End Cities Criminalizing Homelessness

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Last November, a homeless man in Boulder, Colorado named David Madison tried to get a bed for the night at the city's only local shelter, but was turned away due to a lack of space.

Without any other options, Madison ended up on the sidewalk with just a sleeping bag to protect him on a night when the temperature dipped to 11 degrees. He was approached by the police, but rather than offer assistance, they gave Madison a ticket for "camping," which is illegal in Boulder.

Madison wasn't camping, of course. There was no campfire and certainly no s'mores. However, the City of Boulder keeps on the books – and fervently enforces – a thinly veiled anti-homelessness law that says sleeping outdoors with "shelter" of any form, including a sleeping bag or even a blanket, constitutes illegal camping.

The ticket given to Madison was one of just 1,600 issued over the last four years. The homeless are rarely able to pay their fines and few show up for court hearings, resulting in warrants for their arrest. When they're apprehended, they are given two days in jail – one for the camping and one for the court no-show. This will, probably, also mean that after that they are shown as “felons” on the records.

Since 2006, Boulder taxpayers have paid for well over 1,000 nights in jail for people ticketed for sleeping outdoors, the vast majority of whom are homeless.

While the camping ordinance of Bolder, CO is only one of countless laws across the United States with the primary objective of criminalizing homelessness, at the same time as the economy is forcing a dramatic rise in the homeless population. There are also ordinances to make being homeless a crime in many other cities around the world and even entire countries have, as does the UK, so-called “vagrancy” laws which make living rough a crime, period, regardless where. Also being of “nomadic habit” seems to be a crime in many places which, again and again, puts the traveling Romani People at odds with the law.

Miami, FL recently considered prohibiting the public from feeding the homeless, Venice Beach police began chasing homeless people off the beach after midnight, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom continues to push an ordinance that would ban sitting on city sidewalks.

Being homeless is not a crime – and the behavior necessary for survival shouldn't be either. Rather than punishing the homeless, we should be supporting them with services that help them get back on their feet.

There are many reasons for people becoming homeless and it is not always drugs and alcohol, and neither is being just released from jail, though those can and do play a role.

In the US there are entire families sleeping rough, with children, and the majority of those are “on the street” because the families have fallen on hard times and lost their homes.

Begging, something that many homeless people, individuals and families, are forced to do because of the fact that they cannot work, even if they wanted to, is a crime in the great majority of places around the world.

While it must be said that some begging operations that happen, such as the organized ones by some of clans and groups of the Romani People, which I have to admit, sadly, being Gypsy myself, do not fall into the category of homeless people trying to get some money to survive but are something else entirely, and should be prosecuted to the full extent, begging for survival should be treated differently altogether.

Homelessness and the economic activities that are needed to sustain life should not be seen as a crime and laws need to be changed to reflect the true situation.

© 2010