Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Being poor or homeless is not a crime.

The Town Council has gotten a spate of letters lately complaining about panhandlers downtown. One in today's mail implores, "Please enforce the laws against panhandling, so decent people are not subjected to intimidation and unpleasantness on our main street."

Our town is not unusual. There are more homeless people lately. Some of them turn to panhandling. And for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Billie Guthrie a housing coordinator for OPC Area Program, calls our attention to a new report by the National Coalition for the Homeless, "A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities." It begins,

The housing and homelessness crisis in the United States has worsened in 2005, with many cities reporting an increase in demands for emergency shelter. In 2005, 71 percent of the 24 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported a 6 percent increase in requests for emergency shelter. Even while the requests for emergency shelter have increased, cities do not have adequate shelter space to meet the need. In the 24 cities surveyed in the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Homelessness Survey for 2005, an average of 14 percent of overall emergency shelter requests went unmet, with 32 percent of shelter requests by homeless families unmet. The lack of available shelter space – a situation made worse by the Gulf Coast hurricanes - leaves many homeless persons with no choice but to struggle to survive on the streets of our cities.

Too often, the response to this crisis is to criminalize the homeless. Atlanta's draconian anti-panhandling ordinance is one example. In some cities you can even get into trouble for feeding the homeless:

Cities have been further targeting homeless persons by penalizing those offering outdoor feedings for homeless individuals. These city restrictions are frequently aimed at preventing providers from serving food in parks and other public spaces.
In Dallas, beginning in September 2005, a new ordinance penalizes charities, churches, and other organizations that serve food to the needy outside of designated areas of the city. Anyone who violates this ordinance can be fined up to $2000.

Recently Dallas has refined this ordinance with designated official feeding sites. The idea is to cut down on litter. Also, volunteers have to register and take food-handling classes.

The panhandlers are virtually regulated out of sight and yet if you feed them you have to be certified? Something doesn't add up.

Dallas is one of the top 20 meanest cities for 2005. The criteria are "the number of anti-homeless laws in the city, the enforcement of those laws and severities of penalties, the general political climate toward homeless people in the city, local advocate support for the meanest designation, the city’s history of criminalization measures, and the existence of pending or recently enacted criminalization legislation in the city." These are cities in which "punitive practices . . . impede true progress in solving the problem."

I'm not proud of our nighttime panhandling ban and would not have voted for it. It was supposed to solve the problem of aggressive panhandling. But it hasn't. Instead, it's just made the situation confusing. How is a person on Franklin Street at night supposed to know that it's against the law for him to ask out loud for money (but that it would be OK if he put it on a placard)? It's not working here any better than it has turned out in Fort Lauderdale.

I am proud of our Community Initiative to End Homelessness for its recent receipt of a HUD grant of more than $270,000 to fund housing and basic services for the homeless.

The Community Initiative is associated with, but is not the same thing as, the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness (which needs a better web site). The Partnership is in the data-gathering stage, and focus groups are being organized. I think one of the first steps on the way to getting those nagging panhandlers off the street has to involve thinking seriously about why they are there, about real ways to tackle their problems. Surely there's at least some small relationship between the homeless and the excessively homed.

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