On Criminalizing Poverty
As we all know, these are tough economic times. Unemployment is up. Homelessness is too. In Sacramento, tent cities along the rivers sprung up months ago and made the national news. Police have generally asked people to “move on.” Not since the so-called Hoovertowns of the Great Depression have we seen anything quite like this.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty recently released a new report, Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, jointly with the National Coalition for the Homeless. The report focuses on city measures that target homeless persons, including laws that make it illegal to sleep, eat, or sit in public spaces. With information about 273 cities across the United States, Homes Not Handcuffs ranks the top 10 U.S. cities (“The Ten Meanest Cities”) with what the report concludes are the worst practices in criminalizing homelessness and discusses the policy, constitutional and human rights implications of criminalization. The report also offers examples of more constructive approaches adopted by some cities.
I am sad to say that my hometown of Los Angeles (see the LA Times acknowledgement of the “slam” on the City of Angels) is listed as number 1 and Berkeley, California (I am a Cal alum) is number 10. San Francisco, where I practiced law, is no. 7. Florida (St. Petersburg (2), Orlando (3), Gainseville (5), and Bradenton (9)) has four cities in the top 10.
Homes Not Handcuffs raises the important question of what role, if any, law should play in dealing with the homeless. What do 9and should) we as a society do for the unfortunate members of our society who cannot afford a place to live? Tell them to “move on”? Cite them for vagrancy or some such crime?