Home Truths

3.5 million Americans are homeless for the holidays.


America doesn’t like to think, much less talk, about homelessness. Case in point: who knew that last week was National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week? Promoted by the National Coalition for the Homeless, the week brought together a number of schools, communities and cities take part in a nationwide effort to bring greater awareness to the fate of
America’s 3.5 million homeless, at least 750,000 of whom will spend the night of Thanksgiving on the street.

When people do think about the homeless, it’s usually to figure out how to “punish” them or at least get them out of the way. Most cities tackle the problem of homelessness by effectively criminalizing it. The National Coalition for the Homeless recently published a report titled
Illegal to be Homeless: the Criminalization of Homelessness in United the States.” It found a nationwide pattern of draconian measures against the homeless.

“In Milwaukee, a church has been declared a public nuisance for feeding homeless people and allowing them to sleep there. In Gainesville, police threatened University of Florida students with arrest if they did not stop serving meals to homeless people in a public park. In Santa Barbara, it is illegal to lean against the front of a building or store, and no one can park a motor home on the street in one place for more than two hours.


Almost 70% of the cities surveyed in the first report have passed at least one or more new laws specifically targeting homeless people since January 2002, making it increasingly difficult to survive on the streets. Cities are attempting to make it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, while at the same time refusing to allocate sufficient funds to address the causes of homelessness.


‘Instead of the compassionate responses that communities have used to save lives in the past two decades, the common response to homelessness is to criminalize the victims through laws and ordinances that make illegal life-sustaining activities that people experiencing homelessness are forced to do in public,’ said Donald Whitehead, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who is himself formerly homeless.”

A separate report, “Punishing Poverty: The Criminalization of Homelessness, Litigation and Recommendations for Solutions” published by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, found more of the same.

“Recent years have seen a steep rise in the incidence of homelessness: record increases were documented over the past two years. At the same time, shelters and other emergency resources are insufficient to meet the growing need. Consequently, a growing number of people, many ill, live on the streets, in parks or other public places. In response, some cities have adopted laws that ‘criminalize’ activities associated with homelessness, such as sleeping, sitting or eating in public.

Five cities stand out as being particularly harsh:

–New York, NY. Homeless people are legally allowed to sleep on church stairs by the churches but are still ordered to move on by police officers even after court order 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church v. City of New York.

–Palm Beach County, FL. A church that was housing homeless people was fined over $27,000 for alleged zoning violations even after the Church agreed to stop housing people in exchange for elimination of the fine.

–Albuquerque, NM. Local advocates report an ongoing campaign against homeless people, citing: police arrests and beating of a group of homeless teenagers standing in a parking lot in the morning while waiting for a program for homeless teens to open. In addition, advocates report that police confiscate homeless persons’ property routinely, even if no arrest is made or citation is given.

–New Orleans, LA. Local advocates cite ongoing harassment in the French Quarter: Homeless persons are repeatedly arrested for ‘obstructing a public passage’ while standing on public sidewalks and waiting for paychecks. They often receive 30-day sentences. Additionally, advocates report that police discretion is regularly misused to arrest homeless people for ‘public drunkenness’ without basis.

–Orlando, FL. The City has passed laws prohibiting sitting or lying on sidewalks in the downtown core district- but the law provides an affirmative defense to virtually all but homeless people.

Some city ordinances raise constitutional concerns: under the first, fourth, eighth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Some have been struck down by courts in response to challenges.
City attempts to criminalize homelessness not only raise legal concerns, they also raise policy concerns: they worsen homeless people’s circumstances, making exiting homelessness harder; they waste resources and make little fiscal sense, and because they simply move people from place to place, they do not work.”

Although stereotypes of “lazy and addicted bums” dominate the discussion about homelessness, the truth is a lot more nuanced. According to a U.S. Conference of Mayors report from last year, the homeless population is diverse: 41 percent are families with children, 22 percent work, 22 percent are mentally disabled, 10 percent are veterans.

Anna Quindlen, writing in Newsweek, notes that today’s homeless, at least in New York City, defy the old stereotypes, as more and more people are sucked into the underclass.

There’s a new kind of homelessness in the city, and a new kind of hunger, and a new kind of need and humiliation, but it has managed to stay as invisible as those sleepers were by sunup. “What we’re seeing are many more working families on the brink of eviction,” says Mary Brosnahan, who runs the Coalition for the Homeless. “They fall behind on the rent, and that’s it, they’re on the street.” Adds Julia Erickson, the executive director of City Harvest, which distributes food to soup kitchens and food pantries, “Look at the Rescue Mission on Lafayette Street. They used to feed single men, often substance abusers, homeless. Now you go in and there are bike messengers, clerks, deli workers, dishwashers, people who work on cleaning crews. Soup kitchens have been buying booster seats and highchairs. You never used to see young kids at soup kitchens.”

The homeless are poorly represented by the mainstream media, which, when it doesn’t ignore them entirely, treats them either as outlaws. The homeless have long worked to counter their stereotypical portrayal by publishing their own news. See here for a directory of homeless papers. AlterNet also publishes a monthly round up of the best writing from homeless papers, and, aided by library internet access, at least one homeless guy has started his own blog.

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