Thursday, November 6, 2014

Criminalizing Compassion?

Every year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) releases to Congress the two-part Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR). Part 1 of the 2014 AHAR report, released in October, has Point-in-Time estimates of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations gathered on a single night in late January.

It’s a good sign that overall, the estimated number of homeless people has declined since 2007 (the chart on page 18 says so), but don’t break out in a happy dance just yet. According to the report, the estimated number of homeless people in America in 2014 is 578,424. Let that sink in. Over half a million people in our country are homeless. It’s a decline of 2% since 2013, but it’s still far too many homeless people.

The AHAR report breaks down the homeless population by state, by subgroups, and by age ranges. Half of the homeless individuals in the U.S. are located in five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Georgia. (AHAR, page 20).

Another report from the National Coalition for the Homeless “examines the relationship between work and homelessness, including the contribution of unemployment, underemployment, and low wages to homelessness,” as well as an assessment of “the barriers to employment faced by homeless people and strategies for overcoming those barriers.” The NCH report points out, “Media reports of a growing economy and low unemployment mask a number of important reasons why homelessness persists, and, in some areas of the country, is worsening. These include stagnant or falling incomes, and less secure jobs that offer fewer benefits.”

In 1967, a year-round, minimum wage earning worker was paid enough to raise a family of three above the poverty line. Freezes to the minimum wage, cost of living increases, and the demographic change of minimum wage workers from mostly teenagers to a current level of 72% at age 20 or older mean housing is out of reach for many workers. Now, in areas around the country, according to the NCH report, “a minimum wage worker would have to work 87 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30% of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing.” The report also states that many homeless shelters “house significant numbers of full-time wage earners.” So much for the old American dream of working, owning a home, and retiring at some level of comfort, or the notions that homeless people are all addicts, mentally ill, or choose to be homeless.

Articles circulating for several years claim there anywhere from five to 24 empty houses in the U.S. for each homeless person in America. Some houses in the U.S. are empty part of the year because they are second, and even third homes held for seasonal purposes. Other houses are empty, not because people suddenly decided it would be more fun to enjoy life in the great outdoors or at a shelter, but because economic conditions including disappearing jobs, crappy wages, increased costs, and even medical expenses (the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S.) have crippled and even destroyed people’s lives and livelihood. When jobs and income disappear, the ability to make mortgage or rent payments goes with them. In Detroit, entire neighborhoods sit empty as a result of economic conditions.

Not everyone has the safety net of family willing or able to take them in. If being homeless isn’t tough enough, laws are being enacted around the U.S. to penalize those who try to help.

On November 6, 2014, a wire service story headlined “3 busted. Their crime? Feeding the homeless” ran in my local paper. Over the weekend, 90-year old Arnold Abbott and two ministers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida were arrested for violating a new ordinance that took effect Friday, and now face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine for feeding the homeless in a public park. The same article says the ordinance “is one of five laws dealing with homelessness that Fort Lauderdale passed in May.” Abbott, who founded a culinary school which produces the food he serves to the homeless, has been ministering to the hungry for some 23 years and was arrested a second time four days later.

In Orlando, groups must get a permit to feed 25 or more in parks in a downtown district, and are limited to two permits per year for each park. It isn’t just Florida (ranked third in the nation for homelessness by AHAR), either. In Texas, (ranked fourth), Houston ordinances require groups to have written consent to feed the homeless in public or face a $2,000 fine. And in Columbia, S.C., organizations must file more than two weeks in advance and pay $150 for a permit to feed the homeless in city parks.

Is the solution to homelessness the arrest and prosecution of people attempting to help their fellow humans with a meal? Do the new laws imply that homelessness is perpetuated because groups are willing to feed the homeless populations?

In Fort Lauderdale, will fines be used to help build a facility that fulfills the new requirements for portable toilets, hand-washing stations, and food temperatures at outdoor feeding sites? Or is the underlying intent more cosmetic, to move the problem from a visible location like a park and drive it underground and out of sight, and preferably outside the city’s jurisdiction? 

I don’t know. But there have to be better solutions. Maybe it’s a case of reframing the problem.

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