610,000 people are homeless on any given night.

"It would be nice if you could solve the problem of homelessness simply by outlawing it," Foscarinis says. "But in reality, it takes resources to really end homelessness."

Resources are often difficult for cities to come by, even though numerous studies show that housing the homeless is more cost-effective in the long run: Ultimately, less money is needed for emergency services, like hospitals and police.

Still, many cities are trying to help the homeless, even as they pass laws making it more difficult to live outside. Back in Portland, Suslovic says his city is working aggressively to house homeless residents. And the National Law Center applauds other efforts, such as a homeless outreach team at the Houston Police Department.

Sgt. Steve Wick runs the Houston program, which aims to get people off the street. As part of the program, officers and a caseworker guide the city's homeless residents through an often confusing bureaucracy to get them the services they need. He says many have mental health and substance abuse problems.

"You can't tell a person that's been living on the street for a long time, 'You need to do this, this, this and this in order to get off the street' — because they can't do it," he says. He adds, "If you don't kind of help them through the whole process, they're just kind of stuck. They're stuck on the streets."

Wick says officers still need to enforce laws against things like urinating in public, but he says programs like his offer an alternative, more permanent solution.

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