Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Criminalizing homelessness

When the Safe Cities Initiative began in 2006 in Los Angeles, it targeted behaviors such as sitting on the street,littering, sleeping past 6 a.m. on the streets and jaywalking in an attempt to better Skid Row. Police say their goal is to provide a temptation free area for the homeless addicts who are trying to go straight. In a piece by NPR, however, it says:

According to a study at UCLA, police officers wrote about a thousand tickets a month during the first year of the program. LAPD records indicate that they're writing fewer of them now. Still, even a single ticket would be one too many for Casey Horan. She's the executive director of Lamp, a Skid Row organization that works with the mentally ill.

"They're targeting people who are on the street," she complains. "It's the whole premise of this Safer City Initiative to invest enormous police resources into very, very petty things, which are really a consequence of someone's illness or a consequence of having to survive on the streets."

The article talks about Jason Diamond, a 31 year old former crack addict. He claims that he's received from 10 to 15 tickets for littering, jaywalking and drinking in public. Since he can't afford to pay the fines, warrants are issued which means he can be picked up and processed through the jail system, an experience others are going through as well.

Yesterday homeless activists were at the LA City Council meeting, chanting Shame on You and holding upside down American flags to protect the Safe Cities Initiative. They testified about the effect of the program, saying it "had resulted in the harassment of Skid Row residents and an exodus of homeless residents out of the area."

The NPR article asks: so where have those homeless people gone?

A better question is whether programs like this go to the root of the problem. Do they result in just moving the homeless population to different areas? How about offering treatment options for addiction and housing? How about the high percentage of homeless people who have disabilities?

In the NPR article, the mayor claims that over the past three years since the program started, 796 housing units have been constructed, but most are not completed.

On page 24 of a 2008 report on homelessness, statistics show that two fifths of sheltered homeless adults have disabilities, under the broader definition used by HUD which includes those with substance abuse. (See chart on page 25).

The report notes on page 27 and 28 that the average annual SSI payment is 44 per cent below the poverty level, creating deep poverty among those unable to create a work history. It also notes the greater difficulties with acquiring accessible housing among the disabled population. In 2008 , over 39% of long term stayers in shelters were disabled, the report indicates on page 52.

The rest of the report shows where homelessness is concentrated in the U.S. It should come as no surprise that Florida and California cities are listed, due to their climates. Nor, after reading the statistics, should it come as any surprise that providing housing is a necessary and humane solution if the goal is to do more than shift the homeless population around.

No comments: