Press Advisory – November 18, 2015
National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week
2015 focus on criminalization of homelessness
Contact: Paula Lomazzi, Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, 916.862.8649
This is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Communities throughout the nation are participating in this year’s weeklong event with various actions and campaigns. The event organizers have deemed the criminalization of homelessness as the focus of this year’s event, quoting the National Coalition for the Homeless campaign webpage “For this year’s H&H week we are focusing on the laws passed by local governments around the nation which prevent people experiencing homelessness from doing life-sustaining activities.”
Recently, very important voices of authority have called out for the decriminalization of homelessness. The US Department of Justice has determined that criminalizing homelessness is unconstitutional, and results in cruel and unusual punishment. To quote their August 8, 2015 press release “It should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee recently warned that criminalizing homelessness was “cruel, inhuman, and degrading”. The UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) called for the US to “abolish” laws and policies that criminalize homelessness and that we should create incentives to push for alternative policies. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness advised local governments against criminalizing homelessness because they create additional barriers for homeless people, fail to increase access to services, and undermine the impact of service providers.
This year, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) brought this question forward to homeless continuum of cares across the US in their NOFA application. As you are probably aware, they release this application every year for funding housing that serve homeless populations. In this highly competitive application, two points will be awarded to communities that can show they have implemented strategies that prevent criminalization of homelessness, further fair housing, and perform specific outreach.
These statements and pushes come none too soon, as laws against the condition of being homeless continue to increase…..in spite of the push back from local advocates and residents of conscience…in spite of the growing and overwhelming evidence that homeless people have not suddenly or miraculously become housed because it was against the law to not be housed or sheltered. Homeless shelter and housing programs continue to be insufficient to the needs.
Sacramento has one of the worse laws against the act of being homeless, Title 12-52. It actually defines the prohibited act of camping as “living outdoors”. This law has in effect made it against the law to be in such poverty that one cannot afford to pay rent and happens to live in a community that has inadequate resources for its homeless population. In utter inconsistency with reality, this ordinance actually makes it against the law for “any person to store personal property, including camp paraphernalia, in the following areas, except as otherwise provided by resolution of the city council: A. Any public property; or B. Any private property without the written consent of the owner.”, never distinuishing a homeless person committing these acts from a person that wants to store their bicycle in their cousin’s garage–without written permission.
These laws that criminalize homelessness are reminiscent of outdated laws of the past that sought to exclude people of color (Jim Crow Laws), or people with disfiguring disabilities (“Ugly Laws”), or people of a certain economic status from entering the State of California (“Anti-Oakie Laws”). In all those cases of past injustices, those laws were overturned with the help of the Federal Government. It looks like the Federal Government is again having to intervene in local jurisdiction’s unjust policies.
Along with this pressure from the Federal Government, communities across the nation are now saying enough is enough, that they no longer will tolerate their city treating people so poorly, cruelly and unjustly. We all want an end to homelessness. Making laws against homelessness does not help to end homelessness, and in fact makes it harder for individuals to get out of homelessness.