the Courts The Law and the Homeless - Alternative Strategies
bed homelessness city person
Alternatives to criminalizing homeless behavior can be implemented with help from community leadership and homeless advocates, who have intimate knowledge from close contact with homelessness. In Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization: Models to Replicate and Useful Tips to Consider (October 2002), the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) detailed what some cities have done about homeless problems.
After ten years in litigation, a class action suit brought by homeless persons, Michael Pottinger, Peter Carter, Berry Young, et al. v. City of Miami (810 F. Supp. 1551 ), resulted in a financial settlement and the "no bed/no arrest" policy that other cities have adopted as a model. (No bed/no arrest means that if a person is to be arrested for an action that is a result of being homeless, that person must first be referred to an appropriate, available, and accessible shelter bed. If the person declines that bed, then he or she may be arrested.) The city of Miami used some of the settlement money to build two large shelters. Funds were raised to provide programs for the homeless, and police officers were required to undergo training on interacting with the homeless.
In analyzing the actions taken by cities to deal with homelessness, the NLCHP noted the downside to the no bed/no arrest policy: Any type of bed space can be offered to a homeless person and if that space is refused, cities often permit an arrest "rather than focusing on other more constructive long-term solutions to homelessness such as outreach or building of affordable housing."
When Philadelphia proposed a "Sidewalk Behavior Ordinance" in 1998, homeless people and the mental health community formed a coalition, staged sit-ins, lobbied, and testified at city council meetings to increase public awareness of homelessness. In the end nearly $6 million was appropriated for the necessary social services in the event the ordinance was passed by voters (it was). A no bed/no citation policy (for violation of the ordinance) was adopted, and additional shelter beds and other housing opportunities were provided, with the result that there was a noticeable decline in the homeless population. The 2004 Illegal to Be Homeless report noted that Philadelphia has succeeded in removing nearly 75% of chronically homeless people from the streets.
In Washington, D.C., a tax levied on business property at the rate of $0.01 per square foot was used to build the DC Downtown Day Center. Support came from those most affected by the homeless situation and resulted in services and solutions rather than fines and jail time for those in need.
Minneapolis and Fort Lauderdale
The 2004 report Illegal to Be Homeless also commended Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for their efforts to decriminalize homelessness. In Minneapolis, the City Council created a Decriminalization Task Force to "review all laws, policies, and practices that have the effect of criminalizing homelessness." The task force has recommended implementing changes in city ordinances, training police officers to help homeless people find services, repealing the vagrancy law, and allowing time for public testimony from homeless people.
In Fort Lauderdale an outreach program has been launched that sends one formerly homeless person and one police officer out to public places each afternoon, where they assess the situations of homeless people and match them with appropriate services. Some are sent to shelters, some are enrolled in long-term programs, and others are given bus tickets to reunite with family. Police take individuals to shelters rather than to jail. The impact of criminalization on the homeless has been significantly decreased through this program.