The rules of the streets: Which laws help - and hurt - the homeless

by Mary Rezac

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Credit: Dmytro Zinkevych, Shutterstock

Walk down 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colo., and you’ll probably see people who are homeless sitting on the ground with cardboard signs.

Walk down that same street with a cop, and you’ll probably notice that those same people stand up when they see you coming.

That’s because Denver has banned urban camping - and sitting for too long in public places could technically be considered “camping”, and could land a person with a ticket, a fine or even an arrest.

For the most part, the homeless do their best to comply, said Philip Couture, Director of Formation with Christ in the City, a Catholic homeless outreach in Denver.  

The police officers are generally “of good will, not trying to cause any trouble but trying to enforce the law,” Couture said. But the camping ban does prevent the Christ in the City missionaries from sitting down with their friends on the street.

“We want to cooperate with the government while also serving our friends on the street, understanding that the government largely, while its a very complex issue, is trying to help the homeless - we really have confidence in that,” Couture said. 

“But it’s true that some laws that intend to help [the homeless] actually hurt them, and some laws that intend to get them off the streets punish them for being on the streets. Even people like us who are trying to help them, we are caught up in that as well sometimes.”

Laws and ordinances that impact the homeless are varied and complex. Some of them, like the camping ban, are an unintended consequence of laws aimed at specific groups - the camping ban was enacted to break up Occupy Denver, a spin-off of Occupy Wall Street, back in 2012.

Another Denver ordinance, aimed at minimizing the often-rowdy 4/20 marijuana rallies, had the unintended consequence that Christ in the City now has to pay $150 each month in order to use City Park for their ‘Lunch in the Park’ to feed their friends who are homeless.

Sometimes, however, the laws are more direct. Last month, about a dozen volunteers were arrested in El Cajon, California for feeding the homeless. Just a few months prior, the city council had passed an ordinance prohibiting the distribution of food on city property.

According to the San Diego Tribune, council members said the ordinance was to prevent the spread of hepatitis A, while critics said the ordinance was an attempt to criminalize homelessness.  

Linda Plitt Donaldson is an associate professor at the National Catholic School of Social Service, at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. She teaches a class on homelessness, and prior to teaching, spent 10 years working with the homeless as a social worker.

Catholic social teaching instructs the faithful to see the human dignity of all, especially the poor, and treat them like another Christ, while some laws that impact the homeless tend to do the opposite of that, Donaldson said.

“These laws that criminalize homelessness prevent people from encountering [the poor], or try to make these populations invisible,” she told CNA. “So a lot of these kinds of laws are about making this kind of human suffering invisible...so that we feel more comfortable.”

Donaldson said while she understands that there can sometimes be legitimate public health concerns, these laws are also applied in a discriminatory manner.

“It’s criminalizing food sharing for a certain group of people - nobody’s breaking up family picnics,” she said.

Mary Sullivan is an outreach worker with the St. Francis Center, a homeless shelter in Denver. She also spent two years working with and befriending the homeless as a Christ in the City missionary.

Often, these ordinances aimed at the homeless are a “band-aid solution” to a deeper problem, Sullivan said.

“What happens is these laws - they start out as public health concerns which are usually legitimate,” she said, but then sometimes they are carried out to a point where they threaten the well-being of people who are homeless.

For example, in the case of the food ban to prevent hepatitis A, “a lot of cities have taken to getting the vaccination for it out to the community, because that’s the most effective way to stop the spread of a disease,” Sullivan said.

“When you get to a point where you’re taking away food - people need to eat to survive, and a lot of people on the streets get their food and the things they need to survive from local charities or organizations,” she said.

Criminalizing these essential things “doesn’t really work” to solve the problem of homelessness, she added.

Couture said he saw a “qualitative difference” between laws that take away essentials - like food and water - and laws like the camping ban, which are more of a mixed bag in terms of the impact on the homeless.

“The camping ban that exists right now is to keep the streets safe, not only for those who aren’t homeless, but even for those who are,” he said.

“[The government] doesn’t want the homeless to form colonies because when the homeless gather, they tend to bring chaos. This is not to say that the homeless are bad, or that all the homeless are addicts, or mentally ill or anything like that, but that when you get a certain volume of people, you do get a number of people” who can act out or be dangerous, he said.

Sometimes the homeless will even ask their Christ in the City friends to call the police about other homeless people if they feel unsafe, Couture noted.

“They want the park to be safe for themselves as well, so if you have someone who’s high, or having a terrible day and acting out, or who is mentally ill, they want them to move off the premise so that they can enjoy their lunch or their conversation with the missionaries or just have a free moment from the stresses of the streets,” he said. 

“So that’s just one example of how complex it can be - in some sense it punishes the homeless, many of whom didn’t ask to be on the streets, but on the other hand the enforcement of it also helps keep things from compounding and becoming more complicated and dangerous for everybody on the street, including the homeless.”

When it comes to policies that help the homeless, Donaldson said she encourages her students as well as her fellow Catholics to advocate for Housing First projects, which prioritize affordable and accessible housing for all.

Some cities, such as Salt Lake City Utah, have completely eliminated veteran homelessness with this model, and have seen great successes with the rest of their homeless population, she noted. In 2015, the entire state of Utah reduced homelessness by 91 percent, in large part because of their Housing First projects and other developments.

“The primary cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing,” Donaldson said. “If we had enough affordable housing, we would not have a homelessness problem.”

Couture said he agreed that affordable housing was a “huge” problem, but cautioned that Housing First should not be understood as “housing only.”

“Calling it Housing First is really a misnomer,” Couture said. “It’s really providing a space that the homeless need, but with proper accompaniment.”

A closer look at the Utah models, for example, shows that the reason Housing First was so successful is because it was carried out with close accompaniment by social workers and other outreach providers who stayed close to their clients throughout their transition into housing, which can be a difficult thing for those who are used to living on the streets, Couture said.

“Once they’re inside, if they’re just left alone there, it becomes more like a prison,” Couture said. “It may seem strange, but when you’re outside you have people who care for you, who love you...some sort of community. When you’re inside, your friends are out there... so you feel trapped,” and many people leave if they don’t have the proper continuing support.

“So from what I see of Housing First...it’s yielding great fruit, but it shouldn’t be confused with housing only, that’s not the same thing,” he said.

Sullivan said that her experiences as a missionary and as an outreach worker have taught her “the importance of relationship and acknowledging the dignity of the human person, that’s been at the forefront of both,” she said.

As a missionary, she learned a lot about “the spiritual poverty and the woundedness that people experience, spending that time in relationship with people, getting to the heart of the person,” she said.

But being an outreach worker, and attempting to connect her homeless clients with resources, has opened her eyes in a new way “to the system in which people have to operate, and it’s really a lot more complicated than an individual and their problems,” she said.

Sullivan said she would encourage Catholics to remember the human dignity and the personhood of the homeless community when they are voting on laws that impact them.

“It’s really willing the good of the people on the margins, and I’ve see how a lot of these things that intended to be helpful aren’t actually for the good of the people in these situations, they just continue to make their lives more miserable,” she said. 

Often, when it comes to these policies, there is a misperception that some people want everything to be a “free-for-all”, and others want to punish the homeless because they believe poor decisions led them to a life on the street, Sullivan said.

“In reality, it’s a much more complicated, nuanced thing,” she said. “Try to find the reasonable middle ground.”

Catholics should also understand that homelessness will never be completely solved with politics, Couture said.

“The homeless situation is as complex as the human person, and any attempt at a one-dimensional answer is simply inadequate,” he said.

“I think any person who [wants to help] needs to move forward with the tranquility and trust in God, and throw out the naivety that this one solution will fix everything, this will do it all, and understand that this is a multi-faceted issue that requires many answers,” he said.

To better understand the homeless and their needs, Catholics need to encounter them face to face as friends, Couture said.

“Whatever we vote for, we should have an understanding that it’s not going to be enough to fix the homeless situation in and of itself, and what that implies is action on our part,” he added.

“Whatever we vote for, we also need to recognize that we have to act, to befriend the homeless - obviously while being safe and having common sense - but with a willingness to put some skin in the game personally, to truly encounter the homeless.”

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