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Homelessness in America: The Meanest Cities in the US Make Homelessness a Crime

Most homeless have suffered harassment, abuse, and an abrogation of their civil rights.

T.K. Jackson* had been playing chess regularly in the children’s playground and teaching the game to some of the children. A fence separated the  playground from the players. One particular day, during school hours, police drove up and issued T.K., whom the authorities categorize as “homeless,” along with six adult men, summonses and a criminal court appearance date for failing to obey a sign that said adults were not allowed into the playground unless accompanied by a minor.

Five of T.K.’s buddies took a conditional plea: they could not have any violations in the next six months; if they did, they would go to jail for 90 days. If they didn’t, the summonses would be erased from any record. T.K., a man of faith and strong principles, knew the homeless were targeted by the police and more likely to get violations. He felt the summons was unjust and rather than have a blemish on his record, he preferred to go to trial and risk jail time. He could not take the chance of getting any violations. He really wanted no problems with the police. T.K. was lucky. With the help of friends and neighbors in the community, he retained the pro bono services of one of the best civil rights attorneys in New York City. The lawyer said the police action was “an abuse of discretion.” They did not go to trial. More luck. The judge dismissed the case on a technicality.

When did it become a crime to be homeless? The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed in 1987 under Ronald Reagan, was the only federal act that addressed homelessness and homeless shelters. Significantly redefined and expanded in 2009 by Obama, the Homeless Emergency and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act is now far broader and more inclusive. Getting the federal dollars is competitive and, yet, it is the cities that regulate their own policies. Some cities’ practices are more insidious than others. These so-called crimes that affect the public’s safety include sleeping, loitering, camping, storage of property, begging, soliciting, and peddling.

On its website, the National Coalition for the Homeless, reports the estimated annual number of homeless people at any point in the year in the United States is approximately 3.5 million or more. Likewise, there has been a dramatic increase in homelessness and an increase in the number of homeless families over the past two decades.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless released its annual 2009 survey, Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S Cities, and cites the top 10 “meanest” cities based on one or more of the following criteria: “the number of anti-homeless laws in the city, the enforcement of those laws and severity of penalties which could include fines, and the general political climate toward homeless people in the city and local advocate support.”

The top “meanest” cities were Los Angeles, CA; St. Petersburg, FL; Orlando, FL?; Atlanta, GA?; Gainesville, FL; Kalamazoo, MI?; San Francisco, CA; Honolulu, HI; Bradenton, FL? and Berkeley, CA.

Although T.K. has survived as homeless for over six years, I wonder how much longer he will be able to stay on his bench or in the borrowed, parked car in front of it. He watches as our cities have become meaner, invoke more penalties, and issue ordinances designed to get him off the street. Will the federal government and community advocates have their way, or will the cities and police have theirs? With laws, like life, there are no easy answers. First and foremost though, let’s hope our legislators respect the civil rights of all its citizens.

* His name has been changed to protect his identity.

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