Laws criminalizing basic human behavior, such as eating, sleeping or sitting in public places, are increasingly cropping up across the country even as homelessness is on the rise, according to a report released Tuesday by advocates for the homeless.
"We are in the midst of a growing human rights crisis right here in the United States," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which released the report in collaboration with the National Coalition for the Homeless.
The report singles out specific geographic areas with a top ten list of the "Meanest Cities." Los Angeles was named the meanest city in the U.S., primarily for its aggressive policing of homeless folks on Skid Row (and also for restrictions on sitting or lying down on sidewalks). The runners up for inhospitality to the indigent are St. Petersburg and Orlando, Fla., where the city council actually made it a crime to share food with homeless people in parks. One person has already been arrested for doing so. Since then, a federal court found the law unconstitutional and the city is appealing the decision.
Municipal meaness is increasing nationwide, said the report's authors during a conference call with reporters. Tulin Ozdeger of the NLCHP cited a 7 percent increase in laws prohibiting "camping," an 11 percent increase in laws prohibiting loitering, a 6 percent increase in laws prohibiting begging and a 5 percent increase in laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling in the 224 cities surveyed both in this report and its 2006 predecessor.
Laws prohibiting camping are aimed at tent cities, like the one Sacramento, Calif., that earlier this year spawned a national fuss, even though pitching tents has been a basic human response to homelessness for as long as tents have existed. In places like Olympia, Wash., and Portland, Ore., impromptu tent cities have grown into city-sanctioned movements.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported last week that while the number of homeless individuals seeking shelter remained constant for 2008, the number of families seeking shelter increased 9 percent from 2007. As Ozdeger, Foscarinis and the National Coalition for the Homeless Director Michael Stoops point out, the latest data are a year old and don't reflect the latest trends in worsening unemployment and foreclosure rates.
The 191-page report praises some cities' initiatives to address issues surrounding homelessness, such as donation meters that allow people to give without supporting panhandling and efforts to provide permanent supportive housing. Measures that criminalize behavior associated with homelessness, the study notes, often run afoul of the Constitution.
Here's the top ten meanest cities:
1. Los Angeles, CA
2. St. Petersburg. FL
3. Orlando, FL
4. Atlanta, GA
5. Gainesville, FL
7. San Francisco
The report, titled "Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities," is available from the Coalition's website (PDF).
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