No population has their human and civil rights so casually and routinely trampled as do homeless Americans.
For decades, cities all over the country have worked to essentially criminalize homelessness, instituting measures that outlaw holding a sign, sleeping, sitting, lying (or weirdly, telling a lie in Orlando) if you live on the street.
Where the law does not mandate outright harassment, police come up with clever work-arounds, like destroying or confiscating tents, blankets and other property in raids of camps. A veteran I talked to, his eye bloody from when some teenagers beat him up to steal 60 cents, said police routinely extracted the poles from his tent and kept them so he couldn’t rebuild it. (Where are all the pissed-off libertarians and conservatives at such flagrant disrespect for private property?)
In the heady ’80s, Reagan slashed federal housing subsidies even as a tough economy threw more and more people out on the street. Instead of resolving itself through the magic of the markets, the homelessness problem increasingly fell to local governments.
“When the federal government created the homelessness crisis, local governments did not have the means of addressing the issue. So they use the police to manage homeless people’s presence,” Jennifer Fredienrich told AlterNet last year. At about the same time, the arrest-happy “broken windows theory,” which encourages law enforcement to bust people for “quality of life” crimes, offered ideological support for finding novel ways to legally harass people on the street.
Many of the policies end up being wildly counterproductive: a criminal record bars people from the very programs designed to get them off the street, while defending unconstitutional measures in court ends up costing cities money that could be used to fund homeless services.
Here is an incomplete list of laws, ordinances and law enforcement and government tactics that violate homeless people’s civil liberties.
1. Outlawing sitting down. People are allowed to exist in public, but sometimes the homeless make that civic rule inconvenient, like when their presence perturbs tourists or slows the spread of gentrification. One solution to this problem is the “sit-lie” law, a bizarrely authoritarian measure that bans sitting or resting in a public space. The law is clearly designed to empower police to chase homeless people out of nice neighborhoods, rather than protect cities from the blight of public sidewalk-sitting.
Cities around the country have passed ordinances of varying awfulness: some limit resting in certain areas during certain times of the day, while progressive bastion San Francisco voted in November 2010 to outlaw sitting or laying down on any city sidewalk. The measure was bankrolled by some of the richest people in the city, who poured so much money into the campaign that homelessness advocates were outmatched $280,000 to $7,802, reported SF Gate. (After the measure passed, Chris Roberts of the SF Appeal found that support for the law was strongest in the richer parts of the city with the fewest homeless.)
Supporters of sit-lie claim the law helps police deal with disruptive behavior like harassment and public drunkenness, and that getting people off the street will get them into shelters. Homelessness advocates counter that the disruptive behaviors associated with some homeless people are already against the law.