Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another Solution: Ignore Them

Nashville is one of several U.S. cities that these days are accommodating the homeless and their encampments, instead of dispersing them. With local shelters at capacity, "there is no place to put them," said Clifton Harris, director of Nashville's Metropolitan Homeless Commission, says of tent-city dwellers.

In Florida, Hillsborough County plans to consider a proposal Tuesday by Catholic Charities to run an emergency tent city in Tampa for more than 200 people. Dave Rogoff, the county health and services director, said he preferred to see a "hard roof over people's heads." But that takes real money, he said: "We're trying to cut $110 million out of next year's budget."

Ontario, a city of 175,000 residents about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, provides guards and basic city services for a tent city on public land.

A church in Lacey, Wash., near the state capital of Olympia, recently started a homeless camp in its parking lot after the city changed local ordinances to permit it. The City Council in Ventura, Calif., last month revised its laws to permit sleeping in cars overnight in some areas. City Manager Rick Cole said most of the car campers are temporarily unemployed, "and in this economy, temporary can go on a long time."

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Our Solution: Criminalize the Homeless

From an op-ed by Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times, which examines the moral and social impact of ordinances against the publicly poor. The op-ed is based on a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty which found that the number of ordinances against the "publicly poor" are rising. More American cities, according to the report, are enacting and enforcing laws against "the indigent."

"How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, "An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive" public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it's definitely Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington -- the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant -- for not appearing in court to face a charge of "criminal trespassing" (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. "Can you imagine?" asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. "They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless."

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