Homelessness is rising nationally. So are laws targeting the unsheltered.

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Published: 05/27/2022, 3:46 PM

(NATIONAL) Oklahoma has the third highest incarceration rate in the country, and having a criminal record is one of the biggest barriers to housing in the state.

Read this story on Big If True here. 

Four Tulsa organizations recently received a $370,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation and the Urban Institute to create a strategy for increasing housing opportunities for people who have been incarcerated.

The grant was announced a week after Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum proposed a policy that would effectively make it a misdemeanor for homeless people to rest, sleep or camp on sidewalks.

“We’re implementing solutions,” said Becky Gligo, executive director of Housing Solutions, one of the grant recipients. “And it just seems like there’s a little bit of a disconnect if at the same time that we’re looking at those innovative, national best practices, we’re also adding more people into that pipeline of incarceration and actively putting up barriers to their housing.”

Like many communities, Tulsa is grappling with rising homelessness, which has grown nationally since 2017 and was worsened by pandemic instability. Many cities lack enough emergency shelter beds to meet the need.

And many communities have laws that criminalize homelessness by making it illegal to rest, sleep and camp in public places. A National Homelessness Law Center analysis of 187 cities’ laws found that more than half had laws making it illegal to sit or lie down in public places.

In the past year, new or proposed bans have popped up in Tulsa and other communities, with punishment including fines, fees and jail time, all of which can limit a person’s opportunities to get housing in the future, homeless advocates say.

Unsheltered people who are arrested and receive bonds they can’t afford to pay can spend weeks or longer in jail, costing taxpayers money.

Some homeless service providers have a separate concern. They see the bans as part of a strategy that diverts resources and funding toward visible homelessness and away from people who are experiencing homelessness out of public view, especially families with children.

Camping bans increase despite CDC guidance against sweeps

In 2020, Tennessee made camping on most state-owned property a felony.

After a new law that goes into effect in July, Tennessee will become the first state to make camping on local public property a felony. Punishment for the crime is up to six years in prison.

Last year, the Los Angeles City Council banned camping on sidewalks and other public places. At the time, shelter beds were available for 39% of the homeless community, according to data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

In the past month, similar bans have been passed or were proposed in San Luis Obispo, California; St. Louis, Missouri; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Edmonds, Washington.

During the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised local governments that homeless camps should only be removed if residents can be provided housing. Sweeps of camps can increase the potential for covid to spread, according to a guidance from the agency.

[ Read more of our housing coverage here ]

For those arrested under the bans, jail time can cause them to lose ground with their mental health care or substance abuse treatment.

“The purpose of the criminal justice system and criminalizing things is to deter behavior, but you can’t deter people from needing sleep and protection from the elements,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center. “If you don’t provide a place where they can legally do those things, … they have to do them somewhere.”

Some courts have found camping and sidewalk bans unconstitutional

A decade ago, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness said laws that criminalize homelessness raised constitutional issues and may violate international human rights law.

These laws can attract litigation. Lawsuits challenging camping bans and sweeps have been successful in 60% of cases studied by the National Homelessness Law Center. Suits challenging loitering bans were successful in 77% of cases, the analysis found.

In 2018, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled prosecuting sleeping on sidewalks violated the Eighth Amendment if the person charged had no alternative for shelter.

Tars said these bans can be unconstitutional depending on how they’re worded and enforced.

“If they don’t allow people to conduct basic life-sustaining (activities) that you and I take for granted – eating, sleeping, resting – and there isn’t an alternative place where people can go to do those things, then they can be unconstitutional in their enforcement,” he said. “Unfortunately, cities are endlessly creative in the ways they’ve tried to criminalize this behavior, rather than addressing the underlying causes of homelessness and people being on the streets.”

Proposed ban in Tulsa doesn’t address mental health as a cause of homelessness

At the request of the police department, Tulsa Mayor Bynum proposed creating a misdemeanor charge against sitting and lying down on sidewalks.

The policy draft, which was prompted by complaints from business owners, was changed slightly to instead criminalize blocking the right of way on sidewalks, streets, parking lots and other places. That revision followed concerns raised by residents and housing advocates.

[ Read more: After arrest, low-income defendants may spend weeks or months in jail before they can request a lower bond ]

A first offense could carry penalties of a fine up to $100 and up to five days in jail. A second offense could result in twice the time in jail and double the fine. Each day a violation takes place would be considered a separate offense, the proposed ordinance says.

If the city adopts the ban, Gligo believes collecting the fines would be a challenge and also would divert unsheltered people’s few financial resources away from securing housing.

“The reality is that the folks that get asked to move on often do, and the ones who don’t are generally suffering from mental illness,” Gligo said. “They might not have other alternatives, and so without the option for housing or adequate shelter, it’s just going to be very difficult for this to have any sort of lasting impact on our current unsheltered crisis.”

One alternative solution, Gligo said, could be providing mobile medical services that are focused on mental health intervention.

“We think that we could get people to treatment, medication or long-term supports, and we don’t believe that jail or fines are going to lead to any of those things,” she said.

Bans put resources toward the most visible unsheltered populations. What about those who aren’t as visible?

In the Portland, Oregon metro area, a January homeless census counted 6,633 people experiencing homelessness, up 65% from the previous count in 2019. In February, the Portland Bureau of Transportation reported that 70% of pedestrians killed by cars last year were unsheltered and living outdoors.

Two days after the report was released, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued an emergency order banning camping next to freeways and roads with high numbers of car crashes.

[ Read more: Five ways communities can use jails less ]

In April, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that people displaced during camp sweeps returned to old campsites, moved a few feet away or near other dangerous roadways.

Brandi Tuck, executive director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions, said that most of the families her organization serves stay in places that are out of the public’s view.

They often double up or couch surf, staying with friends, family or other people they know for short bursts of time, or they stay in cars. If they do camp, they set up in isolated spots.

“Our conversations (on homelessness) focus on the chronically homeless population,” Tuck said. “They’re the visible people experiencing homelessness, but they are the minority of people in the continuum who experience homelessness, from families with children to domestic violence survivors, to veterans, to seniors.”

This year’s homeless census counted about 5,200 people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County, home to Portland. About 3,000 were unsheltered and living outdoors, while about 2,200 were in shelters or transitional housing.

A press release on the count notes that it doesn’t include numbers for people who are doubling up, leaving people most likely to experience homelessness this way – including families and people of color – undercounted.

A sign of the need for aid: Tuck said 800 families are on a waitlist for Portland Homeless Family Solutions’ services.

“What happens whenever we don’t talk about the thousands of kids and parents that are not visible, that you can’t see,” Tuck said, “we don’t fund services to help those people.”

Contact BigIfTrue.org editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or bryant@bigiftrue.org. Follow her on Twitter.

BigIfTrue.org is a nonprofit news site based in Oklahoma City. Our mission is to report stories that envision a more equitable world and energize our readers to improve their communities. Donate to support our work here.


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