Rather than redoubling efforts to address growing rates of homelessness and hunger since the 2008 financial crisis, many local governments seem intent on criminalizing aspects of homelessness such as panhandling and sleeping in cars.
Four homeless men warm themselves on a steam grate by the Federal Trade Commission, blocks from the Capitol, during frigid temperatures in Washington. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
WASHINGTON — Homelessness increased across the country over the past year even as substantial demand for emergency shelter was unmet, according to a major report published this month on behalf of some 1,400 U.S. mayors.
Across 25 major cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of mayors, 43 percent saw an increase in homelessness over the past year, and overall numbers climbed by around 1 percent. In addition, almost three-quarters of these cities’ social services were forced to turn away homeless families with children, due to a lack of emergency beds available.
The areas surveyed include most of the largest cities in the United States. The U.S. Conference of Mayors represents municipalities with populations of 30,000 or more, and has been offering these annual assessments for more than three decades.
Perhaps most problematic issue in the new findings is the forward prognosis and apparent lack of substantive response. Officials in nearly 70 percent of the cities surveyed reported expecting to see either the same or heightened need for emergency shelter in the coming year. Likewise, no city expects to see a decrease in the need for emergency food assistance, and officials in two cities reported expecting “substantial” increases.
Yet resources allotted to combating homelessness and hunger are universally expected to either stay the same or decrease. More than a quarter of cities are expecting a cut in resources for emergency shelter, while nearly half are expecting similar reductions in the provision of emergency food assistance.
These trends can largely be traced to the downturn in the U.S. economy since 2008. While subsequent years have seen a substantial increase in the number of jobless and, in turn, homeless families and individuals, so too have the post-recession years continued to seriously impact on public coffers and government budgets. Meanwhile, federal “stimulus” monies made available in the aftermath of the economic crisis have, by now, largely dried up, even as broader social programming has been cut back.
“It is important to understand that the face of hunger and homelessness has changed as the national economy has contracted … there are many people who were never vulnerable in the past, but who find themselves vulnerable now,” Helene Schneider, the mayor of Santa Barbara, said last week at the report’s launch.
“Mayors in cities across the country are doing all they can to provide the resources for those in need, but the number of people looking for food assistance seems to be growing. We are very concerned about what could happen to our emergency food and shelter programs next year, and in the years beyond, if federal budgeting makes it harder, not easier, to meet our responsibilities to all of our people.”
The Conference of Mayors data, although only extrapolations based on 25 cities, offers an important counterpoint to official figures from the U.S. federal government, which suggest that overall homelessness levels are going down. Nonetheless, while federal methodologies in this regard have long been criticized, the government has repeatedly called into question the legality of local-level criminalization laws.
Three times more expensive
Local governments are clearly laboring under significant new budgetary constraints in dealing with recent spikes in joblessness, homelessness and related issues. Yet their responses have often followed a trend that many say runs counter to state and federal law, the U.S. Constitution, and even international obligations around human rights.
Instead of town and city officials redoubling efforts to figure out how to provide additional low-cost housing and social services, a clear pattern has emerged in recent years of local governments enacting a range of laws and ordinances aimed at cracking down on the markers of homelessness.
This includes panhandling, “loitering,” sitting or sleeping in public, or sleeping in one’s car. This even includes outlawing actions taken by groups or individuals intent on assisting the homeless and hungry, such as passing out food in public spaces. Such anti-homelessness laws have been around for at least the past three decades, but watchdog groups have seen a marked increase in the aftermath of the recession.
“Those numbers have consistently been going up, but we did see a dramatic increase in the last three years, since 2011. This has particularly been the case since the end of the federal stimulus money,” Eric S. Tars, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), told MintPress News.
“As a result, we believe that many families aren’t getting their safety-net needs met. The federal government money has gone away, but for them the recession goes on. So, communities are seeing increased visibility of homelessness – and are turning to these laws rather than providing housing.”
For instance, recent years have seen a 119 percent increase in bans on sleeping overnight in one’s vehicle, alongside broader city-wide bans on public “camping,” according to nationwide statistics released earlier this year by the NLCHP. Likewise, some 43 percent of towns and cities have moved against panhandling since 2009.
Meanwhile, the availability of low-income housing has not kept pace with new demand, and in fact has dropped by nearly 13 percent since 2001. This trend has continued despite the mounting availability of data showing that providing low-cost housing and related social services is significantly cheaper than all of the costs associated with criminalization. The latter can be up to three times more expensive, Tars notes.
“The problem is when you pass an ordinance barring people from sleeping on the street, that doesn’t have a budget line attached to it. But constructing new low-cost housing does,” he said.
“Not only is providing housing more economical in the short term, but doing so will also permanently prevent homelessness rather than simply masking the problem and having the cycle continue.”
The Conference of Mayors’ report on homelessness for this year does not mention trends in criminalization. However, in 2012 the group did adopt landmark policies put forth that year by the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, aimed at offering alternatives to criminalization.
“That involves law enforcement working very closely with health, social services and others in providing services for homeless people. What they’ve found is that when all of those groups work together, they can reduce instances of panhandling and other issues,” Eugene Lowe, assistant executive director at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, told MintPress.
“I know many communities still have [criminalization] policies in place, and we’re not saying we object to those policies. But we do support the Interagency Council’s policies for searching out solutions.”
Meanwhile, this new spate of laws is increasingly being challenged in court. And, according to new data, the majority of those challenges have been successful, found to have run afoul of state laws as well as constitutional guarantees.
For instance, more than 70 percent of legal disputes around new laws banning sleeping or camping in public have succeeded, as have two-thirds of challenges to restrictions around begging or other forms of solicitation. In cases questioning the legality of new regulations on the public sharing of food, every single challenge has been successful.
These statistics are included in a new advocacy manual from the NLCHP for lawyers and civil society groups intent on taking up such challenges.
There is limited data as to whether significant recognition of the financial and legal problems with the criminalization approach is spreading among local government officials. Yet watchdog and advocacy groups working on the issue say that awareness is clearly rising, among both officials and advocates.
“When cities adopt these laws they think this is going to solve the problem of homelessness. Their goal is simply to make homelessness less visible, especially in downtown areas,” Michael Stoops, the director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told MintPress.
“But even when these laws are passed and implemented, there are still homeless people in need of help and very visible. The cities are finally starting to realize that criminalizing homelessness is not the way to go, that it doesn’t work and that it diverts attention from attacking the roots causes.