Decriminalizing homelessness

A homeless woman in California begs for help for herself and her child.

In most cities, it’s a crime to be homeless.

People who don’t have housing are chased out of parks and out from under bridges; they’re shooed away from coffee shops, even when it’s freezing or steamy hot outside. In many communities, police slash their tents — anything to get rid of the reminder that not everyone is doing well.

Last month in Rhode Island, though, the state passed a Homeless Bill of Rights, assuring that people will be treated with dignity whether or not they have a place to call home. The new law prohibits governments, police, healthcare workers, landlords or employers from treating homeless people unfairly because of their housing status.

That’s a huge leap, considering most places are taking more steps to criminalize homelessness by passing laws against sleeping on the street, loitering and panhandling.

Here in Asheville, I have talked to homeless people who came here because they heard this is a kind city. In many ways it is, but it has laws against sleeping in public places and panhandling.

People who don’t have homes usually don’t have jobs either because so many employers now do background checks and deny employment to anyone with bad credit, nevermind someone who has no home.

Heather Johnson, a civil rights attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty told Huffington Post that her organization has noticed a sharp increase in laws around the country prohibiting panhandling, sleeping outdoors or loitering.

“We’ve seen a lot of egregious examples lately,” she said. “People are having their civil rights violated every day in cities across the country.”

The Denver City Council voted in May to prohibit eating or sleeping on public or private property without permission. In Dallas, city officials prohibit people from giving food to the homeless unless they register with the city first. Officials in Berkeley, Calif., have proposed a ban on sitting on sidewalks.

So, where are these people supposed to go? What are they supposed to do?

I’ve met a number of people who are homeless. Most have really tragic stories. Many are veterans who came back from war unable to cope with everyday life and denied the care they needed.

I’ve met women who were beaten by their husbands or boyfriends, who can’t go back to that relationship but have nowhere else to turn.

I know many people who have a mental illness but can’t get the care they need. Some of them lost their insurance because they lost their jobs.

I don’t know of anyone who is homeless by choice. I do know a number of very sad stories of misfortune that could happen to any of the rest of us.

Rhode Island got it right. How about the rest of the nation?



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