by the Western Regional Advocacy Project
On August 6, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a statement of interest expressing opposition to the criminalization of homelessness in a Boise, Idaho anti-camping case (see “Bell v. Boise,” this page). More recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its guidelines for “Continuums of Care”—consortiums vying for a share of the $1.9 billion in homelessness assistance funding. HUD will now require applicants to explain how their communities are combatting the criminalization of homelessness, and will give preference to applicants who provide evidence of their policies. The actions of these two Federal agencies are especially welcome at a time when more and more laws criminalizing homeless people’s right to exist in public spaces are being passed every day throughout the country.
The Western Regional Advocacy Project’s (WRAP’s) Homeless Bill of Rights campaign was created to fight the criminalization of homeless people’s existence. Our hallmark piece of legislation, the Right to a Rest Act, got a validating jolt of energy from yet another Federal agency last month.
Continuums of Care may be of various sizes, but many, like San Francisco, are municipal governments that directly legislate and enforce laws criminalizing homelessness.
“Its been 32 years since America opened its emergency shelter programs and 28 years since the Federal government through HUD started funding homeless services” said Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project “HUD, the DOJ [Department of Justice], and every homeless person in the country can tell you criminalizing homelessness and poverty with Broken Windows-type approaches is completely off the hook at the local level. Congress needs to refund the affordable housing cuts that created and perpetuated contemporary homelessness and the DOJ should sue the hell out of any local or state government that criminalizes the presence of people they don’t want around.”
Following on the US Department of Justice’s August 6 statement of interest expressing opposition to the criminalization of homelessness in a Boise, ID anti-camping case, HUD’s new funding application guidelines will hit communities that discriminate against homeless people in the pocketbook. Specifically, communities stand to lose up to two rating points if they cannot demonstrate in their application that they have “implemented specific strategies that prevent criminalization of homelessness.” As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) stated regarding the HUD move, “In the extremely competitive funding process, Continuums’ ability to fully respond to this question… could be the difference between receiving funding and not.”
The Right to Rest Act, state legislation which is being put forth by WRAP members in California, Colorado, and Oregon, would protect the rights of all people to move freely, sleep and rest out in public and in legally parked vehicles, and give and receive food in public. WRAP based the content of the Act on outreach to 1,388 homeless and poor people in five states and 12 cities. This research revealed that the civil rights violations people are experiencing everywhere are very similar. The main offenses that homeless people are being harassed and criminalized for include: sleeping (81%), sitting or lying down (78%), and loitering or hanging out (68%).
The actions of these two Federal agencies are especially welcome at a time when more and more laws criminalizing homeless people’s right to exist in public spaces are being passed every day throughout the country. Such laws, to quote the NLCHP in its 2014 report, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, are “ineffective in addressing the underlying causes of homelessness, …expensive to taxpayers, and… often violate homeless persons’ constitutional and human rights.” Uncounted millions of dollars are wasted on police, jail, court, and other costs to enforce these unconstitutional and counterproductive laws—money which could instead be spent on housing, services, and other measures that actually alleviate homelessness. Moreover, the trauma of being harassed, ticketed and arrested for efforts to survive in public, along with the criminal records acquired, serve only to heighten the already formidable barriers people attempting to overcome homelessness face—especially the severe shortage of both living-wage employment and truly affordable housing.
In its No Safe Place study of 187 cities nationwide, the NLCHP found that 34% impose city-wide bans on camping in public, 24% impose city-wide bans on begging in public, 34% prohibit loitering in public throughout the city, 53% prevent sitting or loitering in particular public places, 43% prevent sleeping in vehicles, 9% prevent sharing food with homeless people in public, and 43% prohibit sleeping in vehicles.