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MONDAY, January 21, 2002

We believe that working toward ending the causes of homelessness and not simply removing homeless people from view is cost effective, as well as just.

— "Illegal to be homeless"

What do you mean, “Mean”?

by Betsey Culp

Meantown, USA. The National Coalition for the Homeless has issued a report based on laws, citations, and anecdotes from the homeless and their advocates, and declared California the “meanest state” toward the homeless — and San Francisco and Santa Cruz the state’s meanest cities. If we’re so mean, how come so many homeless are still here?
Maybe “meanness” correlates with the number of homeless and their advocates in a city.
One of the charges against San Francisco is that cops target people living in vehicles for “small violations such as expired registrations” and then “paper their homes with 72-hour notices.”
An expired registration is a small violation? Paper their homes? You mean put tickets on their windshields?
If you were wondering what locution is going to replace “the homeless” (just as it replaced “bums“), a phrase that kept coming up in the report was “people experiencing homelessness.”
Hey, we’re all experiencing it. We must provide shelter and medical help to the homeless. But you have to laugh when the coalition says we must address “systemic” causes and get the feds to provide affordable housing for all. Sorry, we’re people experiencing Republicans.
— Rob Morse, San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 2002

Paul Boden must feel like a broken record, singing the same tune year after year. Here’s how the homeless hit parade works: Every few years, the director of the Coalition on Homelessness announces that an organization such as the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has surveyed our native land of opportunity, assessing the treatment of the people who live on its streets and concluding that San Francisco, among other places, doesn’t do very well. The report elicits snorts of derision from our city’s Good People, who are more concerned with threats to their own quality of life than the loss of their poorer neighbors’ homes. A series of band-aid ordinances and clean-up campaigns shake up the routines of a few street people for a few weeks, and then the mean streets return to what passes for normal in the city by the bay.

In January 1999, when this city placed among the five worst in its treatment of homeless people, the defender of its reputation was Our Mayor himself, who suggested that the Washington-based organization was “probably...some group that doesn’t want us to do the right thing.” (To replay the top tunes of three years ago, see “These, the homeless tempest-toss’d” in the January 8, 1999 issue of the San Francisco Flier; www.well.com/user/sfflier). In January 2002, when the National Coalition for the Homeless teamed up with the National Law Center and the city moved up into the top three, it was commentators like Rob Morse who stepped to the mic.

“If we’re so mean, how come so many homeless are still here?” he asks, echoing the plaint of a number of other observers.

For a Harvard grad, Morse can be awfully thick. How come they’re still here? Because, to these 7,000+ homeless people, San Francisco is home.

Why on earth would people, whose lives have already been disrupted by the loss of a job or an apartment, leave a familiar environment and travel to a strange one? The idea conjures up images of Tom Joad and his jalopy, huffing and puffing along a dirt road in Oklahoma. But even during the Great Depression, it made more sense to stay put and try to turn your life around at home.

In the dual aftermaths of the dot.com bust and September 11, homelessness has risen nationwide. And especially here at home. As the numbers swell, so do the voices singing the two-part cantata that begins, “We, They, We, They, We, They.” It’s a pretty raucous piece.

At what point, I wonder, does the changing ratio between homeless and housed bring about a new song that reflects the harmonies of common life in a beloved city? Do we have to wait until the economy gets so bad that we’re all out on the street?

The people who prepared the latest report, “Illegal to be homeless: The criminalization of homelessness in the United States,” don’t think so. In addition to chastising the meanies, they praise the good guys, even here in San Francisco. And they worry about the future of both house and homeless, if we continue wasteful practices that “extract enormous economic, social, and individual costs and do nothing to alleviate the root causes of homelessness.” Contrary to Morse’s cowardly cop-out — “Sorry, we’re people experiencing Republicans — there are a lot of effective steps that we can take.

If we want to.

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The entire text of “Illegal to be homeless” appears on the National Coalition’s website. Here is a sample:

… People experiencing homelessness are subject to basic violations of their civil rights through the unconstitutional application of laws, arbitrary police practices, and discriminatory public regulations. Local governments, police departments, and local business improvement districts, from our largest cities to our most rural communities, are diverting precious public resources and funding to penalize people for being homeless. Lacking private spaces in which to carry out life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, resting, storing personal belongings, or activities associated with personal hygiene, people experiencing homelessness face the further indignity of arrest. They will still be homeless when released but leave with a criminal record and another barrier to obtaining housing. These short-sighted laws and practices may make good sound bites but only serve to invest more tax dollars in jails than in housing, health care and services.

This report documents that criminalization is not only a local issue but is also national in scope and demands a federal response. We will make the case that there is a pattern and practice of civil rights violations and unconstitutional behaviors by local government authorities including the police and other city agencies. These practices extract enormous economic, social, and individual costs and do nothing to alleviate the root causes of homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, and local member organizations share the concern of local business, police departments, and government that there are people sleeping on our nation’s sidewalks. We believe that working toward ending the causes of homelessness and not simply removing homeless people from view is cost effective, as well as just, and if presented to the general public in moral and economic terms would be widely supported.

This report will highlight both patterns of criminalization and examples of positive work being done by local governments and police departments in partnership with advocates. While we are heartened by the examples of some compassionate local government and police responses, we call on local governments to take the next step and educate communities about the root causes of homelessness, taking action to address them. We are hopeful that the following report will be a tool for local organizing and public education around the issues of criminalization and the need to create partnerships toward achieving our common goal of ending homelessness.

The findings and recommendations cited in this report are more critical than ever. The recent events of September 11, 2001, have already impacted people experiencing homelessness in several fundamental ways. Access to public space has been severely restricted in many communities. For people experiencing homelessness who live in public spaces without access to shelter, without an ID showing an address, access to public restrooms, and places to store their belongings, the implications are disastrous. The economic recession has resulted in the lay off of tens of thousands of people, and hiring in many sectors is at a standstill. The newly hired who have benefited from the economic expansion of the past several years will be among the first to lose their jobs. The resultant decrease in tax revenues means less public funding for housing and services for the very poor, and many foundations and charities report a sharp decline in donations to programs which traditionally served the poor.…

The purpose of the report is to document the pattern and practice of civil rights violations of people experiencing homelessness nationwide as well as to document effective strategies to organize and litigate for basic constitutional protections. NCH has been working to move the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate hate crimes and/or violence against people experiencing homelessness, and NCH is working toward moving the federal government to establish homelessness as a protected class. The NLCHP has filed briefs in courts across the country supporting homeless people’s challenges to ordinances that render criminal activities homeless people often must perform in public, and works with groups to implement constructive alternatives to criminalization….

The passage of laws that target behaviors associated with the state of being homeless, such as sleeping, bathing, sitting, cooking, lying down, urinating, or storing personal belongings in public spaces are unconstitutional because collectively, they target people based on their housing status, not for behaviors that, in and of themselves are criminal. These laws and practices are designed to criminalize homelessness without mentioning the words “homeless” or “housing” because they target behaviors most likely to be conducted by people experiencing homelessness. The following report will demonstrate that people experiencing homelessness are targeted in a discriminatory manner for conducting what is generally considered private behavior in public spaces because they lack the privacy, housing or even shelter in which to conduct them.