By Jerry Jones, Executive Director, National Coalition for the Homeless
It’s hard to imagine a more basic denial of human rights than taking away someone’s ability to sleep, eat, or even ask for help, but such policies are a common response to homelessness in America.
Last year alone, Tampa has tried to outlaw sleeping in public, Los Angeles is considering a ban against meal distribution by volunteer groups, and Boise has outlawed panhandling.
These cities are only the most recent examples of similar measures that have been enacted elsewhere. They are intended to drive away people who are experiencing homelessness, typically from downtown areas that are experiencing economic revitalization.
None of these policies actually have the effect of solving homelessness. That is not their purpose, of course, since real solutions would require housing, social services and other investments to help people who are experiencing homelessness get back on their feet. Rather, the goal is to banish people experiencing homelessness from where they are not wanted. Enforcement is selective: a feeding ban wouldn’t prevent a businessman from buying a meal for a colleague and a sleeping ban wouldn’t prevent a college student from napping in the park on a sunny day.
Criminalizing homelessness denies basic rights to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. It targets people who are utterly dispossessed and living on the streets, many of whom are elderly or have a mental illness. As a consequence, those who inhabit public spaces have lives constantly interrupted by law enforcement, racking up arrest records for petty crimes that exist only as penalties for experiencing homelessness.
If any other group in America were being targeted for this treatment, the outcry would be deafening. Yet such laws continue to be adopted across the nation, often with considerable support from businesses and neighbors closest to the homeless populations intended for removal.
These laws represent an insidious evil that has its roots in every one of us: the desire to make difficult problems disappear. People don’t want to see homelessness. We find people experiencing homelessness disconcerting and unnerving. People experiencing homelessness call into question our own vulnerability. They represent something too horrible for us to think about, because intuitively we know that having human beings living on the streets is wrong. More troubling, their existence tells us that something might be very wrong with our society as a whole.
Faced with such realities on a daily basis, we prefer to make people who are homeless disappear. Yet the truth is that we can’t solve problems by wishing them away. No matter how deep you stick your head in the sand, problems only worsen over time. The longer we wait, the harder it is.
The essence of respecting other people’s rights is to recognize our shared humanity. Taking away those rights from another group is the first step in denying the humanity of others and disempowering them as equal citizens in a free society. It is a dangerous path that diminishes our own humanity as well.
The mission of the National Coalition for the Homeless is to end homelessness while ensuring that the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness are met and their civil rights protected.
For more from USICH's human rights series, visit http://usich.gov/issue/human-rights/.