Homes, not handcuffs

Seattle isn't close to becoming one of the "meanest cities" listed in a national report, but may soon try its own take on the often-harmful "civility laws" sweeping the country
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Seattle isn't close to becoming one of the "meanest cities" listed in a national report, but may soon try its own take on the often-harmful "civility laws" sweeping the country

In July the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless reported on the increase in laws across the nation that target homeless individuals. New regulations discussed in Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities include restrictions on panhandling, some of which resemble provisions of a “civility law” for Seattle that City Councilmember Tim Burgess is expected to propose next month.

According to a Seattle Times editorial earlier this month, Burgess would prohibit among other things the solicitation of handouts near a cash machine, at road entrances and intersections, from a person entering or leaving an automobile, or after dark. Burgess says his intent is not to punish homeless people but to preserve order and make everyone in public spaces feel safer.

His proposal is reasonable. But an unintended side effect would be to make homelessness less visible, and invisibility doesn’t help the more devastating problem of homelessness go away. Further, the authors of Homes Not Handcuffs would argue that enforcing ordinances against “quality of life” infractions wastes money that is more wisely spent creating supportive housing to get people off the streets and guide them toward better lives.

Officials in other American cities have used arguments similar to Burgess’s to enact absurdly punitive new laws. The report’s “Ten Meanest Cities” among the 273 surveyed are (meanest first): Los Angeles; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Orlando, Fla.; Atlanta; Gainesville, Fla.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; San Francisco; Honolulu; Bradenton, Fla., and Berkeley, Calif. Municipal exertions there and elsewhere make Homes Not Handcuffs a lively if dispiriting read.

In Las Vegas it’s now a crime to give food to people on the street who appear indigent, the report says. In Berkeley, homeless people have been rousted out of parks during the day with the backing of new anti-loitering laws, even though parks are meant to be places where people can … well, loiter. The report quotes a Bay Area defense attorney as saying, “It’s only poor people who loiter. The rich … engage in leisure-time activities.” A homeless man in Boise was cited for theft when he tried to charge his cell phone at a park shelter equipped with electric outlets.

The problem is not just with recently imposed laws against life-sustaining activities in public places like eating and sleeping, says the report. Existing laws that punish offenses such as obstructing sidewalks and jaywalking are being selectively enforced against people perceived as homeless.

The more humane, sensible approaches of some surveyed cities keep the report from becoming a depressing litany evoking The Death of Common Sense. Constructive strategies include mentoring homeless individuals into street-cleaning jobs that can pay their rent, bringing hungry people out of public spaces and indoors to eat in the company of mental health service providers, and installing "giving meters" — special parking meters, like two in the U District, into which passersby can drop their spare change to fund broad social services instead of obliging one spare-changer.

These strategies are also thriftier than trying to manage homeless individuals through the penal system. Jailing homeless people for minor infractions is two to three times costlier than providing needed support, according to the Homes Not Handcuffs report. Florida’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune calculated that each arrest for public drinking or for bedding down in a vacant lot costs about $925, and that taxpayers there spent $1.3 million to make 1,427 arrests of homeless people over a three-year period. The $10 million San Francisco spent in four years on 56,567 citations for offenses such as impeding sidewalk traffic and camping in parks might have been used to “provide supportive housing to 492 people, put 300 people in a three-month detox center, or pay the salaries of 113 psychiatric outreach workers,” Homes Not Handcuffs said.

Moreover, people in jail can’t work, and many homeless people are employed, if only part-time at low wages. A homeless man who slept on the grounds of University District churches and did odd jobs in my yard this summer was picked up by Seattle police one morning because he lacked a photo ID with an address. Ironically, Manuel had gone to a Department of Licensing office that turned out to be closed that day, and was arrested while sitting in the empty parking lot, mustering his resolve to forget the futility of his errand and catch a bus to my house. After a nine-hour detention that cost him a day’s work and the city more than a few dollars, he was released without even being charged.

This is not to imply that the homeless are routinely harassed in Seattle. I personally witnessed police officers’ respectful treatment of people living in the tent city Nickelsville during its half-year in U District church parking lots. And business leaders in the Greater University Chamber of Commerce as well as its executive director, Teresa Lord Hugel, told people concerned about the encampment that its residents were being good citizens. “Some of the people who complained had never met a homeless person,” Hugel told me. “We have problems with criminal acts in the University District, but not, in my experience, by homeless people.”

So even with a new “civility law” imminent, Seattle isn’t close to rating as a "mean city." In fact, we’re one of those recognized in Homes Not Handcuffs as offering “constructive alternatives to criminalization." The authors cite 1811 Eastlake, which provides permanent housing with on-site services for 75 chronically homeless alcoholics, as a project that saved King County $2.5 million in one year "by significantly cutting residents’ medical expenses, county jail bookings, sobering center usage, and shelter usage. The savings dwarfed the project’s $1.1 million operating costs.”

Still, Seattle struggles perennially with the question of how best to address the problem of homelessness. While the report doesn’t recommend tent cities as a temporary housing option, the authors deplore officials’ allowing or forcing tent cities to close without adequate alternatives. This summer UW President Mark Emmert refused a Faculty Senate-approved recommendation that the campus take a three-month turn at hosting Tent City #3, as have other organizations in the city with open spaces, including Seattle University. Hosting it, Emmert said, would “compound the complexity of our daily activity in ways that would further complicate the business of the University.” Yes, complexity does complicate.

Then in late August the Port of Seattle withdrew a tentative commitment to Nickelsville — drafted with the help of House Speaker Frank Chopp and church and tribal leaders — to give residents a full 90 days on their present site at Port Authority Park T107. A 90-day stay would have allowed them time to find their next temporary home, but commissioners told Nickelsville residents that the encampment and its people will be swept on Wednesday. Over the phone one resident asked me, “Are we supposed to jump in the Duwamish?”

Sometimes recommendations in Homes Not Handcuffs seem not fully thought through. The authors say that public campaigns explaining why money should be given to agencies instead of panhandlers “can discourage the human connection that occurs when one person gives to another person in need.” In reality, handing money to a stranger on the street is often a rushed, impersonal gesture in which both parties avoid even looking at each other — one ashamed of having so little, and one ashamed of having so much. A better case could have been made (at least in cities free of ridiculously punitive ordinances) for buying panhandlers food or other supplies instead. But the authors are onto something valuable even when their recommendations seem extreme. I like their principle of connecting personally with people on the streets, if not the way they applied it.

Another question arises from the effect of citing so many absurd ordinances in the report. Do the authors see any place at all for “quality of life” laws? If pressed, they’d probably say yes. Communities need to toss stubborn scofflaws in jail as much as they need to provide resources that will support homeless people for whom jail is not the answer. But the authors are right to question the intelligence of punishing people for behavior like drinking in public when they don’t have homes. A homeless friend of mine with a severe, untreated mental illness, who like many in his condition tries to self-medicate his tormenting symptoms with beer, once asked me quite seriously after having been cited for an open-container violation, “Where else can I drink?”

I doubt that the authors would support his logic if housing were available and he turned it down. But I think they’d agree that being arrested can’t help him or other homeless people suffering from mental illnesses or addictions unless they’re detained as well as released amid adequate resources. My homeless alcoholic acquaintance Benjamin is terrified of rehab because after the agonies of withdrawal he fears he’ll be dumped back on the streets, homeless again. Presently he camps near Green Lake unmolested by the authorities.

Similarly, a relative of mine with schizophrenia was rescued after jumping off a bridge into the Willamette River one winter night, but after two weeks in a psych ward he was out on the streets again, suicidal, collecting open-container violations and refusing psychiatric treatment because his sickness tells him he’s not sick. Both young men could benefit from arrests that steered them toward help. But they need extended help, and American adults can’t legally be forced into treatment unless they’re shooting somebody or diving in front of a train.

In sum, without a structure of resources to house and adequately care for our most vulnerable citizens, the public dollars spent on penalizing homeless people for “quality of life” offenses can’t benefit the public’s quality of life. It’s a tangle of painful problems that Tim Burgess’s proposed legislation, however attractive and reasonable it seems at first glance, doesn’t begin to address.


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