As we begin to enter the fall season, organizations like churches, The Salvation Army, The United Way and The American Red Cross are beginning their plans to help the homeless in their communities. This is a tradition that Americans have repeated for decades.
Most cities and government agencies are making a real effort to help the homeless, but they can't keep up with the demand. Ironically, many cities have passed laws banning sleeping in parks and other public places. So when a town does not have enough beds for the homeless, where can they sleep? Boise, Idaho (the state's most populous city) created such a ban on sleeping in public places. A case was brought against the city by homeless plaintiffs who were convicted under the Boise ordinances that criminalize sleeping or camping in public. According to the Idaho Statesman newspaper, the U.S. Department of Justice jumped into the suit and sided with the plaintiffs by arguing that criminalizing public sleeping where there is insufficient shelter space unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless. The government cites the Eighth Amendment, which disallows cruel and unusual punishments to our citizens. In its filing, the Justice Department said:
"Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity that must occur at some time in some place. If a person has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance criminalizes them for being homeless. Many homeless individuals are unable to secure shelter space because city shelters are over capacity or inaccessible to people with disabilities. Enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy because pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future."
Boise is not alone in not having enough room for the homeless. When there are 578,424 homeless people on any given night this year (401,501 in shelters and 177,373 sleep unsheltered) of which 49,933 are veterans (according to Rescue Magazine published by the Gospel Rescue Missions), cities simply can't keep up. For veterans, stepping back onto American soil isn't the end of the battle for them -- it's the beginning of another battle for stability in housing, finances, health and support systems that too easily ends in homelessness. In June, the Department of Veterans Affairs launched the Homeless Veteran Community Employment Services program, which aims to help veterans exiting homelessness and those on the brink of homelessness gain stability and long-term employment. Let's hope it takes off quickly.
We know that homelessness cannot be solved by the government alone, we all need to do our part to help. This is a major problem that affects all of our communities. There are many ways the average citizen can help by donating or volunteering. The Covenant House opens up its doors to help homeless youth. Stand Up For Kids helps homeless street kids. Support Homeless Veterans works to get these forgotten heroes off the streets. And at DollarDays, on our Facebook page, we are giving away 1,000 blankets to needy homeless shelters and nonprofits around the country. Nominate a shelter or nonprofit organization in your community!
With the limitless potential that the homeless have to make a lasting positive contribution to our communities, we cheat not only them but ourselves by not allocating dollars, either in the taxes we collect or the disposable income we can spare, to helping them. If we ever found ourselves in that situation, wouldn't we want someone to do the same for us? Together, we can work to get the homeless back on their feet.