Report: Criminalization of homelessness is rampant problem

Nov 15, 2016, 2:22 PM | Updated: Nov 16, 2016, 6:38 am
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Homeless camps have sprung up around Seattle in recent years. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

A report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty calls out cities for enacting policies that criminalize, rather than assist people living on the street.

The law center, which surveyed 187 cities and assessed the number and type of municipal codes that criminally or civilly punish the behaviors of homeless people, says cities across the country have done things such as ban living in vehicles, camping in public areas, and panhandling at an increasing rate.

Related: Seattle businesses make stand against homeless ordinance

According to a document released by the law center, 39 percent of cities prohibit living in vehicles. Twenty-seven percent of cities prohibit panhandling city-wide; 61 percent prohibit it in certain public places. And 33 percent of cities prohibit camping in public, while 50 percent prohibit camping in particular places.

“Despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally or civilly punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive,” the report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says. “Cities continue to threaten, arrest, and ticket homeless persons for performing life-sustaining activities — such as sleeping or sitting down — in outdoor public places, despite a lack of any lawful indoor alternatives.”

Washington cities are included in the list of those struggling with appropriate measures. The report cites Puyallup as an example; homeless people “lack access to both affordable housing and emergency shelter, leaving them with nowhere to live but outside in public spaces,” the report says. Additionally, ordinances criminalize sleeping in public places and violations can result in trespassing, according to the report.

Of course, Puyallup, which also made a new “Hall of Shame” list for how it has addressed its homeless situation, is just one city in Washington dealing with the homeless crisis.

In Seattle, city leaders have delved into the issue that Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency over. That work includes revising an ordinance that dictates where people can sleep in public places, and appropriate steps to remove those who are violating the law. The Department of Justice recently commented on the ordinance, saying it is consistent with constitutional principles.

Related: Mayor Murray proposes adding $12 million to Seattle homeless budget

But Seattle isn’t perfect in the eyes of advocates. Take, for example, the clearing of the “Jungle” encampment under and along I-5 in South Seattle. Some called it inhumane for the city and state to clear the area out.

Meanwhile, cities such as Bellevue that haven’t traditionally dealt with widespread homeless problems face a new reality. According to the Associated Press, a proposal to build a permanent men’s homeless shelter with a day center and transitional housing near I-90 has faced opposition from thousands.

A petition to stop the homeless shelter from being built at 14350 SE Eastgate Way received more than 2,000 signatures by Tuesday. One comment shows just how much people resent the idea.

A facility of that size and magnitude, it will attract people, hundreds of people,” one man who lives about a mile from the site told the Associated Press. “It feels like King County wants to move their problems to Eastgate.

However, city and state leaders have said it’s necessary for cities outside of Seattle to address the homeless crises as well. And advocates praise the location of the proposed shelter, which is adjacent to a Metro park-and-ride lot and on the same 4.3-acre property as a clinic for Public Health — Seattle & King County County, the Associated Press reports.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says criminalizing strategies fail to address the root causes of homelessness and can create barriers to obtaining employment, stable housing, education, and access to justice.

The law center argues that homeless people should not be subject to civil or criminal sanctions “or harassment by law enforcement.” It says police training and protocols should be improved and constructive encampment policies should be developed.

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Report: Criminalization of homelessness is rampant problem