US cities can now punish homelessness: is this a positive or negative impact on the crisis?

by Sam Glanville and Crystal Haze, BBC News, Los Angeles

Blue tarps are draped over tents lining a sidewalk at EPA Los Angeles, with a row of palm trees in the background. EPA

Experts say arresting and fining people for sleeping rough will exacerbate the problem by making it more difficult for people to escape homelessness.

“We still have 20 minutes before we have to move,” Anthony called out from a green tent set up on the Hollywood sidewalk as he heard approaching footsteps.

Los Angeles officials had been there earlier to warn him that he could be arrested if he didn’t move his belongings.

They told him about the recent Supreme Court decision that allows cities and states across the U.S. to punish people who sleep outdoors, the most significant ruling on homelessness at least since the 1980s, when many experts say the modern U.S. homelessness crisis began.

This is another addition to Anthony’s already long list of worries.

“I’m just trying to survive,” he told the BBC, lying in his tent, using his blue rucksack as a pillow.

Inside are black garbage bags stuffed with possessions he can carry with him as he moves from one place to the next.

“Some nights I can’t sleep,” he says. “I’ve been tired all day. I just want to lie down somewhere nice and comfortable and get a good night’s sleep. That’s it. I’m not bothering anyone.”

After a while, Anthony packed up his tent and set off to find a new place to call home.

The high court’s decision is already having a ripple effect in cities across the country, emboldening them to take tougher measures to clear out homeless camps that have sprung up in the wake of the pandemic.

Many U.S. cities are struggling with how to respond to the worsening crisis, which has been at the center of recent election cycles on the West Coast and has led officials to pour record amounts of money into building shelters and affordable housing.

Leaders are facing growing pressure because long-term solutions, from housing and shelter to voluntary treatment services and eviction assistance, take time.

“It’s not easy and effective solutions take time to put in place, so there’s a bit of political theater going on here,” Skut Katovich, a lawyer who works on these issues for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the BBC.

“Politicians want to say they’re doing something.”

Katovich and other activists say arresting and fining homeless people only makes the problem worse.

“This tactic simply postpones the problem. Sure, the streets may be cleaner, but the people you arrest will inevitably return.”

Homeless numbers set to hit new record in 2023

The Supreme Court’s decision last week did not dictate how cities and governments should deal with homelessness, but it did give communities more leeway to take tougher measures without fear of legal action.

The story begins in Grants Pass, Oregon, a small town of about 40,000 people. Over the past 20 years, the town has doubled in size but the supply of affordable public housing has not kept up, causing housing prices to skyrocket and homelessness to rise.

Elected leaders passed a law allowing the city to fine homeless people who sleep or camp in public spaces $295 (£230) or 20 days in jail for repeat offenders. Three homeless people sued the city in 2018 after receiving multiple fines they could not pay.

The appeals court found that such laws effectively ban homelessness and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the city’s ban on homeless people camping out in public places was clear.

“In determining how best to address a pressing social problem like homelessness, a handful of federal judges cannot possibly match the collective wisdom of the American people,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

Thean Evangelis argued the case in Supreme Court on behalf of Grants Pass.

She said city officials are stumped because they can’t force anyone into shelters, and she argues that people who refuse to take advantage of the services offered end up staying in the camps.

“Living in tents is not a compassionate solution and does not treat people with dignity, so the Supreme Court’s decision is notable for listening to these cities,” she said.

leader Grants Pass They say they plan to study the Supreme Court’s decision before making plans on whether to enforce the camping ban.

The ruling comes at a critical time for homeless people.

Last year, the United States recorded the highest number of homeless people since 2007, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began tracking the data.

there were 653,104 homeless people That’s the number of people who will be counted in the department’s annual homeless census in 2023. That’s an increase of about 11% from the previous year.

Advocates are working to avoid arrest.

EPA A man and a woman walk along a sidewalk in Los Angeles as the woman peers into several tents housing homeless people. EPA

The ACLU is tracking reactions to the decision from city leaders across the U.S.

The city has already written to Manchester, New Hampshire, after the mayor promised to ban camping “to keep our streets safe, passable and traversable.”

Other city leaders, such as the mayor of Lancaster, California, have pledged to “take a more aggressive approach” to camps in neighborhoods and near businesses.

“We’re going to move them very quickly,” Mayor R. Rex Parris told the Los Angeles Times.

Oregon lawmakers are also considering amending the law to give them more power to remove homeless camps. Local Media report.

in Spokane, Washington Leaders are calling on authorities to dismantle more camps.

But fining people who don’t have the means to buy a home hurts their finances, advocates argue.

Arresting them could make it even harder for them to find work or housing, experts told the BBC.

“There’s a huge amount of evidence that just having outstanding charges and warrants for arrest not only keeps people in prison, but also prevents them from getting housing or other employment elsewhere,” Chris Herring, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the BBC.

“It actually makes it harder for people to access shelter.”

Not all cities have welcomed the court’s decision.

In Los Angeles, the mayor called the ruling “disappointing” and vowed to continue investing in affordable housing, voluntary treatment and eviction protections.

A few days after this comment, the city released its homeless numbers, showing a decrease for the first time in nearly six years.

Supporters say it’s a good example for other cities to learn from.

“Real change takes time,” Sasha Morozov, regional director of PATH, a major homelessness charity in the Los Angeles area, told the BBC.

But Morozov noted that outreach teams in the Los Angeles metropolitan area continue to work to inform homeless people about the Supreme Court’s decision, and they are also preparing for an increased demand for legal services.

Jail the homeless? “At least they have a place to sleep”

Topher Williams, 28, lives around the corner from Anthony and calls a makeshift tent he set up on the sidewalk his home.

Black and blue tarps are tied to tree branches and street parking poles, and plywood lines the edges of the building he calls a three-room apartment.

Williams told the BBC he was an army veteran and had been living on the streets for four years, after a combination of rising medical costs and the financial hardships of the pandemic left him jobless and without a place to live.

Like Anthony, he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of compassion from city officials and police.

“It’s shocking how people look at us, they treat us like animals, and they have no idea,” he said, his eyes filling with tears.

“I served in the military for eight years, did two tours of duty, and it’s horrible that I made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for this country and then I’m treated like a second-class citizen.”

When asked if he was scared he might be arrested, he said it was a part of life.

“We already have a lot to deal with. A lot of things are stressful. But I don’t worry about things until it starts to affect me.”

Like Topher, Anthony said being arrested might not be the worst outcome.

“At least there’s a bed there and they can probably get into the system and get the right help.”


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