Unorthodox efforts to drive away people who are homeless have increasingly made headlines as communities grapple with escalating crises of housing shortages, drug addiction and mental health care. The situation is putting residents on edge — and, in some cases, driving them to violence.
West Palm Beach, Florida, city officials recently started blasting the children’s songs “Baby Shark” and “Raining Tacos” on repeat to discourage people from sleeping near a waterfront banquet hall at night. Convenience stores in Oregon and California have also raised eyebrows for installing speakers that blast music or an ear-piercing noise outside to deter homeless people from loitering.
In July, a landlord in Oakland, California, sparked a protest when he offered to pay homeless people to leave the area in a failed stunt that he later claimed was “a game.”
Some citizens have also tried taking matters into their own hands, whether it be pouring water on them from rooftops, holding public marches or protests, or using violence.
Earlier this month, a California man was sentenced for fatally shooting a couple in 2004 that he allegedly mistook as homeless drifters sleeping on a beach.
In November, authorities say, anger of homeless residents in a Seattle neighborhood led a man to fatally shoot a 26-year-old homeless man whom he had accused of breaking a window at his home months earlier.
Then last September, four men sleeping outdoors in Santa Monica and Los Angeles were found beaten to death. A man arrested in the attacks has since been charged with those four deaths as well as the attempted murder of four others.
Vigilante justice is not unusual, said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
“It is prevalent, these kinds of strategies to remove homeless people from public places,” she told HuffPost, adding that people appear to be “getting increasingly creative in the cruelty in their approaches.”
The Criminality Of Being Homeless
These more creative efforts are part of a broader trend of private and public entities trying to make it impossible for homeless people to exist. This comes as housing prices across the country rise faster than wages, and affordable homes become harder to find.
“More people are feeling the squeeze on tenable housing costs and the people who are poorest become homeless,” Foscarinis said.
America’s primary response to homelessness is still criminalization.
A 2015 study of Washington state found that cities with higher rates of income inequality enforced “homeless crimes” — such as loitering, obstructing sidewalks and “scavenging” — more frequently.
“As the evidence of inequality starts to become clear in the form of visible poverty, neighborhoods react by increasing complaints and enforcing more punitive laws to get rid of the evidence,” said the study’s editor Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law.
The strategy of criminalizing homelessness is explicitly designed to hide poverty, not to alleviate it, she said.
According to a National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty survey, 120 of America’s 187 largest cities outlaw “vagrancy,” a nebulous term that invites targeted harassment of homeless people. Ninety-nine other cities prohibit sitting in public. Twenty-two have made it illegal for residents to share food with homeless people.
Since 2011, the report notes, prohibitions on panhandling have increased by 25% and laws against people sleeping in their cars have more than doubled.
Cities are also dedicating an increasing portion of their resources to enforcing those laws. In Portland, 50% of the city’s arrests are now of homeless people. In Los Angeles, police issued more than 14,000 citations to residents with “transient” addresses in 2016, a 31% increase in just five years. Other cities have started cracking down on service providers themselves, requiring soup kitchen volunteers to get food handling certificates and barring charities from entering parks to hand out sandwiches.
There Aren’t Enough Places For Them To Go
Many of the cities making it more difficult for homeless people to survive outside aren’t attempting to give them anywhere else to go.
Boulder, Colorado, has around 440 homeless people and only 280 shelter beds. Nonetheless, police handed out 1,767 camping citations last year. Seattle, where homeless people outnumber shelter beds roughly two to one, performed 527 homeless sweeps in 2018 alone, invading encampments, confiscating belongings and shooing residents onto the streets with nothing but their clothes.
During one such sweep in December 2016, police in Denver confiscated people’s blankets in the frigid night, claiming they were “evidence” of violations of the city’s camping ban.
“These are just outrageous examples of needless cruel treatment,” Foscarinis said of the response by public officials, which she warned sets a bad example. “That sends a message to private citizens, private individuals, that this is OK, that homeless people are less than human, that treating them inhumanely is OK.”
Courts have consistently struck down the ordinances cities are using to perform tent sweeps and issue homeless citations. In September, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that Boise’s no-camping law amounted to cruel and unusual punishment because the city had four times more homeless people than shelter beds.
This ruling essentially declared that all areas within the 9th Circuit, which includes California, Washington and Arizona, are not allowed to arrest or punish people for sleeping on public property unless they are provided adequate and relatively accessible indoor accommodations. Boise has said it will appeal the court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is not expected to make a decision on if it will hear the case until the fall.
Anti-panhandling laws have also been struck down numerous times on free-speech grounds, and laws prohibiting people from sleeping in their own cars have been thrown out as discriminatory.
Politicians typically cast encampment sweeps and mass arrests as humanitarian interventions, a final, merciful push for “shelter resistant” homeless people to make the leap into housing, employment and rehab. In reality, however, these campaigns are rarely paired with meaningful assistance, Rankin said.
While most of the citations resulting from these legal crackdowns are low-level misdemeanors like trespassing or loitering, they are often the first step in a never-ending cascade of unpaid fines, unattended court appearances and unreceived warrants.
A 2018 Los Angeles Times investigation found that a $35 fine for sleeping on the sidewalk typically ballooned to $238 after the addition of court and administrative fees. Because homeless people, by definition, lack the ability to pay the fees and a fixed address to receive court documents, arrests often result in ballooning fines and outstanding warrants. Twenty-two percent of the LAPD’s homeless arrests, the largest category by far, were for failure to appear in court.
Taxpayers Are Footing The Bill
It’s also costly for the cities themselves.
Policing now makes up 85% of Salt Lake City’s homeless services budget. Seattle, which has outsourced its homeless sweeps to a contractor called Cascadia Cleaning and Removal, spent more than $10 million on relocating people who live in unauthorized encampments in 2017 alone.
Operation Rio Grande, Utah’s 2017 mass homeless arrest campaign, cost an estimated $67 million — nearly five times what Salt Lake City spends on shelters and soup kitchens each year. Operation Rio Grande has so far resulted in 5,000 arrests and just 279 offers of housing and 132 new admissions to drug treatment.
“Law enforcement crackdowns are typically a response to the visibility of homelessness, not the suffering of the people experiencing it,” Margot Kushel, the director of the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center for Vulnerable Populations, told HuffPost.
In recent years, due to such visibility, city residents across the country have become increasingly radicalized against the homeless population.
Some Of The Proposed Solutions
Instead of taking matters into their own hands, Foscarinis said, disgruntled members of the public should turn to political engagement.
“They should pressure their leaders in government at the local level but state and federal levels as well to commit to actually solving the problem,” she said. “Solutions to homelessness exist.” Two such solutions, she said, are providing housing to get people off the streets and, in certain cases, providing them with social services.
Advocates for the homeless are calling for non-punitive alternative solutions, particularly permanent housing, which numerous studies have found is the most cost-effective means of addressing chronic homelessness.
“The biggest hindrance to solving homelessness is the belief that providing housing is giving someone something they don’t deserve.”
In March, California Rep. Maxine Waters (D) introduced the Ending Homelessness Act of 2019, a bill that would appropriate $13.27 billion in emergency relief funding. Over five years, the money would fund several critical federal housing programs and initiatives for the homeless, including the creation of 410,000 new units of housing for people experiencing homelessness.
“In the richest country in the world, it is simply unacceptable that we have people living in the streets,” she said in a release. “Today, there are over a half million people experiencing homelessness nationwide. Nearly 160,000 of them are children and nearly 38,000 are veterans who we have failed to support after their service to our nation.”
Rankin acknowledged that such proposed solutions can be hard for opponents to swallow, however.
“The biggest hindrance to solving homelessness is the belief that providing housing is giving someone something they don’t deserve,” she said.