Now is the time of year when poverty and homelessness are most prominent on the minds of many Americans. As families gather to eat together and give thanks for their lives, many of us also take time to think about the struggles of people who are less fortunate.
Less often do we think or even know about the extreme measures that are used by local lawmakers and police to criminalize the existence of people who are homeless and to target, harass, and drive people living in extreme poverty out of their communities.
What would you do if you were suddenly homeless, with no money and no place to go? It's not an abstract question for many American families, nearly half of which lack the assets to avoid severe poverty and possible homelessness if they were to face a crisis such as loss of a job, high medical bills, domestic violence, divorce, or the onset of mental illness.
Perhaps you would seek a homeless shelter, if you could manage transportation to get there. But what if there were no more beds, as is often the case in many communities? If you were lucky enough to own a sleeping bag, you might try to find a safe spot to sleep. That's exactly what ACLU client David Madison did when the shelters in Boulder, Colorado, turned him away on a November evening in 2009, but he was charged with violating a camping ordinance that prohibited sleeping outside with shelter. With the temperature dropping to 11 degrees, he could have legally slept outside in only his clothes, but a blanket or sleeping bag counted as "shelter" and made him a criminal.
Communities in Colorado and around the nation have passed a wave of new laws and ramped up enforcement of old ones targeting people who are homeless, from bans on sleeping in cars or taking shelter in bus stations to laws that prohibit sitting or lying down in public areas to restrictions on when and where someone can peacefully ask for charity. Less than a month ago, two ministers and a 90-year-old man were arrested in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, for giving food to homeless people in violation of a food-sharing ordinance. Bans on outdoor smoking are disproportionately enforced against people who are homeless, and trends toward fewer public facilities can make finding a restroom next to impossible, leading to public urination arrests that can put someone on a sex offender list simply because nature called and there was nowhere to go.
Many ordinances have nothing to do with any conduct but make it a crime merely to exist in the wrong place or time, such as vagrancy, loitering, curfew, park hour limitation or trespass laws. A new "geographic restriction" program in Colorado Springs would ban some individuals from downtown areas altogether. The program is supposedly aimed only at repeat criminal offenders, but the most frequent citations that could lead to banishment are all minor nonviolent offenses or time-and-place violations.
These measures go far beyond valid restrictions on aggressive panhandling or genuinely criminal behavior. Some are unconstitutional under the First Amendment, and some are simply cruel, criminalizing the mere existence of homeless men, women and children. Their goal is simply to drive people who are homeless out of a community or neighborhood and into a different one. They do nothing to address the actual causes of homelessness but just try to hide it from sight or drive it somewhere else.
Many of us feel discomfort walking or driving past people who are homeless, even in situations where there is no safety risk at all, since seeing homeless people reminds us of the problem and makes us think about whether or how we will respond. Perhaps that isn't all bad. What if you were the homeless one and your community only gave you the choice of jail and a criminal record, fines you couldn't afford, or fleeing to another community that also only wanted you to leave?
Aggressive policing, enforcement, and jailing for these offenses also cost money. That money would be better spent addressing the causes of homelessness, whether through adequately paying work, affordable housing, unemployment benefits, healthcare coverage, or better resources for substance abuse and mental health care, including for veterans with PTSD. At the very least, public spaces should remain public, civil liberties should be upheld even for those without a home, and people who are homeless should have access to basic services instead of being criminalized by restrictive ordinances designed to make them go somewhere else -- anywhere else -- wherever that might be.
Take action: Tell Colorado communities to stop passing and enforcing laws that make it a crime to be homeless.