Cities across the U.S. are increasingly turning to criminalization tactics towards homeless people, according to “Illegal to Be Homeless: Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States,” written by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). The report is the 2004 edition of an annual series produced by NCH. The research for the report was conducted by a task force convened by NCH called the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project (NHCROP).
The researchers conducted one-on-one interviews with local advocates and attorneys in 179 cities in 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. They supplemented this with analysis of archival data such as newspaper articles and public records regarding city ordinances.
This year, California is ranked by NCH as the meanest state in the nation towards homeless people. California’s ranking in the report is surprising given the state’s street reputation nationwide as a favorite destination for the homeless who are willing to travel.
Little Rock (AR), Atlanta (GA), Cincinnati (OH), Las Vegas (NV), and Gainesville (FL) are listed as the five meanest cities, with Little Rock being the meanest of all. Criminalization is defined as the passage of discriminatory laws towards the homeless which make it illegal for homeless people to do the things they need to in order to survive.
Criminalization also includes the selective enforcement of generally applicable laws -- “especially public drunkenness and loitering” -- so that homeless people are disproportionately targeted.
Literally, criminalization makes it illegal for homeless people to survive in a city. If a city has laws against loitering, soliciting, and sleeping in public parks, then the only legal thing for a homeless person to do is to walk around aimlessly and never talk to anyone. This is an obvious physical impossibility.
“Many of these communities have significant histories of violating the civil rights of homeless people and can be considered ‘repeat offenders’,” the report says.
Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing for NCH, added in a press release, “There needs to be an end to the patterns of discrimination we have seen repeated in many of these cities, year after year.”
Homeless advocates in Little Rock, Arkansas, share that in February 2004, they enlisted the help of the local police force in conducting a census of the homeless people in the city.
Little Rock advocates state they provided police with information about the location of approximately 30 homeless camps in the city, in exchange for a promise the information would not be used against the homeless through “sweeps” of the areas.
A month later, Little Rock Police notified homeless service providers to prepare for an influx in their shelters because they would be sweeping the 30 camps.
The sweeps in Little Rock, ironically, were in preparation for the tourist boost expected around the opening of the Bill Clinton Presidential Library in November 2004.
One can only wonder whether Clinton himself was aware of the consequence of his library-opening, and if so, what he thought about displacing the homeless.
In July of 2004, Little Rock Police raided a homeless camp during the day when most of the residents were absent. “They went in without notice, postings, or warrants and as they searched, they threw property into the river,” the report states.
Fresno, California, also had a notable story that helped warrant its showing on the Top 20 Meanest Cities list. In June of 2004, Fresno City Council moved to build an outdoor “‘drunk tank’ with a chain-linked, razor wire fence, in which persons would be put on public display for being intoxicated,” the report stated. The city added it is an "innovative" method of saving money.
According to the Fresno Bee (02/17/02, Pablo Lopez), the faith-based Rescue Mission, would be handling the “booking” of drunk residents of Fresno and “offering spiritual counseling for addiction.” That is, city funds would be used to pay for religious groups to care for drunk, homeless people who have to be prayed over against their will.
Fresno homeless advocates like Gloria Hernandez worried that the city would be using this as an excuse to target homeless people.
Photos of the “drunk tank” are available at the Bay Area and San Francisco Indymedia sites, on various pages featuring articles by Mike Rhodes: http://bayarea.indymedia.org/news/2004/05/1681395.php http://sfimc.net/news/2004/02/1679059.php http://sfbay.indymedia.org/news/2004/07/1687782.php
And for a truly stunning photo of a CalTrans bulldozer in Fresno picking up a homeless person’s tent, click here.
As a solution, NCH proposes a new law which would tie a city’s eligibility for homeless services grants such as Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to the halting of homeless criminalization practices in that city. This proposal is just one feature of the Bringing America Home Act (BAHA) and campaign, which is the broadest and most progressive plan to end homelessness in the United States. The BAHA legislation, which was introduced in the 108th Congress by U.S. House Representatives Julia Carson (D-IN) and John Conyers (D-MI), also includes expanded voucher assistance programs, increased funding to HUD, and a National Housing Trust Fund.
Instead of a war on poverty, we are increasingly seeing a war on people in poverty. Can Americans come together in this New Year ahead to end poverty without putting all the homeless people in jail?
Matthew Cardinale is a freelance writer,
activist, and graduate student at UC Irvine. He has previously conducted
research with homeless adolescents regarding their experiences with
criminalization in New Orleans, Louisiana. He may be reached at